Steamboat Springs The Godfather of Soul returns to Steamboat Springs this week. This time he's going to do what he does best perform for thousands at the Independence Incident.
But when James Brown came to Steamboat nine years ago, it wasn't to sing. Instead, he dedicated a bridge that came to be named in his honor in one of the more bizarre chapters in the history of the city.
It doesn't take much to get people to start howling about how the James Brown Soul Center of the Universe Bridge got its name.
"I tell the story all the time in other places about what can happen in ski towns during mud season," said Bill Malone, who headed the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association at the time and helped facilitate Brown's visit to the Yampa Valley.
Steamboat Springs City Councilman Loui Antonucci said in the spring of 1993, City Manger Harvey Rose proposed to name a new $1.5 million bridge connecting Elk River Road and Twentymile Road. "Right around that time (the town of) Avon named a bridge 'Bob,'" Antonucci said.
Rose thought it would be good for the town to come up with a name for its new bridge. Surely Steamboat could do better than Bob. The City Council organized a bridge-naming contest in March, encouraging people to submit nominations. The winner would take home a $100 savings bond.
The catch was that the name had to have a cultural or historical connection to the Yampa Valley.
That was fitting. The new bridge replaced the Stockbridge, which ranchers had used for years to drive cattle across the Yampa River.
The Tread of Pioneers Museum Board of Directors agreed to weed through the entries, find five names for the bridge and present them to the City Council to vote on.
Among the nominations was the "James Brown Soul Center of the Universe Bridge."
Craig Poff, a former city employee and short-term resident, thought of the name, but he originally suggested it for a park, not the bridge. Poff told the Steamboat Today in 1993 that Steamboat was his soul center and that he liked James Brown.
Someone anonymously submitted Poff's suggested name for the bridge contest. Winnie Delliquadri, who was the director of the museum at the time, thought the name was humorous and that it deserved some mention.
Though James Brown doesn't have a historical connection to the Yampa Valley, Delliquadri said she wanted to include the name as an honorable mention, along with five other suggestions, just for fun and without thinking the City Council would go for it.
"I wanted to show that we have a sense of humor, so why don't we give it an honorable mention," she said. "That is something that the board has never let me live down."
On April 6, Delliquadri presented the City Council with the five nominations, as well as the sixth James Brown honorable mention nomination.
"City Council jumped on the honorable mention," she said.
In a 4-1 vote, the council voted to name the bridge the "James Brown Soul Center of the Universe Bridge."
"It really didn't seem to make much of a difference," recalled Antonucci, who was on the council then. "We thought, 'yea, this is pretty cool.'"
Most of the council also thought the name might create some much-needed attention to Steamboat Springs, a city that was still struggling to fill a summer economic slump.
However, the one councilman who voted no, Bill Martin, didn't think the James Brown name was cool at all.
"I was opposed to it," Martin said. "I didn't understand why we were going to (glorify) someone with a criminal record and who has no connection to the town."
During the early 1990s, most of the news Brown made was for run-ins with the police. He served jail time for beating his wife and drug convictions. Martin said the only significance he saw in the name was that the bridge connected to what was called the Jail House Road, which led to the Routt County Jail.
Community member Belle Chotvacs, who was in the audience during the city council meeting, also didn't like the name and suggested that maybe the public should vote on it.
The council agreed, annulled its motion, and passed another motion to have an informal public vote. In the April 15, 1993 issue of the Steamboat Pilot, the "Name the Bridge" ballot appeared.
When the votes were counted in May, there were 88 for James Brown, with the next closest, the "New Stockbridge," receiving 46 votes. On May 4, the council, for the second time, passed a motion to name the bridge the "James Brown Soul Center of the Universe Bridge."
James Brown also was invited to Steamboat Springs for a ribbon cutting ceremony.
However, some things are just hard to stomach for some people. After the council vote, letters opposing the name appeared and the newspaper and a petition began to circulate against it.
