"Internationally known as the hardest working man in show business . . . . Mr. Dynamite, the amazing Mr. Please Please himself . . . the star of the show, Jaaaames BROWN!"
That was the unforgettable opening of "The James Brown Show Live at the Apollo," an LP released in 1963, which spent 66 weeks on the Billboard album charts – something no R&B album had ever done. The hardest working man in show business died Christmas day at a hospital in Atlanta. He was 73.
I saw his live show in 1967 at the Boston Garden, the cavernous basketball and hockey arena. Tens of thousands of us knew exactly what would happen onstage: First he would dance like no man had ever danced before, hips shimmying, doing the splits, snapping his head in time to the beat, and never stopping.
Then would come his finale, "Please, