Skip to content

How Les Brown learned his lessons


Poor old Les Brown. His mother gave birth to him and his twin brother on the floor of an abandoned building, and when the boys were just 6 weeks old she gave them up for adoption.

The woman who took them in–Mrs. Mamie Brown–was a poor single woman living in Liberty City, a low-income section of Miami, Fla.

In the fifth grade, Brown was labeled “educably mentally retarded” and sent back to the fourth grade. Just for good measure, he also failed the eighth grade.

Brown got through high school as a special education student, but never went to college because he had trouble dealing with written words.

But before the tears start falling, consider this:
Poor old Les Brown has earned more than $60 million over his lifetime.

When he speaks to corporations, he commands up to $25,000 an hour, which is more than many Americans earn in a year.

He was elected to the Ohio Legislature three times, and only left during his third term to go home to care for his adoptive mother, Mrs. Mamie Brown, who was dying of cancer.

He has written four books–“Live Your Dreams,” “It’s Not Over Until You Win,” “Up Thoughts for Down Times” and “Fight for Your Dream”–and he’s sold millions of motivational tapes.

The Miami native has been a popular radio broadcaster, and at one point had his own national television talk show. (See accompanying chart of Black television talk show hosts, page 5).

He is known as one of the top motivational speakers in the nation today. And Brown will be the keynote speaker during West Coast Expo’s opening breakfast at 8 a.m. Friday, Aug. 12.

Although born in poverty, Brown said he’s never smoked, never even tasted beer or wine, and he’s never done drugs.

“I’ve never smoked or drank in my life. That was a conscious decision. I’m adopted, and my mother adopted seven kids altogether. At first, we were foster kids then she adopted us after she kept us for a period of time. I remember once–I think I was about 4 or 5 years old–my twin brother and I found a cigarette butt, and we started to try and smoke what was left of it. My mother caught us and said, ‘Oh, you want to smoke. Very good.’

“She smoked Lucky Strike, so she had us go to the store and buy her four packs of Lucky Strike. She got us four glasses of water. So we had to smoke a cigarette and eat one, smoke one and eat one. We were coughing and gagging and crying, ‘Momma, we don’t want to smoke.’

“‘Oh, yes you do.’ she said. We had to smoke one and then eat one…. It was the greatest drug prevention program in the world. I just could not imagine if she caught us doing [drugs]. She would go to jail today. They would call that child abuse, but it worked.

“Mom was something else,” says Brown. “She had a third-grade education and she was 46 when she adopted us, and whenever I speak I say, “All that I am and all that I ever hope to be I owe to my mother. I say that God took me out of my biological mother’s womb and placed me in the heart of my adoptive mother. She’s been the guiding force in my life and so I never wanted to disappoint her; I never wanted her to experience the pain and disappointment of knowing her son was on drugs. That was not an option for me.”

Brown learned not to see himself as a failure, so when he looks at the Black community today he doesn’t see what most people see.

“I see the potential for greatness, that we have the ability to overcome; we have resiliency and we’re very creative and resourceful,” he says.

“It’s what you choose to key on, what you chose to zero in on,” he said during a recent interview. “There’s lack in every community. What we have to do in this time, more than ever before, is understand the value of keeping in front of us the things we want to multiply and produce.”

When Brown speaks, people listen. Most pay a lot for the privilege. He speaks a lot about living your dreams, making you uncomfortable in your mediocrity, and inspiring and empowering you.

Currently, a talk show host on radio station KFWB News Talk 980 from 2 to 4 p.m., Brown notes that his greatest challenge is “getting done all the things I’d like to do in the time that’s available to me.”

He does lament that his abilities have not been embraced by the Black community as they have been in the White community. “Ninety-nine percent of my customer base is Whites. I spend most of my time in corporations. The biggest challenge is getting people who need [my message] most to understand it and to value it and to apply those success principles in their lives. Other than that, it’s reminding people that they have greatness in them, and helping them understand the value of using tools that will inspire them to transform their lives and move their lives to another place.”

