Editorial: He gave us heart and soul
James Brown’s legions of fans will be forgiven if they cling to hope — maybe even expectation — that his death on Christmas Day is just another dramatic swoon to the floor to be followed by the Godfather of Soul experiencing a miraculous revival and leaping to his feet with a gritty yowl to deliver yet one more sweat-drenched, brass-driven anthem, as happened time and time again during his frenetic performances.
It’s difficult to reconcile the quietude of the grave with Brown’s super-amplified spirit. It would be altogether fitting if The Hardest Working Man in Show Business were to rise up at his own memorial service and steal the stage, once more, by launching into a jubilant rendition of “I Got You (I Feel Good)” or “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.” It wouldn’t be the first time the ultimate showman defied the odds or battled back from adversity.
Brown’s role as one of the most influential figures in American pop music had unlikely beginnings. He was born dirt-poor in rural South Carolina, in the era when segregation was still the law of the land. His mother abandoned him as a youngster and he lived for a time in a brothel. A self-described young “thug,” he spent three years in prison as a teenager before settling into the legendary musical career that eventually would span five decades, move from rhythm and blues to pop to rock ‘n’ roll and exert a lingering influence over generations of musicians and singers who followed. He was responsible for Mick Jagger’s strutting stage presence, Michael Jackson’s gliding “moon walk” (James Brown did it first), Prince’s smoldering ballads — and Al Sharpton’s improbable hair.
What later generations may not realize, however, is that Brown didn’t just give America music with a beat. He was attuned to the cultural rhythms of a changing nation, particularly during the paroxysms of the civil-rights era. He was an early proponent of self-empowerment for blacks, as well as political activism, a message vibrantly delivered in “Say it Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud.” He promoted a stay-in-school initiative (including the 1966 release “Don’t Be a Dropout”), and in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Brown helped defuse racial tensions by pleading for calm and restraint.
In his later years, Brown endured health problems (diabetes and prostate cancer) and well-chronicled scrapes with the law that culminated with a six-year prison sentence after he barged into a business meeting brandishing a shotgun and then tried to elude police. He was paroled after three years, and the next year received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Even through such personal turmoil, Brown continued to tour, to defy age and physical decline with shows that would put many a younger performer to shame. His last album came out in 2002 (“The Next Step”), and he was scheduled to perform in New York on New Year’s Eve. To the end, he was a hard-working entertainer who poured heart and soul into the music that is now part of a nation’s collective pulse.