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Funk's Founding Father: James Brown, 1933-2006

Born in utter poverty, James Brown became the ultimate self-made man, whose work ethic was topped only by his rhythmic innovations and musical genius

James Brown performing in London, England in 1985.
David Corio/Redferns
January 25, 2007

On Christmas morning, James Brown breathed his last in an Atlanta hospital. For a man whose trademark soul scream – black, American and proud – upended a half century of popular music, the end was uncharacteristically quiet. Congestive heart failure and pneumonia conspired to still the self-proclaimed (and undisputed) Hardest Working Man in Show Business. A week earlier, he had been especially reflective when speaking to those close to him, almost as if he were taking stock. And when on December 24th, his worried dentist, suspecting pneumonia, sent him to Emory Crawford Long Hospital in Atlanta, JB – a man with incredible tolerance for pain and little patience for doctors – did not argue. In recent years, he had battled prostate cancer to remission. He tussled daily with diabetes. His legs, scarred by decades of dropping to his knees onstage, pained him greatly. At seventy-three, though he had gigs lined up through August 2007 on his Seven Decades of Funk Tour, it seems James Brown was ready.

"I do think he knew he was going, yes." This from his unofficial son, protégé, spiritual adviser and longtime aide-de-camp, the Rev. Al Sharpton, who was calling the day after Christmas from Atlanta, where he had just accompanied three of James Brown's children to view the body. He said that Charles Bobbit, Brown's personal manager of forty years, had been with him in the hospital when, at 1:30 A.M., he complained of a raging fire in his chest. The boss told Bobbit quite calmly that he would be leaving that night. "Three long sighs," reports Sharpton, "he lay back on the pillow and was gone."

Being James Brown: Rolling Stone's 2006 Story

Resuscitation was attempted, to no avail. The deeply Christian Mr. Brown would argue anytime, with anyone – except the Almighty. His stage exits of legend – the famous triple-collapse, sequined-cape resurrections – belied a country boy's deeper conviction: "Mortality ain't no big deal," he had assured me more than once. Mr. Bobbit covered the body with a hospital blanket.

James Brown leaves a cultural wake as wide as his dear friend Elvis did. It took three services and as many wardrobe changes to send him to Jesus. The Augusta, Georgia, public funeral, broadcast live on CNN from the recently renamed James Brown Arena, took the form of a soul revue: tremulous thanks from Michael Jackson and dance moves by MC Hammer, along with a cape for the open casket. His singular life, begun in unspeakable Jim Crow-era poverty, careened through phases of great fame, wealth, disgrace and redemption. He saw it this way: "My story is a Horatio Alger story. It's an American story, it's the kind that America can be proud of, but yet if you tell it in detail, if you tell all the things I fought to make it, it's like the Satchel Paige story."

Spike Lee will direct the biopic, slated to begin shooting next year. But can any of us hope to get it right? "He was a very secretive man," acknowledges Sharpton. "The closer you were to him, the less he told you."

I knew the Godfather of Soul for over two decades, long enough for him to insist I call him James and well enough to understand that he preferred the hard-won honorific Mr. Brown. The first time I met him on his home turf in Augusta, he drew a line with his shoe in the red dirt outside his office and challenged, "Unless you do puzzles, you cannot hope to understand James Brown."

You would need a bloodhound – or a hand-held GPS – to find the precise spot where James Joseph Brown Jr. entered the world on May 3rd, 1933. His father, Joe Brown, told me that it was a while before he could leave work in the turpentine camps and walk out of the piney woods where his wife Susan Brown gave birth to their only child in a shack where "the windas never seen a glass," in Barnwell, South Carolina, to register the blessed event. Joe was twenty, with fewer prospects than a box turtle on a four-lane highway. Having begun his working life at age eleven, struggling to control a four-mule team grading South Carolina roads, he went where the work was: farming, tapping sticky rivers of pine resin. It barely kept them eating, and offered no nourishment for a family life.

Pain was a JB staple from his earliest memory. In conversation and in song, he waxed from his earliest memory about its effects. Peer into his childhood and you hear its conflicted echoes in "I'll Go Crazy": "If you leave me, I'll go crazy," begs the forsaken singer. Then the superbad independent punches back: "You gotta live – for yourself, for yourself and nobody else!"

"I come up hard," is the way he put it. More than fifty years after he found himself hungry and all but abandoned in the woods at age four, he remembered the worst of times. Susan Brown left. Though he would never discuss her early exit, he recalled, "When my mother and my father broke up, my father had met people who were going to take care of James." They didn't; when Joe found him playing in the dirt hungry and alone one night and James admitted it happened often, he walked the child into town for good. "Eleven miles!" the Godfather recalled, leaping to his feet to mime the woozy feeling of walking in his sleep, waking only when the grassy edge of the road made him correct his course. He couldn't walk the next day, and Joe soaked his swollen legs in milk.

The trek landed him in dusty, Depression-era Augusta, in the care of his aunt Handsome "Honey" Stevenson, a brothel keeper. There, owing to his precocious dancing and vocalizing, folks called him a godsend child. At six, James could draw a crowd by beating on the busted pump organ his dad scavenged at Eubank's furniture store. Never able to give his son a family, Joe at least gave James his own survivor's work ethic. James shined shoes, racked pool balls, delivered groceries and worked alongside his father in a gas station, washing and greasing cars. At twelve, he was buck dancing for passing World War II troop trains to help make Honey's rent, five dollars a month.

In the seventh grade, his teacher, Miss Garvin, nicknamed him Robin Hood. It was an open secret that he stole pants and shoes to clothe his more desperate classmates. One day, nearly forty years after he had rooted for spoiled canned goods on a warehouse loading dock, James parked his shag-carpeted Dodge van at the abandoned site to show it to me. His son Larry was along, and he looked stricken at the rusted oil drums. "Daddy, you ate garbage?"

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Song Stories

“Nightshift”

The Commodores | 1984

The year after soul legends Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson died, songwriter Dennis Lambert asked members of the Commodores to give him a tape of ideas. "And the one from Walter Orange has this wonderful bass line," said co-writer Franne Golde. "Plus the lyric, 'Marvin, he was a friend of mine' ... Within 10 minutes, we had decided it should be something like a modern R&B version of 'Rock 'n' Roll Heaven,' and I just said, 'Nightshift.'" This tribute to the recently deceased musicians was the band's only hit without Lionel Richie, who had left for a solo career.

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