When Bobby Brown moves, fans swoon. And critics shift into hyperpraise. Even the far-from-funky New York Times cheered a “bravado [Brown] performance that harks back to the glory days” of ’60s soul music. But the same show, reprised each night during Brown’s current concert tour and captured in a sizzling MTVideo in which the star dirty dances with a love-struck fan, received a downright mean notice in Columbus, Ga. The offended critic was one Sgt. Bobby Home, who arrested Brown during a break in the singer’s sold-out Jan. 25 concert for violating the city’s “lewd law.” Passed by an irate city council following a raucous 1987 Beastie Boys concert, local ordinance 87-32 prohibits performers from “simulating sexual intercourse.” Brown said he was dancing “five feet away” from the girl. “I didn’t even touch her.” But Officer Home accused Brown of “hunching” the 18-year-old fan. Hauled off to police headquarters, where he posted $652 bail, Brown was freed to resume his concert an hour later. “I’m a crowd-pleaser.” said Brown, still smarting from what he termed a brush with “ignorance. I invite a fan onstage at all my shows. I just did a couple of pumps with my hips. There’s nothing wrong or nasty about it. It’s just a dance.”
The lust bust hasn’t exactly derailed Brown’s career, which keeps barreling on. But it has upset Columbus music fans, who fear the city, which has arrested and fined LL Cool J and Kiss’s Gene Simmons under the same ordinance, will not be included on many future tour itineraries. Fans also found irony in the fact that the corrupting influence Sgt. Horne was protecting youngsters from was himself not old enough to drink in most states. Just 19 at the time of his arrest, Brown is the only teenage male to top the pop album charts since Ricky Nelson in 1957 and Little Stevie Wonder in 1963.
A founding member of New Edition, which he left in 1986, Brown has secured star status on his own with his current multiplatinum album, Don’t Be Cruel. Praised for its fusion of hard-driving rap rhythms and melodic rocking soul, the LP has sent three singles into the Top 5: the title track, “Roni” and “My Prerogative,” all packed with what Musician magazine called “a tremendous wallop of funk.”
During the first of Brown’s two decades, it looked like life had wallops of a different sort in store. The third youngest of eight children born to a construction worker and a housewife, Brown grew up in Roxbury, Boston’s black ghetto. The city, Brown says matter-of-factly, “is a racist town.” But the singer downplays minor discord. “We had our hard times. You live to get past them. But,” he adds, “it was rough growing up in the streets and having to fight someone for the stupidest reasons.”
A tragic episode of that stupidity took the life of Brown’s boyhood friend James “Jimbo” Flint, to whom Don’t Be Cruel is dedicated. “We were 11 and we had both just gotten new bikes,” Brown says. “We went to a party. Some guys were on Jimbo’s bike when we came outside. So Jimbo and this guy started fighting. Then a girl just threw the other guy a knife, and the guy sliced him onetime.”
The wound wasn’t serious. But what followed seems lifted from Tybalt and Mercutio’s fatal encounter in Romeo and Juliet. “A friend of ours kicked the other guy from the back. The knife went in Jimbo, right through his heart. We carried him home and laid him in the hallway. He just lay there looking up at me. I watched his eyes as he died.”
That, says Brown, was the day “I knew I had to get out of there for James, for myself. Or I would die in the projects.”
Like thousands of kids, Brown pinned his hopes on music. Unlike most, he made it, thanks to prodigious talent and tremendous luck. A self-described “born performer,” he was 3 when his mother took him to a James Brown concert and set him down on the stage. “I just strutted around to the music,” he says. “Ever since, I liked being onstage.”
Though drugs were ever present, Brown says they didn’t tempt him. “See, in my crowd, music and dancing were more important. There were two kinds of fellas at my school—the stoners and the kind who liked women and wore sharp clothes and put lotion on their hands and said nice things to the ladies. I was the second kind. I lo-o-o-ove women.”
Indeed, they seem to be his favorite subject. “Women are God’s gift to the world,” Brown says. “They’re not equal to men—they’re more. They’ve got so much more to offer emotionally.”
At the tender age of 12, Brown launched himself into music—and, shortly thereafter, into the arms of as many superior creatures as he could find. Forming New Edition in 1980 with five pals, Brown led the group to local prominence. The band signed a record contract in 1981, and Brown dropped out of junior high to go on the road. “We grew up fast,” he says. “Before the show, we’d be looking out at the crowd for the girls we wanted the roadies to get for us. Oh, man! Girls, girls, girls. That’s what we did.”
By 1986, Brown, then 17, had soured on the band, partly because of financial frustration. He says he saw little of the money he thought the group was earning. In the end, he claims, “all I got out of New Edition was $500 and a VCR.” He also regretted missing some of the normal rites of youth. “I had fun with the guys in New Edition, but proms and stuff would’ve been fun, for sure.”
Now living with his parents in a new home he bought in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley, Brown is frugal—to a point. He recently purchased a Mercedes coupe and cruises the mountains east of L.A. in a new Jeep. “Wide open spaces and loud music—that’s heaven for me,” he says. He has no steady girlfriend (“only friends, and I won’t say who”), but Brown is “24 and 7″—24 hours a day, 7 days a week—with a trusted circle of pals.
While the Georgia bust made him aware of the importance of artistic freedom, for Brown—whose record company says Don’t Be Cruel “will make him a millionaire”—it’s money that matters. He has no plans to alter his musical stylings. “I know what they like—the slammin’ beat and bass line. I’ll stick to that, man. There’s a lot of money involved.” And when it comes to money, Brown thinks big. “I’m investing,” he says. “I wanna know what I’ve got down to the penny. Then I wanna build things. And help the poor. So many people like Donald Trump have all that money and don’t know what to do with it. I want to be like a Trump. Only a kinder Trump.”
—Steve Dougherty, Rick Holmstrom in L.A.