(Photos: At the 2003 Kennedy Center Honors Awards/Associated Press; performing in Westbury, New York in 1972/Associated Press; dancing in Washington, D.C. in 2001/Shawn Thew, Agence France Presse/Getty Images; and still stepping strong in November 2006 in the U.K./Getty Images)
James Brown, a singular, unique figure on the world's stage of music for five decades, died on Christmas Day 2006 at the age of 73.
Mr. Brown's influence on music and on thousands of artists was beyond legendary. He was the architect of soul sound and defined it for three generations. Often imitated and never ever duplicated, James Brown touched millions the world over and warmed the hearts of, and aided people in need everywhere, most notably during the severely troubled 1960's in the United States when racial injustice and violence against blacks escalated during the initial Civil Rights Era. In one significant moment during the 1960's he performed onstage in Detroit amidst heightened unrest within that city after what had been seen by its population as an unjustified shooting of an innocent man by police. While there were calls from many for Brown to postpone the concert because of the danger of imminent violence, Mr. Brown declined to do so and prevented further violence from occurring with his performance and his words to the angered throngs of people in attendance.
His architecture and unique brand of soul, funk, and rhythm and blues carried a distinctly Afrocentric message of pride and positive affirmation for black people in America during the 1960's and 1970's with such hit songs as "Say It Loud (I'm Black And I'm Proud)" and "I Don't Want Nobody To Get Me Nothing (I'll Open Up The Door And Get It Myself)", inspiring them to be proud and confident in who they were, even as they were being told by some in state and federal government and society at large that they were less than men and women. Mr. Brown dubbed himself "Soul Brother Number One" and the "Godfather Of Soul" -- and he more than lived up to those titles.
James Brown inspired and influenced so many people in all walks of life. In politics -- where he became godfather to the Reverend Al Sharpton when the reverend was a young boy preacher (for many years Mr. Sharpton has worn his hair he says, in tribute to Mr. Brown) -- and in the entertainment world -- from The Beatles, Elvis, Mick Jagger, Janice Joplin, Tom Jones, Prince, Michael Jackson, Rick James, and The Ramones, to Terence Trent D'Arby, MC Hammer, and Ricky Martin -- they are just a few of among countless artists and performers the world over -- black, white, Latino, Asian -- whom he has influenced. The imprint of his music, style, sound, sayings and grandeur will last for generations to come as the world mourns Mr. Brown's passing.
James Brown was a tireless perfectionist instrumental in bringing millions of white fans into the fold of soul music and sound in the 1960's. In England in particular, where his white fan base exploded (after The Beatles said they listened to James Brown) and then endured for years to come after witnessing the show-stopping showman in concerts, he was adored deeply. His charisma, dynamism, magnetism, populist manner, showmanship and universal appeal while staying true to his origins (born in the American South in South Carolina in 1933) and dedication to helping black people in adverse circumstances won him the respect, adoration of (and criticism by) people the world over. He toured and performed in almost every part of the planet, invigorating hearts and souls with his stirring entertainment routines on stage -- from his shuffling feet, fancy footwork and moonwalk gliding, to his leg splits and microphone stand drops, spins, slides and cape-covering act -- Mr. Brown was one of the world's greatest entertainers of all time, if not the greatest. His energy was phenomenal, often performing back-to-back three-hour shows in the same city, sometimes several shows in different cities in the same night, according to one documentary on the soul legend. As recently as November 2006 he was in the United Kingdom performing (see fourth photo at the top of this page) at age 73, and was to perform on New Year's Eve 2006 in New York City at B.B. King's in Times Square. Against doctor's orders, Mr. Brown, who passed from heart failure associated with the pneumonia he had been admitted to hospital with yesterday, vowed to perform.
