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Big James Brown

The Godfather of Soul invented funk, befriended presidents and laid the foundations of rap. And he did it by defying the laws of space and time. Inside the private world of the baddest man who ever lived

June 29, 2006 12:00 AM ET

Below is an excerpt of an article that originally appeared in RS 794 from September 3, 1998. This issue and the rest of the Rolling Stone archives are available via Rolling Stone Plus, Rolling Stone's premium subscription plan. If you are already a subscriber, you can click here to see the full story . Not a member? Click here to learn more about All Access.

In Augusta, Georgia, in May 2005, they put up a bronze statue of James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, in the middle of Broad Street. During a visit to meet James Brown and observe him recording parts of his new album in an Augusta studio, I went and had a look at it. The James Brown statue is an odd one in several ways. For one, it is odd to see a statue standing not on a pedestal, flat on its feet on the ground. This was done at James Brown's request, reportedly. The premise being: man of the people. The result, however: somewhat fake-looking statue. Another difficulty is that the statue is grinning. Members of James Brown's band, present while he was photographed for reference by the statue's sculptor, told me of their attempts to get James Brown to quit smiling for the photographs. A statue shouldn't grin, they told him. Yet James Brown refused to do other than grin. It is the grin of a man who has succeeded, and as the proposed statue struck him as a measure of his success, he determined that it would measure him grinning. Otherwise, the statue is admirable: flowing bronze cape, helmetlike bronze hair perhaps not so much harder than the actual hair it depicts, and vintage bronze microphone with its base tipped, as if to make a kind of dance partner with James Brown, who is not shown in a dancing pose but nonetheless appears lithe, pert, ready.

Still, as with postage stamps, statues of the living seem somehow disconcerting. And very few statues are located at quite such weighty symbolic crossroads as this one. The statue's back is to what was in 1993 renamed James Brown Boulevard, which cuts from Broad Street for a mile, deep into the neighborhood where James Brown was raised from age six, by his aunts, in a Twiggs Street house that was a den of what James Brown himself calls "gambling, moonshine liquor and prostitution." The neighborhood around Twiggs is still devastatingly sunk in poverty's ruin. The shocking depths of deprivation from which James Brown excavated himself are still intact, frozen in time, almost like a statue. A photographer would be hard-pressed to snap a view in this neighborhood that couldn't, apart from the make of the cars, slip neatly into Walker Evans' portfolio of Appalachian scenes from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Except, of course, that everyone in Augusta's Appalachia is black.

This we Know: the James Brown Show begins without James Brown. James Brown, a man who is also an idea, a problem, a method, etc., will have to be invoked, summoned from some other place. The rendezvous between James Brown and his audience — you — is not a simple thing. When the opening acts are done and the waiting is over, you will first be in the hands of James Brown's band. It is the band that begins the Show. The band is there to help, to negotiate a space for you to encounter James Brown; it is there, if you will, to take you to the bridge. The band is itself the medium within which James Brown will be summoned, the terms under which he might be enticed into view.

The James Brown Band takes the form, onstage, of an animated frieze or hieroglyphic, timeless in a very slightly seedy, showbiz way but happily so, rows of men in red tuxedos, jitterbugging in lock step even as they miraculously conjure from instruments a perfect hurricane of music: a rumbling, undulating-insinuating (underneath), shimmery-peppery (up on top) braided waveform of groove. The players seem jolly and amazed witnesses to their own virtuosity. They resemble humble, gracious ushers or porters, welcoming you to the enthrallingly physical, jubilant, encompassing groove that pours out of their instruments. It's as if they were merely widening for you a portal offering entry into some new world, a world as much visual and emotional as aural — for, in truth, a first encounter with the James Brown Show can feel like a bodily passage, a deal your mind wasn't sure it was ready for your body to strike with these men and their instruments and the ludicrous, almost cruelly anticipatory drama of their attempt to beckon the star of the show into view. Yes, it's made unmistakable, in case you forgot, that this is merely a prelude, a throat-clearing, though the band has already rollicked through three or four recognizable numbers in succession; we're waiting for something. The name of the something is James Brown. You indeed fear, despite all sense, that something is somehow wrong: Perhaps he's sick or reluctant, or perhaps there's been a mistake. There is no James Brown, it was merely a rumor. Thankfully, someone has told you what to do — you chant, gladly: "James Brown! James Brown!" A natty little man with a pompadour comes onstage and with a booming, familiar voice asks you if you Are Ready for Star Time, and you find yourself confessing that you Are.

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