AIKEN, S.C. -- In the middle of a moist, hot morning, a silver Lincoln Continental rolls to a stoplight. A black man at the corner gas station smiles gently, proud somehow, recognizing one of the passengers. "The Godfather," he says, pointing casually.

Two young fellows washing a car look over at the Lincoln, their faces blank. Again the man says simply, "The Godfather."

The light turns green, and all eyes follow the Lincoln as it sails down the street, on its way to jail.

While imprisoned in Georgia as a teenager -- he had made a habit of breaking into cars -- James Brown "always tried to look sharp, which was one reason I didn't like the baggy pants they gave us," he recalled in his 1986 autobiography, "James Brown: The Godfather of Soul."

"{A} lot of it went back to not having decent clothes as a kid. Really, it was wanting better clothes that got me into prison in the first place. I'd do anything to look better," he wrote. "Whenever I worked in the laundry I pulled out new pants and put my number, 33, on 'em and took the number off the pants I had on and exchanged 'em. I got all the new pants that way for a long time, then one day they caught me and gave me an old baggy pair and put me out on the farm.

"Man, I couldn't stand being seen in those things... ."

On this day, though he again finds himself imprisoned, James Brown at least is wearing pants he designed himself -- many years ago, it would seem. They are bell-bottomed with four-inch cuffs, part of a snug gray three-piece suit with black stripes. He also has on an emerald green shirt, a necktie a shade darker, burgundy cowboy boots and a pinkie ring.

With all the vanity befitting one of the world's greatest showmen, Brown demands that a photographer not shoot him sitting down. "It makes me look chubby," he says, even rising from his chair to prove the point.

It's a strange, strange Saturday afternoon in the troubled life of James Brown. He has the weekend off from the minimum-security Lower Savannah Community Work Center, where he's serving a six-year sentence for leading police on a high-speed chase in 1988. Brown and his wife, Adrienne, are at the home of friends, along with a video production crew and, of all people, Dick Cavett.

Cavett is here to conduct a one-hour interview with Brown for his cable television talk show and for a documentary -- "James Brown: The Man, the Music & the Message" -- that will be shown tonight, tomorrow and Sunday at the American Film Institute Theater at the Kennedy Center.

They trade compliments and wisecracks. Cavett thanks Brown several times for teaching him years ago to do the Funky Chicken. Brown fingers a nearby piano. "Mozart?" Cavett deadpans. " 'Sex Machine,' " says Brown.

That incorrigible quipster Cavett even makes light of Brown's incarceration, suggesting that he take a lesson from Zsa Zsa Gabor and next time slap a cop. "That way you only serve three days," Cavett says, immediately adding with embarrassed laughter, "I can't believe I said that." Brown smiles and says nothing.

For much of their conversation, Brown recounts some of the many dramatic episodes that amount to his life, from entertaining troops in Vietnam to helping quell the riots in Boston and in Washington after the assassination of Martin Luther King. But to an observer in the room, the poignancy of these stories is undercut by the sight of Adrienne, a former TV makeup artist, standing just off camera, dutifully flapping her arms, fanning her husband's face with an album cover so he doesn't get too sweaty.

The truly uncomfortable thing about watching James Brown do show biz chitchat -- hearing him tell the cameras that his incarceration hasn't soured him -- is that you realize, once you get him alone, how profoundly resentful he is. Not just about the incident two years ago that got him jailed, but about a multi-million-dollar debt to the Internal Revenue Service that has withered his fortune.

"It was set that I was going to jail," Brown says, fast and raspy. "Why, I don't know. Is it because I'm successful? I probably went to jail the same reason Joe Louis was put in Arlington Cemetery for his good deeds, {but} remained broke after he quit fighting. Joe Louis. Why do all black people wind up penniless? Why do they come and take tax from me? That case is 25, almost 30 years old, and was never about but $211,000 from the get-go."

