The legend of James Brown includes some of the most famous songs in American musical history. Timeless tunes like ‘The Payback,’ ‘Try Me,’ ‘Get Up Offa That Thing,’ and ‘Living in America’ are just a small sample size of songs that remain jukebox staples in Waffle Houses from Brown’s hometown of Augusta to Atlanta, the city where he took his last breath, and beyond.
CNN reporter Thomas Lake wrote an investigative series on Brown, Lost in the Woods with James Brown’s Ghost in 2019, planting the seeds for what would become The James Brown Mystery podcast, further exploration into a very interesting life and ultimate death of the world famous entertainer. Episodes 1 and 2 debuted Friday, October 28 and are available on multiple podcast platforms, episode 3 released November 4 with the following five episodes releasing on a weekly basis thereafter.
Asked why he felt Brown’s story needed additional telling, even after he wrote a 28,000-word series, Lake, an award-winning reporter with Sports Illustrated before joining CNN said, “I still had this nagging sense that there was a lot more I didn’t know.”
CNN reporter Thomas Lake. Photo courtesy of CNN
Lake sat down with The Atlanta Voice to talk all things The James Brown Mystery.
Atlanta Voice: Other than that nagging feeling, why else did you feel the need to tell this story via a podcast?
Thomas Lake: It was a book. In this book Brown said something very, very unusual. He went back to his famous concert in Boston in 1968 a day after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been killed. There was a question if the concert would still happen, and all of this discussion among civic leaders. Ultimately Brown did the concert and it’s one of the most famous in his career because he helped calm that city. A lot of people give James Brown credit for helping prevent a riot in Boston. He said, “This was when I fell under surveillance and after this the federal government thought I was getting too powerful.”
AV: So Brown thought he was being watched by the FBI and CIA?
Lake: I looked at that and thought ‘How did I not know about this before?’ This woman, a circus singer, Jacque Hollander, had been saying this kind of thing from the beginning, but as a skeptical reporter I sort of filed it away. Then I read this story [in the book] and thought it was an interesting angle. I began to realize there was this whole other dimension to the life of the Godfather of Soul that I had not explored even in those 28,000 words.
AV: Does having Jacque tell her side of the story give the story new life in a way?
Lake: There’s something about hearing Jacque’s voice. The story just comes across differently with some of this early tape of this woman trying to explain this wild and very astonishing story. This way the listener has a better chance to judge the credibility of what she’s saying because they can hear her say it herself.
AV: How much does music play a part in this podcast/story?
Lake: The story is so much about music. We talk about Brown’s music career and this circus singer [Jacque] because she and James Brown worked together on some musical collaborations back in the 1980’s. Some of that was going on in the Atlanta music scene.
AV: Is there a chance this story isn’t completely told after the eight episodes are done?
Lake: Anything’s possible, even after this long. There are still things I don’t know and some things I may never know. This story just has a way of continuing to unfold, delivering new surprises, strange new twists. That has happened pretty much every year since 2019 and I expect that to continue.
AV: How has the transition from writing to podcasting been?
Lake: It’s difficult and I have learned a lot from some of the experts in the CNN audio department. I had to learn about writing for the ear rather than writing for the eye.
AV: Are there other stories you’d like to tell via the podcast medium?
Lake: I have a bunch of ideas that could be wild and crazy rabbit holes like this one is. Who knows. In any case this was a lot of fun to get to tell it in this form.