In the beginning, they were The Famous Flames: five guys in perfect suits and perfect hair, snapping their fingers and dancing like their feet were ablaze.
Then one of the Flames began to burn a little brighter, and they became James Brown and The Famous Flames.
But after years in the shadow of the Godfather of Soul, his backup singers finally got their due. On Saturday, Bobby Bennett — a Prince George’s County resident who is the last surviving original Flame — was retroactively inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Twenty-six years after they honored Brown, hall officials conceded they should have recognized the rest of the group along with him.
Bennett, 73, was deeply moved by the ceremony in Cleveland, he told our colleague DeNeen Brown. “You think of all those tunes that we performed for the public, for people to enjoy” — “Please, Please, Please,” and “Try me” and “Love Don’t Love Nobody” and so many others. “We were the best out there and nobody could touch James Brown and The Famous Flames.”
Working for the so-called Hardest Working Man in Show Business was no piece of cake. “If you missed a beat, you got a fine,” Bennett said. “Your clothes couldn’t have any wrinkles in them. Your shoes had to be shined all the time. You had to have a clean, pressed shirt every night or you would get fined 15 or 20 dollars. It would come out of your salary.”
It wore him down, and Bennett ultimately left his bandmates (Bobby Byrd, Lloyd Stallworth and Johnny Terry) when he got married. He moved to Maryland, started a family, ran his own cleaning company among other jobs that had nothing to do with music. “I just quit singing,” he said. “I lost the thrill of singing. I lost the thrill.”
But he kept the memories. “When we first played at the Apollo” — the legendary Harlem nightspot — “they had eggs and tomatoes ready to throw at us,” he recalled. “But when we finished performing, they took their eggs and tomatoes and put them in the trash can. They had never seen anybody dance like we danced or sing like we sang.”
Read earlier: D.C.’s Howard Theatre: What made it an essential sanctuary for black Washington? 3/29/12