While it was jarring to wake up Christmas morning to learn of James Brown’s death, it was far from sad. Though the tireless workload he took on in the sixties and seventies that earned him his “hardest working man in show business” title eased up in subsequent decades, his long, difficult life had become especially challenging in recent years. Few septuagenarians could painlessly endure a steady schedule of grueling, physical performances, but Brown’s activities were complicated by debilitating diabetes, a rushed recovery from colon cancer, money troubles, legal woes, traitorous relatives, and a strained, strange marriage. The sad fact is that James Brown’s death is not merely occasion for the standard “rest in peace” well-wishings, but is likely the first time in decades that he has been able to genuinely rest, period.
Full disclosure: my James Brown fandom borders on fanaticism. Always fascinated by prolificity, I fell under the Godfather’s spell in my pre-school, where the sturdy classroom record player was turreted by towering stacks of Brown’s Polydor, King and People singles, many with his striking portrait on the label. For the last twenty years I have tried to see Brown live as many times as possible. Though he is perceived by many as an oldies act, mechanically (if enthusiastically) executing the same signature gimmicks for half a century, fans who kept close dibs appreciated both the potency he still possessed, and the absurdity of some of his would-be-innovations, including James Brown cookies, the James Brown Macarena, and the surprisingly funky, though absurdly didactic, 2001 single, “(Killing is Out) School is In.” Of course, Brown’s live shows are the source of his legend (my personal favorite was a fiery 1996 Grant Park concert in which the photo pit became a private V.I.P. section for legendary pimp/evangelist Bishop Don Magic Juan). But as a child weaned on the boob tube, for my money Brown achieved immortality on the television screen.
As a burgeoning music fan in the late seventies and early eighties his TV appearances became an obsession of mine, and in the days of independent video stores I was lucky that our local shop stocked well-worn copies of The Best of Ed Sullivan and The T.A.M.I. Show. In my book TV-A-Go-Go: Rock on TV from American Bandstand to American Idol I hold up Brown as perhaps the greatest icon of televised pop. His 1965 appearance on Shindig may be the best argument ever for the validity of lip-synching as an art form. Liberated from a microphone cord, his scrambling, shuffling, hypnotizing performance was a clinic on the magic of movement. Conversely, when his full band took over the Soul Train set, they unleashed one of the best live performances in TV history, culminating with Brown engulfed in a sea of vibrant, beautiful black teenagers pumping their fists and chanting, “Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud!” Brown is famed for staving off a race riot in Boston by performing a live televised concert in the wake of Dr. King’s 1967 assassination, but his influence over his people extended well into the 21st century. In 2003, like a faith healer, Brown’s touch redeemed a man who had spent a fortune denying his race. When Michael Jackson joined his idol in performance at the inaugural BET Awards the Godfather offered the pale pop star his famed cape. In the wake of this exhilarating moment the show’s host declared, “Michael Jackson … you’re still black! You’re still one of us!” Such is the power of Brown.
I spent my Christmas holidays, and the ensuing weeks, glued to the television, and buried in newspapers and magazines, surveying the news coverage and tributes. Nearly every story led with, or quickly segued into, the idea that rap music owed its existence to James Brown. These statements are, of course, accurate, and it would be irresponsible journalism to omit them, but it still seems a bit distasteful to validate such a extraordinary artist by cataloguing what he spawned rather than with his own work. In the only Christmas night prime time programming change, BET replaced a rerun of In Living Color with a special called Timeless which told Brown’s story in a montage of archival BET coverage, with Donnie Simpson, Tavis Smiley and Jacque Reid converging for a parade of praise. But with nearly every segment focusing with laser precision on what rap records sampled, quoted, or ripped off Brown, the show in many ways insulted a quarter century of teenagers. While a kid could conceivably dismiss a chestnut like “Try Me” as a crusty dusty, I profoundly believe that any adolescent hip hop fan can fully appreciate Brown’s funk compositions from the early seventies without an iota of contextualization. At his peak Brown made music that was so powerful, so timeless, and so singular that despite decades of building upon, stealing from, and remixing his work, not only has it not been improved upon, it also has not become old. While newly produced specials on BET, unearthed Brown tributes from the vaults of VH1 and PBS, and countless network news segments all made statement after statement about Brown’s influence, each of these programs peaked when they let the music make its own case.
The other thing that seemed a little off was that, appropriately I suppose, none of the press seemed to be telling the James Brown stories that are inevitably told when people tell James Brown stories. Brown’s genius was not unrelated to madness, and anyone who ever had personal, artistic, or business dealings with the performer, or even met him in passing, usually heard him say something outrageous, do something strange, or make a baffling demand. If he told you it was OK to take a photo with him, he might rage if you took a second. His most infamous incident, an interstate car chase that helped land Brown in prison in 1988, was set off by a perceived violation of the sacred space of his private bathroom. Each interview or conversation likely contained dynamically orated musings on politics, spirituality, and race that often contradicted whatever he said in the previous sentence. But the eccentric portrait these anecdotes paint was absent in most coverage immediately following his death. Other than an unintentionally horrific political cartoon in the Chicago Defender that showed the Grim Reaper in sunglasses draping a cape over Brown, the only non-lionizing portrayal I saw in the local press was Dave Hoekstra’s account of his bizarre, three-hour-late, confrontational interview with a hot dog-gobbling Brown.
