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Backstage with Ron Onesti: A piece of ‘The Godfather Of Soul’ lives on

It was the summer of 2002, and we were rockin’ at Hawthorne Race Course in Cicero. We produced a concert series there every summer for years with some of the biggest names in country, rock and R&B. Of the 30-plus shows we did, one stands out as a career moment for me. It was with “the hardest working man in show business” – James Brown.

We built a concert venue in the center of the racetrack. It was an awesome concept that added excitement to the already cool experience of “the sport of kings,” horse racing, but it wasn’t easy. We had to do load-ins, set-up and sound checks in between the times the horses did their practice runs on the track. This was an environment where million-dollar thoroughbreds were kings, and the track caretakers were on a first-name basis with every blade of grass, so the tension was already high.

The electricity in the air that day was at an all-time level. First of all, about 25 gentlemen in suits and bow ties showed up early, establishing themselves as “Mr. Brown’s personal security force.” Who was I to argue? Then, with an illusion of a musical fanfare that just played in my head, a convoy of four limousines came across the course at a slow – yet attention-grabbing – pace.

The cars surrounded the construction trailers-turned into dressing rooms. Hoping to meet “the man,” I approached his limo, at which I was met with a blank stare from a bow-tied gentleman the size of a small Ford pickup. Lucky for him, I backed off. They whisked someone in a robe and wrapped in a towel from the limo into the dressing room, kind of a strange entrance, but it had been strange there all morning.

There are countless stories about entertainer contract riders – “green M&M” demands, etc.  Among the extensive list of upscale food, high-end liquor and fine champagnes I was to shop for was one of those table-model hair dryers. You know, the ones our moms used at the local hair salon that fit completely over their heads. I spent two weeks seeking this item out, finally finding one in a resale shop on Cicero Avenue.

When a blue jump-suited James emerged from the dressing room, I realized that retro-hair dryer was not for the female backup singers; it was to properly form the helmet-style quaff he sported. Now it made sense.

He approached me and gave me the two-finger-fist “peace and love” gesture that was so common in his world. We walked together surveying the stage and the racetrack itself. He kept nodding and smiling. It was an intimate conversation – it was just me, James and about 40 of his closest friends (in bow ties). “You put this together,” he asked in an Eddie Murphy fashion. “Uh, yes,” I responded nervously. “You a genius.  Gamblin’ and music, just like Vegas! Folks here gonna love it,” he said.  He was a lot warmer than I had expected.  

The show was something I had never seen before, and have not seen since. The stage was full of people. I mean FULL!  Each side had a complete band! I am talking two drummers, two bass players, two horn sections, several guitar players and a slew of backup singers! The volcanic sound was crazy, a visual and audio extravaganza! Then this small-framed man in a bright suit and a wide-brimmed hat slowly walked onto the stage, grasped the microphone and proclaimed to the euphoric audience that, “Right about now, it’s star time.” He continued with a goosebump-creating intro that ended with, “Ladies and Gentlemen, The Godfather of Soul, Jaaaaaaaaames Brown!”  

He exploded onto the stage and for two solid hours did not stop. Hit after hit after hit, legendary instrumentals and the ever-so-entertaining interaction with the band members. It was exhausting! I literally had to pull the power on the show – the horses needed to take the track back!

Then the person who introduced him came back on stage at the end of his mega-soulful rendition of “Please, Please, Please” and covered the perspiration-drenched godfather on his knees with a red cape, a tradition he had been performing since they met at New York City’s Apollo Theatre in 1960.

His name is Danny Ray and I spent some time with the soul icon after the show. 

“Why in the world does he use two bands?” I asked. “He has for most of his career,” he said.  “James always worked so hard, he would wear out the musicians, so he needed two bands.” Boy, did that make sense.

As the show ended and his entourage pulled away, I went into the dressing room to see if any of that $800 of food and liquor was left. It was clean. The only thing left was an interesting piece of rock ‘n roll memorabilia that still sits on a dusty shelf in my garage today. If anyone needs a helmet-style hair dryer, give me a call.

• Ron Onesti is president and CEO of Onesti Entertainment Corp. and the Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. Send comments or celebrity questions to

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