Too bad they don’t have a World’s Funkiest Police Chases. On Sept. 24, 1988, soul trailblazer James Brown went berserk, leading police on a drug-fueled interstate car pursuit that would earn the esteemed bandleader a two-year engagement in South Carolina’s penal system.
The now-infamous freak-out started when Brown — waving a shotgun and yelling cryptically about someone using his bathroom — burst in on an insurance seminar taking place in an Augusta, Ga., office building next door to one owned by the singer. When someone called the police, Brown sped away in the direction of nearby North Augusta, S.C., where local police picked up the chase. ”The way he was driving and acting I knew he was either drunk or on drugs,” recalls Lieut. Ronnie Delaughter, the North Augusta officer who led the pursuit. ”He was going probably 70, 80 mph through a 30-mph zone.”
At first, Brown — who tested positive for traces of PCP — pulled over and seemed to surrender. ”He was sitting behind the steering wheel in his truck, looking straight ahead, real glassy-eyed,” says Delaughter. ”He had a shotgun laying on the seat. He wouldn’t open the doors or look at us. Finally, we busted the window out of the passenger-side door. But he backed up and tried to run over us, so we shot his tires out.” Brown then led cops back into Georgia, driving about eight miles on disintegrating wheels. ”Finally, the truck wouldn’t go anymore,” says Delaughter. ”We put him in a police car as fast as we could and got him out of there.”
At the time, Brown’s career was on an upswing; his 1986 hit ”Living in America,” from the Rocky IV soundtrack, was his biggest since the ’70s, and rap groups like Public Enemy were basing much of their music on samples of his work. But that comeback derailed when, less than three months after Brown’s arrest, an Aiken County, S.C., jury found the singer guilty of two counts of aggravated assault and one count of failing to stop for police. Though not guilty of the two more-serious counts of assault with intent to kill, Brown found himself socked with a six-year sentence, of which he served a little more than two years.
Many fans found the penalty harsh, and ”Free James Brown” grew into something of a turn-of-the-decade catchphrase. But Delaughter is unimpressed by efforts on Brown’s behalf. ”He served his time and that’s fine,” he says. ”But what’s the difference between him and some John Doe out there who doesn’t have fame and money?” Maybe it’s the difference between being bad and being ”Super Bad.”