From the moment you turned onto New York’s 125th Street, you could feel the love in the air. Songs like “Hot Pants” and “Cold Sweat” blared from every storefront, radio and boombox. Street vendors were selling James Brown mixtapes.
His countenance was on every T-shirt. It was here at the hub of the great neighborhood of Harlem, at America’s premier showcase for Black music, the legendary Apollo Theater, that The Hardest Working Man in Show Business’ body—brought by a white carriage and two white horses—lay in state. Here, for decades, he’d regaled sold-out audiences and recorded no less than two brilliant live albums in 1962 and 1967. Three days earlier, on Dec. 25, Brown died of congestive heart failure brought on by pneumonia (“Funky Christmas,” indeed), and now he was back at the place of his greatest triumphs with a line of mourners stretching completely around the block, spanning all ages, religions and races—many who’d been there since the prior evening. The failed marriages, the bankruptcies, the arrests, the jail terms, the drama, none of it seemed to matter to them. For these fans, the theater marquee said it all: Rest In Peace, Apollo Legend, The Godfather Of Soul, James Brown 1933-2006.
It was a grandiose farewell, precisely what the man known as Soul Brother Number One deserved. After all, what was James Brown if not American musical royalty? In a half-century, this walking contradiction—in 1968 he supported Nixon and managed, via radio messages and a televised Boston concert, to prevent countrywide riots after MLK’s assassination—released over 100 albums and singles, encompassing gospel, blues, jazz, R&B, soul, funk and hip-hop (not to mention that it can be credibly argued that he invented the last four genres), and he also made daring, if less successful, forays into country, swing and standards.
Brown’s muscular, quicksilver dance moves influenced generations of performers. Nobody could kick, then catch a microphone stand with more élan than Mr. Brown. Likewise, no one outside of the DC Comics universe brandished a cape with more masculine style.
And then there was Brown’s voice. His raspy tenor was a much more supple instrument than he was ever given credit for. No one pleaded with more urgency and anguish that Brown did on “Try Me!” and “It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World.” No one expressed more racial pride than Brown on anthems like “Say It Loud (I’m Black And I’m Proud)” or shrieking rage on “The Payback,” recorded soon after his son’s death in an auto accident. And on uptempo cuts, Brown had no equal. With a dazzling rhythmic dexterity—Brown was always in the pocket—he prompted and prodded his band through such club classics as “Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine, Pt.1,” “Super Bad, Pts. 1&2” and “Make It Funky, Pt. 1.”
And what bands! Whether dubbed the Famous flames, the James Brown Revue or the JBs, Brown’s backing group contained brilliant musicians like saxophonist Maceo Parker, trombonist Fred Wesley, bassist Bootsy Collins and singer/keyboardist Bobby Byrd—pop’s greatest second voice—playing instrumental jams as inventively as any noted jazz ensemble. It’s this work—ranging from the Civil Rights era to the dawn of disco—that, thanks to sampling, became the bedrock of hip-hop. How amazing is it that this Southern gentleman—born in South Carolina and raised in Georgia—would produce music that today remains the backdrop of the urban experience? But such is the richness of Brown’s output.
The lone drawback to Brown’s career is that this Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and Kennedy Center Honors recipient was never really given an opportunity to strut his stuff on the big screen. Sure, Dan Aykroyd gave him cameos in The Blues Brothers, Doctor Detroit and Blues Brothers 2000, but the man who considered Elvis a close friend never got—probably due to racism—a showcase like Jailhouse Rock.
But Brown did have one epic silver-screen moment. It was in 1965’s “The T.A.M.I. Show,” a filmed concert with such greats as The Beach Boys, The Miracles, The Supremes, Marvin Gaye and The Rolling Stones. Whether hurling himself to his knees or flashing footwork so fast the camera could barely capture it, Brown’s impassioned medley of “Prisoner Of Love/Please Please Please” completely stole the show and drove the audience to sheer delirium. (I’d pity the shell-shocked Stones, who had the daunting task of following him, except that Jagger’s been trying to jack JB’s moves ever since.) fittingly, it’s a performance for the ages by this age’s greatest performer. Rest In Peace, Godfather.