The Story Behind James Brown’s Infamous $5 Fines

The hardest working man in music, James Brown, born on May 3, 1933, and who passed away on Christmas Day in 2006, would dance until sweat dripped from his face like a waterfall.

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He’s known for hits like “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag,” but it’s one song with one particular title that sums up a side of Brown. The song “Try Me” is a tune asking a lover to pick him and to be with him, but if you look at the song another way, through Brown’s penchant for fining his band members, it could be a smooth number daring them to try him.

If any of his band members stepped out of line—if any tried him or his patience—boom! They would be fined cold hard cash.

Let’s dive into the history of this system.

The Details

One of the reasons Brown garnered so much success was because he was a taskmaster.

Growing up in a house where he saw pimps work, he took that same mentality to his band. He did not suffer fools, he did not let anything go. He was on their backs for perfection, knowing that anything less wasn’t suitable for him or his audiences.

He was disciplined and demanded the same from his band—precision from his band and his dancers and anyone he was associated with.

The details matter. So, he demanded that his players wore the right uniforms for their performances.

To wit, one of Brown’s former musicians, saxophonist Maceo Parker, told NPR interview Terri Gross, “You gotta be on time. You gotta have your uniform. Your stuff’s got to be intact. You gotta have the bow tie. You got to have it. You can’t come up without the bow tie. You cannot come up without a cummerbund … [The] patent leather shoes we were wearing at the time gotta be greased. You just gotta have this stuff. This is what [Brown expected] … [Brown] bought the costumes. He bought the shoes. And if for some reason [the band member decided] to leave the group, [Brown told the person to] please leave my uniforms.”

The Fine

If any of his rules were broken, the band members’ pay would be lighter. If they didn’t shine their shoes or if they danced wrong or played a bad note on stage, money was coming out of their pockets. If their tux was crumpled—a fine.

Brown became famous for his dancing but sometimes those moves were used as a weapon, meaning he would come up close to his band or a few members, with his back to the audience, and he’d flash some hand signals. While some in the crowd thought he was just moving with the groove, his band knew better. Certain hand gestures meant a $5 fine, and others meant more.

Break a rule? Pay a fine. Break two? Pay a bigger fine.

Brown was vigilant. And that even extended to the bands opening for him. If he felt they might be better or even come close, he would shorten their sets or even get on the kit to play with them, and gum up the works. He was ruthless. But that’s how you stayed on top. Pull no punches.

Band members knew to watch for those hands. One flash meant $5 gone from a player’s pay. Flashed five times? That’s $25, which was no small amount in the 1950s and 1960s. It kept the band in shape, like a slap from an overseer. Sometimes, the stress was too much, and band members would be hired, fired, leave, quit, and come back to the group all on a single tour.

The Hard-Working Man

Also known as the Godfather of Soul, Brown worked in show business for more than five decades. His work not only showcased the power of soul music, but it also influenced the early years of rock ‘n’ roll and later was instrumental in providing the breaks used in early hip-hop beats. His song, “Funky Dummer,” which was created in the studio after a long night of traveling with little rest, is the most-sampled song in the history of rap.

As such, Brown was one of the first 10 inductees into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame during its first class in 1986.

Brown began as a gospel singer in Georgia and in the 1950s he began earning more attention as the frontman for the R&B band the Famous Flames. His live album, Live at the Apollo, is considered one of the greatest records ever, not just live recordings. Songs like “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” and “I Got You (I Feel Good)” are all-time classics. Other hits followed, like “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine” and “Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud.”

To show just how hardworking Brown, who grew up in a house of prostitution, was, he recorded and performed until he died from pneumonia in 2006. All-in-all, he recorded 17 singles that hit No. 1 on the Billboard R&B charts and he holds the record for most singles on the Billboard Hot 100 that did not hit No. 1.

Photo by David Redfern/Redferns

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