For several years before the notorious chase in which Brown and up to 14 cop cars crisscrossed the border between Georgia and South Carolina, the legendary performer was getting into trouble with the law, arrested on charges of drug possession, traffic violations and beating his wife.

About all of this, Brown says: "What about harass? I was harassed {by the police} three years. Three years, Georgia and South Carolina, across the borders."

Why would the police pick on him? "I don't think it's as much South as the fact that I just might be a little too popular for the area," he says. "And I'm news, you know. And being news, things happen bad. It was definitely put together. I mean, well organized."

Back When

James Brown, according to his autobiography, was born in a shack outside Barnwell, S.C., 57 years ago. Although some biographical sources report him to be five years older, no one can dispute the hardness of life faced back then by a poor black boy in the American South.

Brown was raised in his aunt's whorehouse in Augusta, Ga. As a youngster, he would do "a little old country buck dance" on the streets to entertain soldiers. "They threw nickels and dimes, and I worked even harder ... trying to get them to throw quarters," he wrote. "Boy, I wanted those quarters."

Brown admits to becoming "a little roughneck, a thug" as he grew up. He hung around with the tough kids, and eventually began stealing hubcaps and car batteries, and breaking into cars to take whatever he could. He did these things for money to buy "some decent clothes to wear to school," he said in his book. "Every time I got sent home for insufficient clothes, it hurt me and made me mad, too."

By the age of 16, Brown was serving an eight- to 16-year sentence at a prison for juveniles in Rome, Ga. "I hadn't been there but a couple of months before I formed a gospel quartet," he wrote. "I sang a lot of gospel in prison. Gospel is contentment because it's spirit, and you feel that spirit when you sing it. It's the same spirit I feel when I'm on stage today."

Such was the beginning of a monumental career. As leader of the singing group the Famous Flames, James Brown had his first hit record in 1956 with the passionate R&B ballad "Please, Please, Please." He would see more than 100 other singles climb the charts in the coming decades, making him the most popular black recording artist of all time.

Brown emerged during the early '60s as a grand showman and electrifying dancer -- "The Hardest Working Man in Show Business." The performances of Michael Jackson and Prince today are infused with his spirit.

During the turbulent late '60s and early '70s, Brown became a virtual statesman with such funky anthems as "Say It Loud -- I'm Black and I'm Proud," "Super Bad" and "Soul Power."

He was "Soul Brother No. 1." The beloved Godfather. He chatted with U.S. presidents. And at the height of his fame he was also an ambitious entrepreneur, owning restaurants and radio stations, including an Augusta station where he used to shine shoes out front.

Take all this in, the vastness of James Brown, the greatness. Then consider the glee with which some have greeted his current troubles. "Cell Brother No. 155413," mocked a headline in New York Newsday. Even his hometown paper, the Augusta Chronicle, published telephoto shots of Brown cleaning the grounds of the Community Work Center, dressed in work clothes. Man, I couldn't stand being seen in those things... . One picture showed Brown with a bag of trash, and the headline writer couldn't resist: "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag."

The Chase On Sept. 24, 1988, James Brown burst in on an insurance seminar taking place next to his Augusta office. With a shotgun in his hands, he accused the people there of using his private restroom. The police were summoned, and Brown took off in his Ford pickup truck.

There are two versions of what happened after the police cornered Brown in a parking lot. According to police testimony, several officers shot out Brown's front tires when he tried to run them down. But Brown insists his truck was sitting still when the police opened fire, and that's why he drove off again -- afraid for his life.

Either way, the wild chase continued, Brown driving on two bare wheel rims. It ended with his truck in a ditch.

On Dec. 15, 1988, in Aiken, Brown was convicted of failing to stop for the police -- a felony in South Carolina -- and two counts of assault "of a high and aggravated nature" for trying to run down officers. He was acquitted of assault with intent to kill.