By far the most positive, and the most important, post-mortem James Brown TV show was his elaborate Augusta, Georgia funeral. Airing in its entirety on CNN, and then re-airing in an edited version on BET, the ceremony featured moving tributes by legendary African American orators, tense drama via his wife’s tenuous presence (the family and estate had launched a publicity campaign against disputing the marriage, though Brown clearly considered her his wife and partner — making her an integral part of his revue, as thousands of confused fans who attended his 2001 Washington Park concert can attest), and the surprise of Michael Jackson’s return to the States from post-trial exile. Jackson, who essentially launched his career as a James Brown impersonator (a film of Jackson mimicking Brown led to the Jackson 5ive’s Motown contract) delivered a heartfelt farewell.
But despite the memorial service being the most prominent television moment, the most powerful footage came days earlier, when CNN cablecast the footage of throngs of Harlemites lining up to view Brown’s remains in the Apollo Theater. Far from somber, the excited crowd chanted, “James Brown! James Brown! James Brown!” in a seemingly endless loop as they waited to see the legend lie in state. Of course, CNN used that phrase “lie in repose,” as Brown was not a dignitary, a royal, or a federal officeholder, but to his cheering subjects that wasn’t the case. Perhaps many of Brown’s seeming eccentricities — his sense of entitlement, his lashing out at errors in protocol, his propensity to hold court whether his ideas were fully formed or not — stem from his knowledge that he was in fact a monarch with divine rights. If the entire world recognized what his chanting subjects in that queue understood then perhaps a lot of the conflicts that plagued his later years could have been avoided.
Though I did not find Brown’s death a tragedy, one thought did make me very sad. At that same concert where I saw Bishop Juan tip his pimp hat to the Godfather I witnessed something that I consider the greatest moment in all of my concert-going experiences. Early in the set a young father, after having obviously pleaded his worthy case to the security guards, walked up to the front row and held his infant son aloft so that the baby could gaze, with his own newborn eyes, upon the world’s greatest living showman. He then calmly walked back to his distant seat, satisfied that his child was a witness to history. At that moment I vowed to give my then-theoretical child the same gift. Since my daughter Maiya’s birth my family has prepared her for that moment with a steady diet of scratchy 45s and dance parties. Maiya became a Brown devotee, and her third birthday party (at her request) was a James Brown–themed soirée (actually a James Brown/Dora the Explorer party, as we couldn’t secure James Brown party napkins and paper plates).
Anxious to fulfill the prophecy, I was prepared to take her to an announced James Brown festival in South Carolina last year, but it never came to fruition. I was fairly confident I could get her into his 2006 House of Blues show, but after negotiating with a sympathetic publicity director (I pitched a magazine article about my daughter’s fandom), it was concluded that legally a three-year-old was not allowed to attend the concert. I was subsequently put in touch with Brown’s people about possibly attending a sound check, but an odd Swedish woman, ostensibly part of Brown’s management team, apologized, explaining that a fatigued Mr. Brown would not be performing at the sound check, though she promised to send my daughter a package of souvenirs (which she did not do).
Of course I didn’t realize that was Maiya’s last chance to see him. I certainly feel worse about my fatherly failures in not affording her the opportunity to lay eyes upon the great one than she does about his passing. While I’m proud of how easily she’s handling the concept of death, it’s a little jarring, on two fronts, to hear my four-year-old bluntly tell people, “James Brown died,” when his music comes on the radio. Luckily she very easily grasped the concept that an artist lives on beyond his lifetime. Perhaps in this my child has, for the first time, actually benefited from growing up in a home in which every wall is lined with videos and records.
It seemed that the official end of the televised James Brown lovefest would be his loony wife’s appearance on the January 3rd Larry King Live to cry crocodile tears over the injustices she claimed the Brown estate was heaping upon her. But even that crazy-eyed, ex–Janis Joplin impersonator showed restraint, declaring she would not badmouth Brown’s children in their time of grief, and attempting to keep the tawdriest anecdotes about her ex under wraps (deftly explaining away everything from domestic abuse to Brown taking out an ad in Variety denouncing her). In a week uglier coverage would surface on the tabloid shows, as family disputes left his body unburied, and his youngest son’s paternity questioned, but for that night, a surprising amount of dignity was maintained. Dignity so dull and lifeless that, like most of the media coverage, it seemed unrelated to James Brown’s grunting, spinning, yearning energy. But, in a wise move, for major portions of Tomi Rae Brown’s interview, her talking head shrank considerably as archival footage of Brown, soundlessly performing, dominated the screen. As she monotonously rationalized her rehab stint, viewers were entranced by a bare-chested, sweat-covered genius freeing the souls of the Riker’s Island prisoners lucky enough to see him perform in 1972. Moving like a funky teenager, a martial arts master, a futuristic robot, a gravity defying superhero, and ultimately, like nobody but himself, that brief clip reiterated that the magic he possessed could not be summarized with the generic accolades being heaped upon him, and that his greatness placed him above the earthly pains and woes that burdened his life and looked to plague his estate long after his death. Finally, at peace, papa didn’t have to deal with no mess.