By Bill “Topkat” Gordon as told to Phill Marder
First off, let’s make one thing real clear. It’s something I’m sure most Goldmine readers are well aware of. But evidently many others are not.
The Famous Flames were a vocal quartet…not James Brown’s band. The members were James Brown, Bobby Bennett, Bobby Byrd and Lloyd Stallworth with occasional help from Johnny Terry.
It is a misconception that has stuck in Bill “Topkat” Gordon’s craw for years. A misconception he has tried to correct for years. That is, when he wasn’t campaigning for the Flames, along with The Miracles and others, to gain their deserving place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Right next to their lead singers. James Brown and Smokey Robinson.
Mission accomplished this year.
The Famous Flames, The Miracles, The Comets, The Midnighters, The Blue Caps and The Crickets finally received recognition when The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame held a special induction for groups that were left out when their leaders were inducted earlier. The honor came too late for some, many of the group members having passed on. Of the Flames, only Bobby Bennett remains.
If you read the comment sections under the “Great Blogs Of Fire” entries, you’re probably more than a little familiar with Topkat. Incessant. Insistent. Dedicated. Knowledgeable.
So when Topkat asked me to interview the last surviving Flame, Bobby Bennett, I was more than glad to …
tell him to do it.
What the heck, he knows a lot more about the Flames than I do. He hesitated at first until I reminded him this blog was created for the readers. ‘Bout time some started helping out.
What Bennett, 74, told Gordon may surprise some of you. Then again, maybe not. But it comes straight from the mouth of the last man who was there.
“James Brown’s cousin was getting married in New York City,” Bennett recalled, telling Topkat there were auditions for The Flames going on at the time. “I was there to see J.C. Davis. We grew up right up the street from each other in North Carolina. I was going to valet on a tour for the Bucketheads, and J.C. said to me, ‘Man, why don’t you try out for the group? You know you can sing and dance.’”
J.C. Davis was the leader of a band called The Bucketheads. They were hired by Brown as the very first incarnation of the original James Brown Band. Davis stayed on as Brown’s original bandleader. Bobby Bennett and J.C. Davis were childhood friends, and eventually, Bennett became J.C’s valet. As Brown’s bandleader, J.C. was able to tell Bobby about an opening in The Famous Flames, which Bobby auditioned for, and won.
Bennett, apparently lacking confidence, originally had turned down Davis’ suggestion. But the day passed by with over 20 failed auditions at The Apollo, and saxophonist Davis was persistent.
“I’ll guarantee you’ll make it ‘cause can’t none of them dance and sing like you. That’s what he told me,” Bennett said.
Davis was right. Bennett became a Famous Flame and the Bucketheads needed another valet.
The need for auditions came about because The Famous Flames had become James Brown with The Famous Flames, a move that irked Byrd enough that he walked away from the group he had started, taking the rest of the Flames with him. The group’s first record, “Please, Please, Please” had been released by Federal Records in February, 1956, the first 5,000 copies reading by “The Famous Flames.” When it caught on and more copies were needed, the label suddenly read “James Brown with The Famous Flames.”
From that point, the records were released as “James Brown with The Famous Flames” or “James Brown and The Famous Flames,” with an occasional release carrying only Brown’s name. In fact, some records featuring just Brown also carried The Flames’ name. But when it came to album releases, even those credited to “James Brown and The Famous Flames” pictured just the leader. The Flames could have been any three or four guys as far as the public knew.
However, if you were lucky enough to see Brown’s act live, you’d know The Flames were a lot more than any three or four guys. Brown’s career was built on his live performances, and, in person, The Flames couldn’t have been hotter, helping Brown drive crowds into a frenzy. Doubters need only grab a copy of the amazing superstar concert, “The T.A.M.I. Show,” which appeared in theaters around the country, giving teenage America the opportunity to witness the mayhem propagated by Brown and his cohorts.
Even hosts Jan and Dean built their introduction around The Famous Flames, not James Brown, as Dean, wearing a fireman’s hat and brandishing a fire extinguisher demanded Jan reveal the whereabouts of The Flames, finally dousing Jan as The Flames took the stage.
“I don’t know if you know this, but music critics have called your performance with The Flames and James Brown in the movie “The T.A.M.I. Show” the single greatest Rock and Roll performance ever captured on film,” Gordon told Bennett. “And that the Rolling Stones were afraid of you.”
“When we finished performing that night, Mick Jagger would not go on stage,” recalled Bennett. “Mick Jagger refused to go on stage. He said, ‘I will not go on stage behind James Brown and the Famous Flames.’ He wanted to wait a day before he went on stage because he didn’t want his act to be killed. And he did not come on. He couldn’t dance a lick.”
According to Bennett, The Stones waited until the next day for their performance. That recollection conflicts with others that conflict with each other. Keith Richards is quoted as saying following Brown was the worst career move the Stones ever made; an indication the Stones did come on after Brown. Jagger was quoted saying it wasn’t that bad because there was time between the two acts, which could mean the Stones didn’t come on until the next day. But Darlene Love remembered the “time” was only about the hour it took to restore calm from the pandemonium Brown and The Flames had created.
