Three things you didn’t know about BFFs Al Sharpton and the late James Brown

Al Sharpton at the "Get On Up" premiere at The Apollo Theater on July 21, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images) Al Sharpton at the “Get On Up” premiere in New York City on July 21. (Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images)

His bouffant has toned down considerably since its hirsute heyday in the late ’80s, but Al Sharpton has not.

During a lively panel discussion preceding a Tuesday screening of the James Brown biopic “Get On Up” at the Newseum, the Reverend Al held court with his signature booming voice and Baptist rhythm.

But what many in the packed audience didn’t know was just how much the Sharpton of today was shaped by the early years he spent by The Godfather of Soul’s side. The two met in 1973, when Sharpton was 18, and Brown, who died in 2006, began to act as Sharpton’s surrogate father.

1. Al was actually “Alfred” until James suggested that he shorten it.

Brown invited the young Sharpton to tour the world with him in the mid-’70s. Sharpton eventually became the singer’s manager. And it was during this “heady, glorious” time that the former Alfred Sharpton was transformed into Al.

“Cut it to Al,” advised James, according to Sharpton’s 2013 memoir, “The Rejected Stone.”

“You don’t need four bars [as in ‘Al-fred Sharp-ton’]. Just Al Sharpton. Aflred’s too much.” And the rest is history.

2. It was Sharpton who persuaded Brown to record a gospel record. 

In 1981, Sharpton and Brown traveled to a recording studio in Greensville, S.C., to record the song “God Has Smiled on Me.”

“He sang the lyrics and had me preach a sermonette in between certain verses that he sang,” wrote Sharpton in a essay published after Brown’s death in the March 2007 issue of Ebony magazine.

3. That Sharpton hair? We’ve got James Brown to thank.

In 1981, while visiting Brown in Georgia, Sharpton urged the singer to use his clout at the White House (Brown was friends with then-President Ronald Reagan) to help make Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday.

Brown immediately got on the phone with the White House to set up a face-to-face. But before he’d head to Washington with Sharpton, Brown made an appointment with his hairdresser.

“When we get to the White House, I want you to look like me because when people see you, I want them to see me — you’re a reflection of me,” said Brown, according to Sharpton, who talked about the day he got his hair straightened in the 2009 documentary “Good Hair.”

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Helena Andrews is the co-author of The Reliable Source. Follow her on Twitter @helena_andrews, and send your hot tips, sightings, and gossip to reliablesource@washpost.com.
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JulieAnn McKellogg · July 23, 2014