In the mid-1960s, when much of the U.S. was still segregated, most African Americans who were then relegated to the position of second class citizens, did not own vehicles, not to think of private planes. So when soul singer James Brown was seen next to his Learjet in the pages of Ebony and Jet magazines in 1966, “the Godfather of Soul” came to be known as the “Funky president” of Black America, a report said.
In fact, when Brown purchased this Learjet with aircraft dealer Robert Graff, becoming the first African American to own a private jet, he sent a message across — that Black people could also make it no matter the stumbling blocks authorities put up in their lives.
Prolific singer and songwriter Brown was then already known for his social activism, both in his songwriting and the fact that he hammered on the benefits of education to schoolchildren. At a point in his career, the soul singer even made a personal vow never to perform for a segregated crowd and he succeeded.
The incredible dancer, who became known for his flashy outfits and shoes, and his signature hairstyle, had the ability to hold and command a crowd with his voice and moves. He revolutionized 20th-century music and his explosive stage performance left many stunned. He was also committed to excellence in his shows and tours, and could fine band members for missing notes or being late to rehearsal or for failing to improvise when needed.
All in all, Brown didn’t only write and record music, but also toured the world regularly throughout the 1950s and ’60s, performing five or six nights a week. This earned him the title “The Hardest-Working Man in Show Business”, according to Biography.
As a hardworking man, it was not surprising that while negotiating a new contract with Polydor Records in New York, the company put in measures to meet Brown’s demand for a new jet to meet his demanding tour schedule. It is documented that the six-passenger Learjet with a cruising speed of 550 mph and a service ceiling of 40,000 ft cost him $713,000.
Note, that was not Brown’s first aircraft ownership as he had before then owned a propeller-driven Beech H18. That was later sold. In December 1967, it, unfortunately, crashed into icy Lake Monona in Wisconsin killing soul singer Otis Redding and others.
With Brown having the first private jet in America to be owned by a Black man, he caught the eye of many, including even the IRS. “I can get eight days work out of one week with this jet!” he often said of the planes he used.
As Jet Gala writes: “At times, the arrival of his aircraft caused trepidation. In the mid-70s, at WRDW-AM, the radio station Brown bought in his hometown Augusta, the descent of his rented private jet would be announced at the studio and common area by a flashing red light. The disc jockey on duty would then play the sound of a roaring jet — the Learjet 23 and 24 being notorious for their roar on the tarmac — and announce the arrival with the energy, exaggeration and elongated syllables characteristic of every James Brown appearance.”
It was during the same period in the 1970s that Brown had to sell his Learjet 23 to pay back taxes before eventually leasing a Learjet 24. The iconic musician did dream of flying aboard the Airbus A380 but death laid its icy hands on him in December 2006 after the 73-year-old’s weeklong battle with pneumonia.