To this day, James Brown doesn't acknowledge smoking PCP, though a drug test after his arrest indicates that he had been. "They can say anything they want to say," he declares. "And if I'm guilty of everything I'm supposed to have done -- robbery, drugs, murder, whatever you want to say -- if you're already under arrest, setting still, should a police shoot your truck up?" He adds, strangely hushed, "I think you understood me, didn't you?

"If you're guilty of all those things, and you come to a sudden stop, and setting there for 10 minutes, is it right for a police to come out from the clear blue -- four or five -- stand there and shoot up your truck? They're trying to make you antagonize 'em so they can kill you," he says, smiling. "And I set there and let 'em do it." (Brown had his shotgun with him throughout the chase, but the police never accused him of threatening them with it.)

Brown's attorney, Reginald D. Simmons, brought in after the conviction, doesn't care about disputed points of fact, or about Brown's talk of a police setup. "We're just trying to focus on shortening his stay in the system," he says.

Judge Hubert Long sentenced Brown to six years for failure to stop. On the assault counts, Brown was given two concurrent five-year sentences that were suspended to five years of probation, tacked onto the end of his six-year term. For the purposes of calculating parole eligibility, Brown got an 11-year sentence. He would have been up for parole months ago had the judge ordered that all three sentences run concurrently.

For the past five months, Brown has been on a work-release program, speaking to young people and the poor on behalf of the nonprofit Aiken and Barnwell Counties Community Action Commission. As of now, counting work credit he has earned, he will be eligible for parole next March.

"I think the courts wanted to send a message that, despite who the person might be, they want to apply the law evenly across the board," Simmons says. "But it doesn't always happen that way. I don't think it was applied evenly in this case." He says he considers the judge's sentence "extremely harsh, not commensurate at all with the crime."

Still, Simmons isn't optimistic about persuading the state to pardon Brown and wipe out the rest of his sentence. "That's a pretty high hurdle," he says.

To talk to James Brown these days is to struggle to keep up with shifts in his mood and in the topic. He can speak bitterly of being "harassed" by the police, then later seem almost at peace with his circumstances:

"I will come out a winner. But I was confined and it caused my wife to be ill ... and I can't get to see my father, who has just had a stroke, and I need to be with him. Those are the things that hurt, you know. Other than that, it don't really bother me. I really needed the rest. I really needed the rest.

"I've had a chance to sit and see a lot of things that are wrong that kind of disturb me," he says, turning philosophical. "See, the only thing that bugs me about the country is that it hasn't grown a bit. It went backwards.

"We're fighting for the same things that people fought for 25, 30 years ago. The same people are poor, the same people don't have jobs, and for the ethnic people, education is getting more shoddy. A man has to become a criminal because of survival. The easiest thing, it looks to them, is getting involved in crime. Basically selling drugs. In the '30s, it was selling moonshine liquor. Today it's drugs. So what's changed?

"I saw 'em selling moonshine liquor. I was a little boy, looking in the trapdoor, getting a half a pint for my people. Ain't that the same as a cat selling drugs today?"

Mrs. Brown This day, Sept. 22, happens to be the wedding anniversary of James Brown and his fourth wife, Adrienne, who is fortyish. They met eight years ago on the TV show "Solid Gold," where she did makeup.

This anniversary Adrienne is sharing with Dick Cavett and a video crew. And she's not exactly overjoyed. She is sunk into a fleshy leather chair, her painted eyes peeping drowsily from under a storm cloud of hair.

"This is actually the first holiday, this is the first time we've been able to ... well, we haven't celebrated yet, but at least we're together," she says. A cigarette filter absorbs some of the lavender gloss from her plump, pretty lips. "And I really, I love this work. I've been in television for 26 years, you know? And I love this work and I love the business. Today is not the day," she says of the taping. "Today I want to be selfish. I don't know if you can understand that."

Her husband's tribulation has taken a physical toll on her, she says. "I've been in front of the cameras, CNN, I've been fighting all the whole time, and I've made myself sick, believing this attorney could help, and this attorney, and knowing that this was all planned from jump street.

