Call him what you want, "The Godfather of Soul", "Mr. Dynamite", "The Hardest Working Man In Show Business", or my personal favourite, "Soul Brother # 1", James Brown (1933 - 2006) was the architect of modern popular music. Born in 1933 in Barnwell, South Carolina, and raised in Macon, Georgia, his influence weaves through just about all of the music genres that comprise pop music these past 40 years. From the Sex Pistols' on stage audacity, Mick Jagger's awkward attempts at footwork, rap music and its sampling of his beats, and, perhaps most importantly, his syncopated 1-3 time measure and seemingly simple, but in reality, complex orchestrations that were the genesis of funk, Mr. Brown's inspiration was felt. His reach was that impactful.
As a shortee growing up in the Philadelphia, PA area, Mr. Brown's music was a constant to me, and we were always trying to emulate his dance moves and stage presentation. I first caught his show at the Uptown theatre in North Philly as a thirteen year-old back in 1964, at the early stages of his popularity, and was awestruck. On our local black radio stations, WDAS and WHAT, it seemed like there was something new being dropped by Mr. Brown every week! The hits were too numerous to mention and besides, y'all know them anyway. But as much as the music hit us, it was also his "unforgivable Blackness," the sense of pride and empowerment that Mr. Brown instilled in us as a people that set him apart.
"Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud".... With that bold statement of affirmation, Mr. Brown managed to energize the burgeoning Black Power movement and helped give black folks around the world a renewed sense of self esteem and purpose.
He also insisted upon being addressed as "Mr. Brown", by everybody, and his innate business acumen served him well as he took control of his musical empire, buying radio stations and a record company. But as he grew more successful, other, less sympathetic forces took notice....the mafia. The mob demanded a slice of the pie and Mr. Brown refused. So by the late seventies, crippled by lack of airplay due to mob pressure (even New York City's WBLS shut him out), and the emergence of disco, his voice was all but silenced.
Rap music helped to re-establish and introduce Mr. Brown's music and name to a whole new generation. "Mr. Brown presented obviously the best grooves," stated Chuck D of Public Enemy, "To this day, there has been no one near as funky. No one's even come close." His jam "Funky Drummer" is probably the most sampled song in history. On the personal tip, Mr. Brown became an increasingly controversial figure as he struggled with his demons. He was arrested and sent to jail on various charges and became the butt of comedians jibes and entertainment shows' cheap shots. But through it all the man kept on performing, eventually returning to the charts with his 1987 hit recording "Living In America," for which he won a Grammy.
Mr. Brown, "The Hardest Working Man in Show Business," on Christmas Day 2006 at age seventy-three, finally took a rest! His 24 carat gold casket was drawn through the streets of Harlem, one last time before ending up at the Apollo Theater (where he made his debut back in 1956), where he "lay in stage" for nine hours as folks from all walks of life paid their respects.
Rest In Peace, Mr. Brown, Rest In Peace