Thursday, January 04, 2007

James Brown’s Body

James Brown was finally laid to rest on Saturday after a three day funeral. Brown, “the Godfather of Soul” died on Christmas Day after contracting pneumonia. He was 73 years old. After lying in state at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre for two days, his body was brought back to Atlanta for a farewell ceremony at the James Brown Arena. Michael Jackson and the Reverends Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson led a crowd of 8,500 mourners. Michael Jackson told the crowd James Brown was his greatest inspiration and Jesse Jackson said the 25 December death “had upstaged Santa”. Brown was buried privately after the ceremony.

Brown was one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century. He was renowned for his screeched vocals, high-energy dancing and unique rhythmic style. His hits, such as "I Got You (I Feel Good)" and "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," inspired generations of soul, funk, disco, rock and rap artists. He was a giant in the Afro-American community for his 1968 song “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud”, and in the 1970s jazz great Miles Davis cited Brown as a major influence on his style.

James Joseph Brown was born in Barnwell, South Carolina, as an only child in 1933. When he was four, his parents separated and he grew up in the brothel of an aunt in Augusta, Georgia. Brown left school after the seventh grade and did a variety of odd-jobs such as picking cotton, shining shoes, washing cars and dishes and sweeping out stores. At 16, he took part in an armed robbery and was caught breaking into a car. He was sentenced to eight to sixteen years' hard labour. He was transferred to a juvenile work far, after serving a short period in the county jail. He then spent three years in a community home.

While in prison he met Bobby Byrd, who would later be his co-vocalist. Byrd’s family took responsibility for Brown and negotiated his early release. Brown tried his luck at boxing and baseball before turning to music. Byrd was a pianist and gospel singer and he and Brown worked together in the bars and clubs of Toccoa, Georgia. They switched their sound from gospel to rhythm & blues and set up a band called the “Famous Flames.” They became a talented black music revue in which all members had at least to play two instruments as well as sing and dance.

The Famous Flames caught the attention of King Records and, in April 1956, they released the single Please, Please, Please which made the R&B top ten. Brown was now the leader of the band and made himself the centre of attention. The band’s big breakthrough came two years later. Try Me was released in September 1958 and it got to number 58 in the US charts and was a number one in the R&B charts. James Brown was now a star. On 24 October 1962 he made his first appearance at what was to become his signature venue, the Apollo Theatre in Haarlem. Founded in 1913, the Apollo was a burlesque theatre until the 1930s. Under the patronage of Stanley Cohen it opened its doors to New York’s black community showcasing “a coloured review” entitled Jazz a la Carte. It soon became a venue for exclusively black entertainment. This was initially done as a cost-cutting exercise but over the coming years, the Apollo launched the careers of a wealth of black talent such as Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday and Sammy Davis, Jr. Brown recorded “Live at the Apollo” here and the album entered the pop charts in 1963.

In 1964 he had three hit singles. His "Live at the Apollo became the first LP in pop history to sell more than a million copies. 1965 saw Brown at the peak of his recording success. "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" and "I Got You (I Feel Good)” were both top ten hits. In the same year, Brown made a successful transition to Hollywood singing I Got You (I Feel Good) in the teen beach genre film “Ski Party” and the concert film “The T.A.M.I Show”. Brown won the Grammy for Best Rhythm & Blues Recording in 1966 for “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag”.

James Brown was now seriously rich. He quickly adapted to celebrity lifestyle and bought himself a private jet, a villa, four radio stations, a restaurant chain, a moated castle and a music publishing house. But he kept working on stage too. He legendary ability to perform 300 times a year earned him the title of "the hardest working man in showbiz". His musical influence was truly profound. His gospel-infused vocals and complex polyrhythmic beats transformed R&B into soul. Then with the 1967 recording of “Cold Sweat” he transformed soul into funk. Meanwhile Brown became a political activists and began fighting for the causes of Martin Luther King. In 1969, Look magazine called Brown "the most important black man in America."

The 1970s saw a long, slow decline in Brown’s life and music. The rot started when his accomplished accomplices saxophonists Maceo Parker and Pee Wee Ellis, trombonist Fred Wesley and bassist Bootsy Collins all left to form their own bands. The IRS demanded $4.5 million in back taxes. He was involved in a radio station bribery scandal, his marriage broke up and his son Teddy died in a car accident. Brown was forced to sell many of his assets and resume touring to pay his debts. The age of disco also affected his record sales. Brown had a mini-revival in 1980 with a role in The Blues Brothers but his sales mostly declined throughout the decade that followed despite the success of “Living in America” in 1985.

In 1988, Brown was arrested following a high-speed car chase on an Atlanta interstate highway. Police found the illegal drug phencyclidine (PCP) in his possession and Brown was also charged with threatening pedestrians with a firearm. He was sentenced to six years in prison but was released in 1991 after having only served three. For the remainder of his life, Brown was repeatedly arrested for drug possession and domestic abuse. Nonetheless he continued to record music and performed regularly. In 2004 he contracted prostate cancer but recovered. A year later, he appeared in the Live 8 concert in Edinburgh singing "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag" in a duet with British pop star Will Young. In 2006 Brown launched his exhausting "Seven Decades Of Funk” world tour.

In December, Brown was in Atlanta for a routine dental appointment when a new health problem was detected. On 24 December, he was admitted to Atlanta’s Emory Crawford Long Hospital and was treated for "severe pneumonia". On his deathbed he was still planning on playing his usual New Year's Eve show. But he died at 1:45am the following morning. His agent said, the official cause of death was heart failure. His final words were “I’m going away tonight”.

James Brown’s influence vastly outstripped his own success. He had less then ten hit singles and none of them reached number one. But he cast a huge shadow over genres as diverse as R&B, jazz, disco, gospel, soul, rap and African music. The evolution of black music in particular owes him a massive debt. "He was not only the Godfather of Soul, but the Godfather of Funk and Rap," rapper Ice Cube said in a statement. "Music will never be the same."

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