Some reports say the show was filmed over a two-day span, the best performances being spliced together for one movie. Other reports say there were two separate performances, the second day being filmed. That would make Day 1 a sort of dress rehearsal, which Brown refused to participate in.
Regardless, the performance by Brown and the Flames was remarkable, and clearly shows the importance of the Flames to Brown’s live show.
Not convinced? Check out The Flames T.A.M.I. show performance on YouTube at this link:
Also, check out Brown’s hair, which has a most unusual bounce.
“I’m the one who did James Brown’s hair,” Bennett told Topkat. “We was in the theater in downtown NY with Alan Freed. James Brown sprayed some stuff in his hair to make it look real black and his hair broke off and left nothing in the front. James Brown had to wear a wig for over a year.”
Another point of contention is the songwriting credits. Here, Bennett makes a stunning accusation.
“Johnny Terry wrote ‘Please, Please, Please’ man,” said Bennett. “He wrote ‘Try Me.’”
Then Bennett added, “James Brown did not write anything. I’m telling you. Johnny wrote all the tunes, ‘Please…Think.’ Johnny wrote them by himself, but James Brown took the music. Johnny Terry wrote ‘Papa’ and ‘I Feel Good.’ He wrote them all. Lloyd Stallworth wrote ‘Lost Someone’ by himself and they took it.
“Man’s World” was written by Betty Newsome…by herself,” added Bennett, noting Brown took writing credit, later adding Newsome only, “After her boyfriend stepped into the mix.”
As Bennett told Topkat, Newsome, later credited with the lyrics, eventually claimed Brown wrote no part of the song and that Brown, at times, “forgot” to pay Newsome her rightful royalties. According to Bennett, Newsome eventually received her just dues, a large sum of money.
The Federal 45 of “Please, Please, Please,” shows Brown and Terry as co-writers. Brown is listed as sole composer on the Federal 45s of “Try Me” and “I’ll Go Crazy,” while “Good, Good Lovin’” has Brown sharing writing credit with someone named Albert Shubert. “Think” is credited to Lowman Pauling, whose group The 5 Royales had recorded the original version. Pauling also penned “Dedicated To The One I Love,” the smash for the Shirelles and Mamas and Papas, and “Tell The Truth,” a Ray Charles hit.
On the King label, “Bewildered” is credited to Leonard Whitcup and Teddy Powell, who penned the Tommy Dorsey hit in 1936, “Lost Someone” to Brown, Stallworth and Byrd, and “Prisoner Of Love,” an earlier hit for Perry Como, is listed as a traditional, though writing credits were actually Russ Columbo, Clarence Gaskill and Leo Robin. “I Don’t Mind,” “Oh Baby Don’t You Weep,” “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag,” “I Got You (I Feel Good)” and “It’s A Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World” are credited to Brown alone.
Terry walked, but money disagreements continued, eventually leading to the Flames being extinguished.
“Johnny Terry taught me how to dance, how to do the routines,” reminisced Bennett. “He taught me all of that stuff.
“Money was the issue,” Bennett continued. “James Brown took all the money and we didn’t get paid. Lloyd “Baby” Stallworth was the first to leave and it was on account of money. Every time one of the Flames left, it was on account of money. He didn’t want to pay the money that was supposed to be paid to us. He stiffed the heck out of us man. The families, now they’re fighting over our money. We got money out there and still can’t receive it. We’re owed so much money, it ain’t funny.”
The Flames appeared in the Frankie Avalon movie “Ski Party,” and on the Ed Sullivan Show, but the song remained the same, Bennett told Topkat. But Bennett’s recollections were spiced with fond memories.
“Ed Sullivan couldn’t believe what he was seeing, but we never got paid,” mused Bennett. “James Brown took all that money. We never got paid for that film (‘Ski Party’), and we filmed every day. Frankie was a cool, calm guy. He drank beer with us. He even tried to laugh like us.”
Eventually, the laughter faded and disputes over money led to increased bickering, at one point Bennett admitting if he hadn’t been stopped, “I would have killed him.”
He was referring to Brown, not Frankie Avalon.
Fortunately, Bennett didn’t. And eventually, The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame got around to honoring Bennett, Byrd, Stallworth and Terry earlier this year.
As Topkat wrapped up his discussion with Bennett, he asked him what he’d like people to remember about The Famous Flames.
“I want them to know one thing,” replied Bennett. “We were the Famous Flames… James Brown was a Famous Flame, Bobby Byrd was a Famous Flame, Lloyd Stallworth was a Famous Flame and Bobby Bennett was a Famous Flame…wherever we played, we were the Famous Flames. We were never the band, never. We were the 3 guys who danced with him and the 3 guys who performed with him at every concert. We were not no band.
“We were the group that worked hard on stage and did a wonderful performance on stage for the whole public.”
Topkat reports Spike Lee is planning a movie about Brown. So far, Bennett has not been contacted for input.