On June 15, facing a petition signed by more than 1,110 people, council broke down and again rescinded its motion to name the bridge after the Godfather of Soul.
That's when Brian Harvey got involved.
KFMU Station Manager Brian Harvey was the promotions director of the radio station in 1993. When he caught wind of the two motions that were rescinded, one after the public voted for the James Brown name, he saw a golden opportunity to create a buzz about Steamboat Springs and KFMU.
"That's when I went into my general manager's office (Ward Holmes) and said we need to get on this," Harvey said.
After "getting on his knees and begging" Holmes to give him permission, Harvey was allowed to place petitions at different businesses in town in favor of the James Brown name. He then produced a novel commercial on the radio, with dubbed in James Brown voices, urging people to sign the petitions. He said in the radio spot that James Brown already agreed to come to Steamboat Springs for a ceremony to open the bridge and if residents wanted to see it happen, they'll have to sign the petition. The commercial was so clever it won Harvey an award from the Colorado Broadcasters Association that year.
It also got 1,500 people to sign the petition.
On July 6, Holmes presented the council with the petition in favor of the James Brown Soul Center of the Universe name. In lieu of all the names laid before them, a reluctant City Council voted 4-3 to hold another informal public vote for the name. The motion stated that the results of the vote would be the final name of the bridge, no matter what.
Then things got ugly.
One woman said she and her friends felt that there was an undercurrent of racism among some of those opposing the name. That prompted them to photocopied 900 ballots voting for the James Brown name and submitted them.
"People (on both sides) were going down to the Xerox machine to copy their votes," Antonucci said.
There were no rules for the voting, so people turned in as many votes as they wanted, he said.
By Aug. 3, when the votes were tallied and announced, 26,381 ballots had been submitted. In 1993, only about 9,700 people were registered to vote in Routt County.
The James Brown Soul Center of the Universe won by a narrow margin, with 7,717 votes. The New Stockbridge had 7,459 votes, 2,822 ballots were for Twentymile Bridge, Ute Bridge had 2,368 votes, Bear River Bridge had 429 votes and Yahmonite Bridge had 17 votes. There 5,569 people who voted not to name the bridge at all.
The vote meant the name was final and James Brown was on his way to Steamboat Springs for the dedication on Sept. 15.
The night before his arrival, someone painted a racial epithet on the bridge, which couldn't be completely cleaned off before Brown got there.
But if Brown, who was met on the bridge that day by nearly 2,000 people, including press from all over the country, was bothered by the epithet, he didn't let it show.
"He took it really well," Harvey said. "He said there were just a few bad people who did it He was generally touched and excited that a town like Steamboat did something like this."
Bill Malone also was impressed with Brown's dignity.
"He was really cool about it, he said, 'well things happen,'" Malone said.
Brown, with his colorful entourage of about 15 people, spoke at the ceremony, did an interview on the radio, signed autographs and then left.
Though everything went well, and Steamboat Springs appeared in the media across the country, Malone said when Brown left; it was the end of a strange day.
"When he and his entourage flew back to Georgia on their private jet, we were like, what happened today," Malone said. "He probably was sitting in that plane and was like, 'what a weird place.'"
After the ceremony, city council downplayed the whole event, in fear that more vandalism on the city's new $1.5 million bridge would follow, Antonucci said.
A plaque was never placed on the bridge, and today residents refer to it a variety of ways.
Steamboat Springs Director of Public Safety J.D. Hays said, for example, the police officers and dispatch he works with use a number of names fort the bridge
"I think people who have been around here along time still call it the Stockbridge," Hays said, "while other people who came here since call it the James Brown Bridge."
What name people use doesn't matter. Officially it's the James Brown Soul Center of the Universe Bridge. Brown may not have had a cultural tie to the Yampa Valley prior to 1993, but when he takes the stage at the Tennis Meadows Thursday, he'll do so with his place in Steamboat's history secure.