Left, black and white photo: James Brown in the 1960's in England. He brought many white music fans into the realms of soul and R&B with his innovation and unique sound.(Photo:PA)
Right photo: In Los Angeles in 1997 after receiving his own star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame. (Photo: Vince Bucci/Agence France Presse-Getty Images)
Photo immediately above this caption: In 2004 with his godson the Reverend Al Sharpton, who wears his hair in salute and tribute to Mr. Brown, who became the reverend's surrogate father from an early age; and with the reverend outside the White House in 1982. (2004 photo: Dith Pran/The New York Times; 1982 photo: Scott Applewhite/AP)
If Chuck Berry and Little Richard have been acknowledged as the kings and architects of rock and roll music, then the architect of soul was Brown. Even as he walked through the eras of the music scene constantly shifting, his sound continued to influence as much today as it did back in the 1950's. Brown once said that everyone had soul, "whether it's talking, hip-hop, rap, gospel."
To some, Mr. Brown was a highly controversial figure.
* * *
No one is perfect in life.
How do you measure a person's life? What justice can you give it? Is it in love? In accolades? In riches? In triumph over adversity? In life's lessons and pains? In the lives of those one touches?
1966 and 2006: Performing on The Ed Sullivan Show, and at this year's Grammy Awards (1966 photo: CBS photo archive-Getty Images; 2006 photo: European Pressphoto Agency)
Mr. Brown was endlessly decorated with awards -- he received a Kennedy Center honor in 2003, got a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame in 1997, won numerous Grammy Music Awards and appeared in such feature films as "The Blues Brothers", its sequel "Blues Brothers 2000" and "Rocky IV" (in which he sung the highly popular "Living In America".) Also a songwriter, he wrote countless songs of his own, as well as for other musicians and for television shows. His songs appeared in many, many motion pictures, including Robert De Niro's 1993 film "A Bronx Tale", the song "It's A Man's Man's Man's World" echoing through that film's turbulent moments, a haunting refrain. At one point Mr. Brown was said to be the most-sampled artist in the world, used in great measure by rap and hip-hop artists around the globe. Many of the artists sung his praises in their songs. Mr. Brown had tried to gain royalties from many rappers but was unsuccessful -- the musicians had sampled such infinitesimal portions of Mr. Brown's music that it was difficult to apportion any appreciable royalties from it. Perhaps as an adherence to the philosophy of "if you can't beat them, join them," Mr. Brown shared the stage on his song "I'm Real" with the 1980's hip-hoppers Full Force, almost as a tongue-in-cheek rejoinder to the rappers and hip-hop artists who would sample his music. "All you copycats out there, get off of my tip, 'cause I'm James Brown with the Force . . . ain't takin' no lip," he sung in the opening lines of that song.
Eddie Murphy, known as a huge fan of James Brown, has referenced the Godfather Of Soul in several movies, including "Dreamgirls", which coincidentally expands its release in North America today. In the film, Mr. Murphy plays the character of James "Thunder" Early, a character who is modeled after James Brown. "I'm the first soul brother," Mr. Murphy's character says during the film. In fact during Brown's song "Living In America" the famous innovator cries out, "Eddie Murphy, eat your heart out!"
Fortunately enough, this editor had the momentary chance to share time and space with Mr. Brown while at one of his concerts in the 1990's. He moved, grooved and messaged as well then as he did back in the 1960's and 70's. A presence that made minds shine and hearts soar, he lightened the burdens of millions, challenged people to believe in themselves, addressed and confronted the social conditions that still deeply blight nations the world over and spoke truth to those within the corridors of power -- many of whom invited him to their gatherings, ceremonies, dinners and feted him in admiration and appreciation for all he had done.
James Brown was dynamic, majestic, magnificent and profound. A man of immense self-confidence, pride and determination, he energized, entertained and enraptured countless millions for fifty years.
In short, he was, and will forever remain, an irreplaceable genius.
-- Omar P.L. Moore
The Editor, The Popcorn Reel
December 25, 2006: New York City. Members of the public outside the B.B. King theater, where James Brown was to perform in concert on New Year's Eve, pay their respects by signing a promotional placard for the concert. Mr. Brown was said to have died from heart failure brought on by pneumonia. (Photo: James Estrin/The New York Times)
Originally published December 25, 2006