Originally published in Arthur No. 27 (Dec. 2007)
“He was the soundtrack to my show”
The Mighty Burner remembers the Godfather of Soul
by Peter Relic
Sonny Hopson debuted as a radio disc jockey with “The Might Burner Show” on Philadelphia’s WHAT in 1965, playing James Brown’s “Please Please Please.” You can hear Soul Sound Sonny announcing the news “Brown’s in town!” to all of Philly on Sonny’s storming “Original 1969 AM Radio Broadcast” CD (available from the Philly Archives label). Arthur spoke to Sonny by phone three weeks after James died. Here’s what he told us. —Peter Relic
James was one of my good friends. He got to know the number one disc jockey in Philly! James had no problem calling you up and thanking you for playing his record. James really took care of his disc jockeys. He’d call me up: “Meet me at the club down on Washington, Mr. Hopson, I need you to emcee the show.” He’d give me five, six hundred dollars. He knew disc jockey doesn’t get paid much, and he’d make sure you got paid. Always leave some money in the town he came to. James’ father used to call the station, he was in the Navy with [Philly radio deejay] Georgie Woods. Buddy Nolan worked for James as an advance man. Come to town three, four weeks ahead of time to find out everything, make sure they’re playing James’ record, make sure the show was a sellout. James’ show was two, three hours. He played every venue there was. I played every James Brown record that came out, and he put out a new record every month. James had the funkiest bottom you could put your hands on. He was the soundtrack to my show. “It’s A Man’s, Man’s World”!
One night I went up to Harlem to see James at the Apollo Theater. James was getting ready to go on and suddenly Jackie Wilson came in the house, sliding across stage, killing ’em! James said, “What are you doing letting Jackie Wilson go on before me! Shut it down, I ain’t going on for another hour.”
There was a club The Sex Machine on 52nd and Market, they named it after his record, he was so excited he came to the club. He was dancing, dropped down to the floor, popped back up! He also came down to the International Astro-Disc, that was my club. He called me Mr. Hopson, never called me Sonny, and I called him Mr. Brown. We were very respectful. When Otis Redding died I was there carrying the casket in Macon, Georgia. Arthur Conley, Johnny Taylor, Joe Simon, Joe Tex, James Brown were all there. There was a photo of it in Jet magazine. Otis didn’t work as hard as James Brown but he was right up there cooking. James Brown was the boss. Everybody copied his shit. He had the blueprint. I don’t know how you can outdo James Brown unless you take out a hammer and kill yourself right there on the stage.
He’s a heavyweight part of the Civil Rights legacy. He lost radio stations trying to be a civil rights leader. We were in Miami with the Fair Play Committee when he cut “Say It Loud I’m Black And I’m Proud.” I was the only one playing “Say It Loud I’m Black And I’m Proud” but only for a minute—that record could not be stopped! James called me on the phone: “Mr. Hopson, I heard you’re the only one playing my record in Philly!” Then they all jumped on it. Everybody was wearing their hair in a process, then black got beautiful.
MC Hammer is my cousin. When I told James that MC Hammer was my cousin he said, “Yeah but he ain’t as smart as you.”
Twenty years ago I went down to Constitution Hall to see James perform with Eddie Murphy. James had a limousine with a bathtub in the back. I met my son’s mother that night.
Women? He could get what he wanted. They couldn’t do what he did. If a man can get past the woman he can get somewhere. Lotta guys can’t get past the woman. Look at Michael Straythairn. He gotta give his woman fifteen million dollars, and now he don’t got her no more. Real pretty ones, they get what want and they’re gone. I don’t take nothing away from no woman, woman got talent. Angelina Jolie, she’ll make you leave your wife and your happy home. Alicia Keyes comes for the Mighty Burner, I got to go. She says “I’m waiting on you,” man I already left! I’ll fight Marc Anthony. It’s dangerous when them cold blooded killers come after you. You get weak in the knees. Ain’t that a bitch. Like James said: “I don’t want nobody to get me nothing, open the door, I’ll get it myself!”
I went up to the funeral in New York. They changed his clothes three times during the funeral. That was James: “I can’t go out in the same suit.” Outside people were ten abreast for three blocks down each way, from three in the morning til six at night, all ages, all colors. No fights, no fussing, no nothing. I’m going to miss him and I’m REALLY going to miss him. Part of me died when he died.