"If they can lock James Brown up, they can lock anybody else up," she says. "It wasn't a racial thing, but that's what they're telling every race: If they can lock Mr. Brown up -- a world ambassador like that, who's done everything possible for people -- then they can do anything."

Mrs. Brown has written to the governor of South Carolina. "I sent numerous telegrams to President Reagan just before he left. Telegrams and letters to Bush. I handed Mrs. Bush a nine-page letter when I was at the White House. Senator Sam Nunn. I have written {Sen. Strom} Thurmond. I have pleaded with these people not to read the police reports, but to at least call the man in and listen to his story itself, the way it went down."

She says she has received only a couple of sympathetic responses.

Adrienne is especially disappointed with the show business community for not rallying to her husband's aid. "But you know, what it is, it's like, when you're in trouble or something happens ... it's like you have a bad disease."

Adrienne herself was convicted of a felony, PCP possession, last year.

JB's Groove Through it all, his music stands.

"There's no question that there are a number of sides to James Brown, and some of those sides are not as flattering as others," says Thomas A. Hart Jr., president of Washington-based On the Potomac Productions, which spent the last year and a half preparing the documentary "James Brown: The Man, the Music & the Message."

But "while the negative is there," he says, "it certainly does not and should not overshadow the tremendous contributions that the man has made to society."

The stunning series of dance hits that Brown and his super-tight band produced between 1967 and 1974 is some of the most influential popular music ever recorded. And Brown knows it. Just mention the word "disco" and he'll jump in with "I invented disco!" Talk about the rise of rap and he says, "The rappers are about what? James Brown. Thank you."

Is it bragging if it's true?

Of the birth of funk, 'round about the time of "Cold Sweat" in '67, Brown says: "I wanted to do something that nobody else was doing. And it's all different places. Nobody else can find it. They haven't found the groove yet, and thank God they haven't, because once they find the groove, they'll move on to something else. You realize that the rappers are only doing about 10 percent of what I do in music?"

Saxophonist Maceo Parker, a veteran JB sideman, says spontaneity was a big part of the James Brown funk sound. "A lot of times, by {the band's} being together all the time, it seems we would just strike a groove ... and we'd work on the groove a week, two weeks, three weeks, then record it. Other times, it could be three hours after we hit on a new groove that we'd go into a studio," Parker says. "He didn't want to spend too much time in rehearsals because he didn't want to lose the newness of the groove."

Over the past few years, young hip-hop producers such as Dr. Dre of N.W.A. seem to have resurrected every old James Brown beat and riff -- direct from Brown's records -- as a foundation for a rap song. "My point of view is, the more simple it is, the better," Dr. Dre explains. "If it's simple and funky -- a simple bass line, drums -- it's better to rap over. And James Brown grooves are like that."

Unfortunately, Brown declares, "I never got paid" for the use of his songs. "Hopefully, I'll get paid now, 'cause any time you use over four bars, I'm supposed to get paid.

"I used the idea one time of a song... . The Isley Brothers did 'It's Your Thing.' Then I came back and {wrote} 'It's My Thing' for a girl {Marva Whitney}. A totally different bass line, no melody or nothing. Just said 'It's My Thing' and answered in reverse. It went to court, we lost the whole song," Brown says.

"Today, I've got over 125, 150 songs that the rappers have done. And directly, the songs belong to me. What do we have other than our songs and our talent? And if I take your talent, I should pay you. If you take mine, you should pay me."

Faith "You know what?" James Brown says at the end of an interview. "I can lie down every day and get up the next day feeling good, because I know that there's a God. And I've watched, most of the people that were involved in my {prosecution} have become very, very, very ill. Most of them... . That's right. Bad statements, whatever, they've been very sick. Ninety percent of them. That's very strange, you know.

"People don't want to believe that strongly in God, but I've got to believe in God, because that's the only hope we've got... . We've got to go back to the Bible. 'Judge ye not, or you shall be judged.' "