When millions of African Americans flipped through the pages of Ebony and Jet magazines, images of the Godfather of Soul, “Mr. Dynamite” himself James Brown totally went against the grain of how most African Americans saw themselves. In the mid 1960’s most African Americans did not own vehicles. A private plane was inconceivable. So when James Brown appeared next to his Learjet, the first African American to own a jet, he clearly was the “Funky president” of Black America.
James Brown clearly believed in paying the cost to be the boss. He was a perfectionist and believed that if he and blacks in America were to be taken seriously, they must look the part. His stage appearance was paramount. From his signature hairstyle to crisp suits, as well as his dance moves and high octane stage show, he gave his fans their money’s worth. He demanded perfection from his band members, often fining them for infractions ranging from tardiness to rehearsal to wearing unshined shoes. This commitment to excellence produced a distinct sound like no other.
His songs were burning up the airwaves, producing one hit after the other. He was a regular throughout the south on the “chitlin circuit”. From hole in the wall nightclubs in the south to the famed Apollo in Harlem, James Brown was packing fans in. In the US, he had hundreds of thousands of fans. But what he didn’t know was that in Europe and other countries around the globe that he’d never heard of, he had millions. As the “hardest working man in America”, James Brown needed to be where he needed to be, when he needed to be. Time was money.
While negotiating a new contract with Polydor records in New York, James Brown knew his worth, having mastered the art of self promotion. The ultimate deciding factor for negotiating with Polydor – a new jet. The president of Polydor made allocations to meet Brown’s demand. In order to meet a demanding tour schedule both domestic and international, such an amenity was justified. Brown’s inflated ego was the arbitrator.
The jet cost him $713,000. It was a six passenger Learjet, with a cruising speed of 550 mph and a service ceiling of 40,000 ft. At a time when much of the country was still segregated, such an unbelievable feat made James Brown black royalty. Now Brown was no stranger to aircraft ownership. He had previously owned a propeller driven Beech H18. It was later sold and in December of 1967 became the ill fated plane that crashed into icy Lake Monoa in Wisconsin killing soul singer Otis Redding and members of the Bar-Kays, save one, Ben Cauley.
A black person owning a jet in 1966 was akin to owing a top line Ferrari today. Clearly out of reach for the common citizenry. Howard Johnson created Ebony & Jet Magazines to highlight the success and prestige, as well as finer quality of life of African Americans. So to open up a July 1966 edition and see the “Soul Brother #1” beside the fuselage of the black “Air Force One”, it captured the imagination, eyes, and attention of an entire race of people. And the IRS as well.