Les Brown: Living his dreams

Les Brown: Living his dreams

Brown, Peter

There’s no telling how many motivational speakers there are in the United States, but few connect as intimately with their audience as Les Brown. He is “keeping it real” by sharing his personal failures and triumphs so that his audience can live their dreams, too.

Despite the absence of any formal education beyond high school, Brown has been a radio DJ/talk host, broadcast manager, community activist, state legislator, Emmy-Award winning television show host, political commentator, author and award-winning speaker. He also is chief executive officer of Les Brown Unlimited Inc., which manages his many activities from offices in Brighton, Mich.

Lesley Calvin Brown, 55, is one of the most sought after motivational speakers in the country. He juggles a full schedule of speaking engagements with his daily morning-drive show, which airs in Lanham, Md. (WMMJ-FM MAJIC 102.3) and Atlanta (WAMJ-FM 107.5), both black-owned Radio One stations.

Recently Brown has confronted tragedies that his public talks empower audiences to overcome. In a span of five years, his beloved mother, Mamie Brown, died of breast cancer, his three– year marriage to pop-singer Gladys Knight ended in divorce, and Brown himself beat prostate cancer. He has bounced back from these setbacks with greater purpose. In troubled times, Brown often reflects on his mother: “Anytime my mother suffered a setback or disappointment, she put her head down and plowed ahead.”

The Early Years

Brown and his twin brother, Wesley, were born in an abandoned building in a poor section of Miami known as Liberty City. Les’ natural mother gave him and Wesley away three weeks later. They were adopted by Mamie Brown, who was, as Les describes her, “the only parent I will ever need.” Brown’s initial hate for his natural parents faded when he ran across a quotation from philosopher Khalil Gibran: “Our parents bring us into the world, but in the end, we are responsible for what we become.”

Some did not expect Les to achieve much in life. As a fifth grader he was identified as educable mentally retarded. Like so many young black males, Brown’s life was being mapped out for failure. But his mother and a high school teacher, Lowell Washington, rechanneled his thoughts and charted a path for success: “The two of them combined to give me a vision of myself beyond my circumstances, which through conditioning enabled me to do what I am doing now.. You don’t get in life what you want; you get in life what you are. Helping people become the kind of person they have within themselves so they can produce the results they want in life is what I’m all about.”

African Americans, however, rarely hear Brown’s motivational message.

“Unfortunately, we [African-Americans] don’t value what I do,” he says. “When you have major events that are supposed to empower and give us the methods and techniques to achieve our goals, we choose to spend more money on entertainment instead of intellectual capital.”

Some 99 percent of Brown’s audience is white, and he has grossed $20 million in 14 years of public speaking. So he doesn’t have to concern himself with the purchasing patterns of African Americans. Brown, however, has strong convictions about his responsibility to the black community. He has been proactive in finding ways to get his message out to the black community. One of them is training young adults to sharpen their communication skills and become public speakers.

The Gift to Inspire

Brown’s gift to inspire people emerged during his years as a disc jockey in Columbus, Ohio.

“I met Mike Williams, who is my mentor to this day. When I came up to the radio station to apply for a job, he said, `You have the ability not only to entertain people but to inspire people.’ He transformed me from a fast-talking DJ to an activist who could energize the Columbus black community by informing them about the issues affecting them.” Brown used radio to help turn out record numbers of black voters and received national attention. Brown’s activism catapulted him into three terms in the Ohio legislature. Brown recalls two bills he was particularly proud to sponsor.

One bill required that money orders, used often by the poor, be bonded and backed by cash. Before that, if a money order company went out of business, people found themselves holding worthless paper.

Brown also passed legislation to prevent utility companies from terminating electric or gas service on Fridays. Since utility companies were closed on Saturday, Brown wanted to protect consumers in emergencies or in the middle of winter from having their lights or gas shut off.

“Legislator” had a nice sound to it, but Brown set his sights on becoming a public speaker, which has made him a multi-millionaire. Yet he started this career with no formal training, only a strong desire to succeed and help others reach their full potential: “I loved talking to people and contributing to their understanding of themselves.”

Brown spent hours at the library, absorbing everything he could find about public speaking. He practiced his new craft first by speaking to grade-school students, then high-school students and civic clubs. In 1986 he embarked on his dream of becoming a motivational speaker. In 1991 he was selected by the 170,000-member Toastmasters International as one of the world’s best public speakers.

I asked Brown if there were any testimonials that stood out, and he quickly responded with “the bullet” story. He was referring to an incident following a speech in Memphis, Tenn. As he chatted with attendees, Brown noticed a tall gentleman staring intensely at him. The man approached him to shake his hand, gave Brown a bullet and said, “I just wanted to come and say thank you.”

The stranger told Brown how he was part of a company committee that was deciding who would be laid off. What the man didn’t know was that the company had plans to eliminate his job.

The stranger lost his job and became an alcoholic. He lost his family and himself in the process. In a moment of despondency he checked into a Holiday Inn and planned to kill himself. The bullet the man gave Brown was the bullet he had used in a treacherous game of Russian roulette. He pulled the gun’s trigger eight times but it never fired. inexplicably, he turned on the television set and started flipping channels.

He happened across Brown speaking on TV. Brown was saying, “Your life is God’s gift to you and how you live your life is your gift to God. What kind of gift are you creating for Him?” The man laughed and cried as he watched and listened to Brown. And he decided that he was going to do something with his life.

“He went into Alcoholics Anonymous and got his life back together, got another job, and started his own business,” Brown recalls. “Then he hooked up with his family and got his life back together.”

The riveting story confirms that Brown’s words can make a difference. Brown still has that bullet.

Plans for the Future

Les Brown is busy juggling his radio show with public speaking, and he is planning an even heavier schedule next year. He wants his radio show to be broadly syndicated so people will have “something to laugh about, something to smile about, and something to think about.”

Brown talks about how others have influenced his life, and he pointedly mentions the NAACP

“If it were not for the NAACP, it would not be possible for an African-American male born in an abandoned building on a floor, being adopted, being labeled educable mentally retarded… it would not be possible for me to go in and speak to the AT&Ts, the Proctor & Gambles, and the IBMs across this country. The NAACP made it possible for me to do this. That is why I’m a lifetime member.”

Meanwhile, Brown continues his own learning: “I’m currently reading Attitude is Everything by Keith norell and before that Dennis Kembro’s What Makes the Great Great… The scripture reminds us, `Be ye not conformed by this world, be transformed by renewing your mind.'”

Peter Brown is a senior writer for Crisis. He can be reached via e-mail at mrb92@aol.com

Copyright Crisis Publishing Company, Incorporated Sep/Oct 2000

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