Fifty years after recording his first hit song, the Hardest Working Man in Show Business has played his final encore. James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, died early Christmas morning after a brief bout with pneumonia in an Atlanta hospital. By his count, he was seventy-three years old. –James Sullivan
One of the most influential performers of the 20th century, Brown’s hard-charging, hypnotically rhythmic signature sound inspired peers and successors from doo-wop to hip hop. Among his many chart successes – more than forty Top Forty hits and dozens more on the R&B charts — were the timeless classics “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” and “I Got You (I Feel Good)” and civil rights anthems such as “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud.” His best-known album, 1962’s “Live at the Apollo,” is often cited as the most exciting live album of all time. One of the original inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, Brown received a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award in 1992.
Brown, as some of his elaborate nicknames (“The Minister of the New New Super Heavy Funk”) imply, was best known for his indefatigable showmanship. His revue-style shows were designed to take his audience to ever-higher levels of delirium, and he was famous for “fainting” near the end of the evening, only to be revived by his band mates.
“He was dramatic to the end – dying on Christmas day,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson told the Associated Press.
His private life was nearly as eventful as his stage act. Born in Barnwell, South Carolina, in 1933 (some sources give 1928 as the year of his birth), Brown was serving jail time by the age of 16. He spent more than two years in prison after a drug-fueled interstate car chase in 1988, and he periodically made news for other incidents involving drinking, drugs, women and firearms.
Onstage, however, Brown considered himself a healer. “I always said I was seventy-five percent minister and twenty-five percent artist,” he once told this writer.
“I went to see the pope, and the pope told me that I should never come to church, because I can do more out there (on the street)… Music is the soul of the people. That’s why I’m the Godfather of Soul. I wouldn’t want to be anything else — wouldn’t want to be a king, or an emperor. I just want to be with the people.”
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