Aiken native John Winfield is 74 years old but vividly remembers sitting at the piano and staring out into the 30,000 faces at Madison Square Garden back in 1961 where he put on a performance he’ll never forget with the Godfather of Soul, James Brown.
“I was always afraid to look out there at those people,” Winfield said. “I had seen The Garden on TV with the Ice Capades and basketball games. But when the lights came on, you were just looking out at the multitudes ... it really took your breath away.”
Winfield said he first met Brown in Augusta when Brown was looking for musicians for his band. At the time, Winfield was playing with a group called the Four Steps of Rhythm.
At the age of 21, he enlisted in a band full of grown men and started playing the piano in nightclubs in Macon, Augusta, Charleston, Columbia and other places with Brown.
Winfield was a member of Brown’s band from 1961 to 1963. His other most memorable experience was playing with Brown at the famous Apollo Theater. Winfield said Brown and the band got a standing ovation after every song, which is really special because, according to him, “if you could get an applause from the Apollo audience, you were great.”
“It was just amazing to be on stage with that man,” Winfield said. “His beat was so much different than everyone else’s, and I guess that’s what made him so great.”
Even after leaving the band, Brown never forgot Winfield and performed with him at other nightclubs in Harlem and at churches around the Augusta area.
Once Brown skyrocketed to superstardom, Winfield went on to lead a productive adult life. He attended South Carolina State University, worked with his dad at the Belmont race track for three years and then moved back to the area in 1979 and worked as an Aiken Public Safety Officer for 32 years.
Even with his other successes in life, Winfield said he’ll never forget those years he performed with Brown. He attended the July 24 premiere of “Get on Up” and said the movie did a great job of showing how dedicated Brown was to his work.
“James was the kind of person who would call you at 4 a.m. in the morning and say, ‘Let’s get to work,’” he added. “He was an incredible musician, and I think the movie does a great job of telling that story.”
Today is the release date for “Get on Up,” and the movie is currently showing at Regal Cinemas in Aiken.
Derrek Asberry is a beat reporter with the Aiken Standard.
Submitted photo Aiken resident John Winfield played the piano in James Brown’s band for three years in the 1960s. Winfield said Brown was demanding of his musicians but always paid them well.×
Submitted photo Aiken native John Winfield said James Brown made him a member of his band because he knew how to play the piano the way Brown liked to hear it.×