People who already have wealth and success understand the value of what he does, “… and now they want to go to the next level,” Brown says. He admits that “it’s easy to see the value of self-actualization if all your needs are met. What it takes to live a life and what it takes to survive are two totally different things. It’s much more difficult to get a committed hearing from someone who’s operating out of a survival mode,” he says.

The “calling” on his life, Brown says, is what keeps him motivated. That calling “is to inspire people to get a larger vision of themselves beyond the circumstances and mental conditioning. Part of what I’m doing now is using KFWB news talk 980 as a platform to inspire and motivate people to pursue their greatness. I think that now more than ever people need to have positive messages that will 1) transform their mind-set, 2) inspire them to expand their skill set and 3) to create achievement-driven relationships.”

Regarding his learning difficulties Brown says, “I learn differently from others. It takes me longer to get something than most people. I’m a verbal person. If you say, ‘Les, I want you to write me a speech.’ I will find that extremely challenging. But if you tell me to give you a speech, I can give you a speech. If you give me some prep time, I can custom-design that speech.

“People have different learning styles that we’re labeling. I believe we should label jars, not people, and because it is slower and harder for me to get some things, you have to talk to me. Even now I’ll ask you if you can explain it to me, because I can learn it better by hearing than I can by just reading it.”

Brown has been quoted as saying that he gives about 20 percent of his annual business revenue to charitable causes, but he explains that he gives both time and money to programs dealing with breast cancer prevention, prostate cancer, drug prevention and in helping people who want to make a difference in their communities.

“We’re going to spearhead a movement called ’25 years beyond the Big Lie,’ and what we’re doing is working with Dwight Pleasure, one of my mentees, who has been clean of drugs for 25 years. He wrote a book called ‘The Big Lie.’ When he took his first hit of crack he said, ‘I can handle this.’

“That was the big lie, and so now what he’s doing is teaching others how to begin to overcome drug addiction, how to put their lives back together, how to reconcile with their families. One of the things we need to do is create a vision of ourselves free of drugs, free of the self-destructive behaviors that have been compromising the possibilities of what we can do for ourselves.”

In 1989, Brown received the National Speakers Association’s highest award, the Council of Peers Award of Excellence, the first African American to be so honored, and was inducted into the association’s hall of fame. He is also the recipient of the Golden Gavel, the highest award from Toastmasters International, and is among the top five speakers in the world, along with Gen. Norman Schwartzkopf, Robert Schuller, Paul Harvey and Lee Ioacocca, and “got more votes than all of them combined (for Toastmasters).”

“My favorite book says to judge a tree by the fruit it bears, so what I talk about is what I know and what I live.”

“I’m the message that I bring, when you think about the things that I’ve been able to accomplish and where I started.”

Beside Mrs. Mamie Brown, Brown also credits Leroy Washington, a speech and drama instructor at Booker T. Washington High School in Miami, for being a major influence in his life. Even though Brown never took Washington’s class because he was not a “mainstream” student, the teacher always took the time to encourage him.

“I was one of those kids who came around to watch him work with friends of mine who were in his class. I wanted to be there, but I was never mainstream. But I admired his communication skills, and he was into power of thinking and motivation. He became like a mentor of mine. I followed him around, and I wanted to volunteer to help put the sets together. Wherever he turned I was always there watching him. He was a hero to me.

“The skills that I developed watching him and studying the people that he worked with fascinated me (because of) the transformative impact that speaking had on them,” Brown says. “The drive was that I wanted to make my mother proud and this was a way to do it, to use speaking to generate income to buy her a home. It helped me to become involved in broadcasting. It helped me to run for the Ohio Legislature. It helped me to become a television talk show host, to get back in broadcasting again as I’m doing here in Los Angeles.

“Mr. Washington said, ‘Mr. Brown, develop your mind, practice the principles of OQP–only quality people–who you run with is who determines who you end up with. And develop your communication skills, because once you open your mouth you tell the world who you are. If you develop your ability to communicate, it allows you to create a life that you can feel proud of.’”