Rock ‘n roll radio in the 70’s began with an “A” and ended with an “F” as listeners’ tastes drifted from established bands to brand new ones in more ways than one.
But for most of that decade dating back to the late 60’s, San Jose’s rock ‘n roll music icon was an AM radio station located at 1590 on the dial and on Story Road on San Jose’s east side, “next to an abandoned gas station and a thriving fruit stand.”
True, it didn’t look like a rock ‘n roll icon, this single-story brown stucco building with its well-faded, brown wood paneling and swinging glass door entrance that might have easily fronted a 7-11.
But it sounded like one: the pied piper of on-the-air rock ‘n roll music for San Jose and, this night in the late 70’s, I was in the station preparing my show for the next day. I did mornings on KLIV then, the pinnacle in my career at that time: Bob Ray In The Morning.
The broadcast or “air studio” had a large glass window that provided an oblique view of the building’s glass-door entrance. There was a push-to-talk button for after-hours’ visitors at the front door to talk with the DJ on-the-air. While you could hear each other, because of the in between glass reflections and refractions, you couldn’t see each other.
However the station owner and General Manager – now a mentor and a good friend – Bob Kieve, made it clear that admitting any non-employee through that door after-hours would be the end of one’s employment at the station. It was the golden rule at KLIV.
Around 7pm this night, there was a pounding on the front door. Ralf Koal, our afternoon DJ, couldn’t see who was there, couldn’t hear them on the push-to-talk, and inter-com’d me in production studio to go check it out.
I walked through the front office’s rows of empty desks as it was now well after working hours, and made out three men at the door, one of them wearing a red – wait, what is that, velvet? – a red velvet full length coat? It wasn’t just bright red. It glowed red. I mean it was on fire!
It was dark, the men were black and the stoop light was directly above them, not illuminating their faces clearly. As I asked, “Can I help you?” the man in velvet took a step back and the overhead light revealed his face.
I literally caught my breath and said out loud, “Oh my God, you’re James Brown!” He replied, “Yes, I am. May we come in?”
At this point, I had to ask Ralf Koal - as granting entry to a non-employee would put us both on the street in a snap - if he was OK with my opening the front door. He was incredulous: “You left James Brown waiting at the front door? Jesus, Bob, let him in!”
As Mr. Brown walked through the door, the unbuttoned red velvet coat draped around him like a cape, his hand reached out to shake mine. In a simultaneous motion, the two men behind him lifted the velvet coat from his shoulders, revealing the man, the myth, the legend – dressed in tight black leather, festooned with silver sequins – James Brown.
I said, “Mr. Brown …” when he interrupted me, grasped my hand with both of his, squinted his coal-black eyes into mine and said, “Call me James.”
After introducing James Brown to Ralf Koal who was still on-the-air, I had one of the more lucid moments in my broadcasting career and asked if our group could move into the production studio to record an interview.
For the next hour, I sat side-by-side with James Brown and he talked about his life, his deep love of music, his difficulty in getting his music played in the day’s radio world of strict formats and tight music lists and the impossible road he traveled from poverty to success, this man with an eighth grade education.
James Brown was articulate, intelligent, passionate and – above all of those qualities – a joy to talk with … one of the best interviews I have ever done.
Nearing the end of our talk, I admitted to him, “I must tell you, I can’t believe I’m sitting here talking with the hardest working man in show business, James Brown.” His reply, “Ain’t I good lookin’, too!”
When James left the room for a moment, the two men who accompanied him – two life-long friends, not bodyguards - told me a story about this man with a eighth grade education. James carried nothing in his pockets: no keys, no wallet, no money. At the beginning of each day, each man was given a considerable wad of cash – in a roll -  to pay for meals, hotels, everything. Any remaining cash was given back to James at the end of each day.
After a very long 14-hour day of promotional appearances in Los Angeles recently, this man gave James Brown the remaining roll of bills and loose change. James counted the sum and, as the man began to leave his room, suddenly asked, “Are you sure you don’t have about $39 in another pocket?”
Incredibly, there was a cab ride that morning from LAX which this man began to pay with two twenty dollar bills but his counterpart did instead. The two twenties were replaced in haste, inside the man’s coat pocket instead of his pants, where they still were.
James kept track of each day’s expenses in his head. He recalled names and details of people he met just once, knew myriad details of those he worked with intimately and demonstrated business acumen far beyond many with a college degree.
Granted, James Brown knew how to promote James Brown. He was in San Jose for a one-night show and ticket sales, no doubt, needed a little help.
So he ended up on KLIV’s doorstep to work his magic: to again open doors closed to everyone else but not to James Brown.
James Brown was truly a legend who influenced all music - Elvis to Mick to Bowie, R&B to rock to rap – as well as this twenty-something radio DJ who had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to spend time with the man behind the legend.
To this day, almost thirty years later, I remember that sign by the front door of the old KLIV studios must have read, “No admittance for any non-employee after-hours except for James Brown.
©Bob Ray 2006, all rights reserved
The Night James Brown Was At The Front Door
by Bob Ray