One day, on the cusp of yet another "comeback," James pulled up his suit pants and insisted I inspect his knees, which looked worse than those of a retired linebacker, scarred, swollen and discolored. He complained that the public expected James Brown to stay on his knees as long as possible: "They made my daddy crawl. Crawl under cars, behind mules. Crawl all kinds of ways. Four years ago they made me go down on my knees – my comeback, they called it – to prove I could still do it. That at his age James Brown can still get 'down.'"
It seems that James Brown bore up better under the burdens of racism than those of success. Like his pal Elvis, Soul Brother Number One was a musical and social subversive who outdistanced his culture-shaking innovations. Both men were fated to watch as successive generations cashed in on and devalued their myths. Saleable Elvis kitsch has been clogging the infomercial arteries for decades. But it was rough when Brown's classic "I Got You (I Feel Good)" became a laxative commercial.
Still, the latter-day Godfather always found a way to feel the love. He and Muhammad Ali engaged in occasional ad hoc road tests of pandemic R-E-S-P-E-C-T. When in Manhattan together, most likely in the company of Rev, they argued good-naturedly over who could stop traffic for the most blocks.
"Yo, Rev. Get us a car." A beat, a wink. "Get a sunroof, Rev – pleeeease!"
The summoned limo purred to some congested intersection in either Harlem or midtown and discharged one of the competitors. As startled but adoring cops scurried to restore order, Brown and Ali would roll off to repeat the exercise in other nabe. Sharpton recalls those wild rides all too well: "Two role models of black American manhood. Acting like little kids. They knew they were loved. But they had to feel it in the street – again and again."
In the aftermath of one such outing, I was still white-knuckling the jump seat as an energized Mr. Dynamite sang this triumphant coda: "I need no shackles to remind me . . . I'm just a prisoner of love!"
It fell to Rev to arrange for his hero's last liveried ride. As we spoke, a white hearse waited for the gilded steel coffin to be loaded for the long drive north and a farewell appearance at the Apollo. "Mr. Brown deserves those lines one more time," said Sharpton. When, in 1988, JB "took some mess" and landed in a South Carolina prison full of hard-eyed boys with fades and no clue "who was the dude in the processed pageboy," it was the dutiful Rev who drove biweekly from New York to give those boys the Word (in the form of some classic cassettes) – and to give the Godfather his beauty supplies. As the morticians fussed with a final fly set of threads – blue sequins – Sharpton went silent on the line. "For the first time in my life," he admitted, "I'm at a loss for words."
That was never a problem for Mr. James Brown. And so we look to him for the best last words: "I do not ever stay angry, no. Because I believe in God's justice. I believe there will be justice, or I could not go on. Could not keep runnin' the way I do. And if some record company, if some DJ don't want to know me, don't want to recognize me in all that stuff you hear in the Top Ten today, well, all right. Because God knows James Brown good as I do. In the year 3000, people say, 'Who was James Brown?' Now I bet you got an idea who James Brown is. But it ain't the same answer as His and mine."
This is a story from the January 25th, 2007 issue of Rolling Stone.
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