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Monday, December 25, 2006

Breaking news: The Godfather of Soul dies at 73

The Associated Press is reporting sad news this Christmas morning: Soul Brother No. 1, the Hardest-Workin' Man in Show Business, The Godfather of Soul himself, James Brown, died early this morning at an Atlanta hospital after a bout with pneumonia. He was 73.

I was tempted to write "God rest his soul."

But you know it and I know it: If there's one thing James Brown ain't never gonna do, it's rest.

Right now, J.B. is probably up there doing a command performance on Christmas Day for the heavenly hosts.

He's got on one of those sequined stretch-polyester suits, his hairdo is perfect, and he's up there doing spins and those unbelievable splits as he does Papa's Got a Brand New Bag. You know James is on "the good foot." And every few minutes someone comes out and brings him a handkerchief and wipes the sweat off his brow while he's still dancing.

And nobody could dance like James Brown.

Oh, they tried. I remember Michael Jackson spinnin' round and flipping that microphone stand back and forth with his feet in about '84 on the Grammy Awards telecast. My mother -- who owned original 45's of both Please Please Please and Papa's Got a Brand New Bag -- and I watched it together in our Warrenton living room, and commented that Michael clearly was in the James Brown mold. And afterward, some people said, "Michael is the next James Brown."

But they were wrong. He might have wanted to be James Brown, but there was only one. Same thing goes for Prince, too, in my book. James Brown never changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol. He didn't have to. He was the Godfather of Soul. Who would give that name up?

In my hometown, where I used to stay
The name of the place is Augusta G-A
Down there, we have a good time -- we don't talk
We all get together, in any type of weather, and we do The Camel Walk.
- Lyrics from James Brown's
'There Was a Time'

I've written here before on various prominent people who hail from East Georgia, and James will easily wind up being the most famous person ever from Augusta. Sure, there are other people from Augusta who made names for themselves: President Woodrow Wilson spent several years of his childhood in Augusta, and opera fans know the city as the hometown of diva Jessye Norman.

Sure, President Wilson started the League of Nations, but I'm sure he couldn't dance worth a flip. And I'll bet James, if he had put his mind to it, could have done the world's funkiest version of Aida, so funky that old man Verdi would have boogied right out of his grave.

I got to see James in concert once -- in, of all places, New York City, at Radio City Music Hall. (Irony: James Brown and I were from the same town -- he grew up in Augusta, and I was born there -- and I had to go 1,000 miles to see him in concert.) James was about 60 then, but he still rocked the place. And afterward it dawned on me why people called him "The Hardest-Workin' Man in Show Business": A thousand white people from New York -- who were about as far removed from being poor and black in the Depression Era-Deep South as the Earth is to the moon - had paid $30 each to see and pay homage to this man who had once shined shoes on the streets of downtown Augusta. Talented, absolutely he was, but going out on stage and being James Brown undoubtedly was hard work, too.

A couple of random thoughts:

+ I remember when James first went to jail back in the '80s. Clyde Wells, the Augusta Chronicle's longtime editorial cartoonist, had a picture in the next day's paper of James wearing a ball and chain and holding a sledgehammer, clearly sentenced to hard labor, and bore the caption "The Godfather of Rock!" I can't find that picture online anywhere via Google, but if you know where it is, please send us a link.

+ Lest we not forget how hard it could be to sometimes understand what James was saying: I saw a snippet of a comedian's performance one night on Comedy Central a few years ago. The comedian said he he'd been on a flight and wound up in a seat next to James Brown, of whom he was a huge fan, and the two men chatted the entire flight. As soon as he got off the plane, he ran to a pay phone and called his father. "Dad!" he said. "I just sat next to James Brown on the plane!"

"That's great, son!" the father said. "What did you two talk about?"

Replied the son, "I have no idea!"

+ For many years the morning crew at WBBQ radio in Augusta had a snippet of a recording they played -- for humorous effect, of course -- of James saying "I don't know." They used it usually after posing a joke question, and before they gave away the punchline. When I brought James' Twenty All-Time Greatest Hits compilation CD several years ago, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the familiar snippet is taken from the spoken-word intro to the song Make it Funky -- one of the band members asks James what he wants to play next, and James responds, "Bobby, I don't know" -- but whatever it is, he says, make it funky.

+ We can't end this discussion without recalling Eddie Murphy's impression of James Brown in the early '80s on Saturday Night Live. "James" was hosting a talk show -- James Brown's Celebrity Hot Tub Party. The best part of the sketch was the end, where we see a still shot of James in the tub with his next guest, Dr. Joyce Brothers. Despite the recent news that YouTube was clamping down on copyrighted material, as of this second you can find the entire two-minute sketch on their site at this link.

+ Remember Livin' in America? It was one of James' last big pop hits, and it was on the soundtrack to Rocky IV. The LP version, which was longer than the single version, included an extra bridge where James shouted, "Eddie Murphy, eat your heart out!" (Some coincidences: There's a new Rocky movie coming out soon, and Eddie Murphy has a major dramatic role in the new film version of Dreamgirls coming out soon.)

+ Wikipedia has a picture of the James Brown statue in downtown Augusta.

+ James' page at the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame Web site (inducted 1986)

In closing, another song lyric:

There was a time -- sometimes I dance,

Sometimes I dance, and sometimes I clown,

But you can bet, you haven't seen nothin' yet

Until you've seen me do The James Brown.

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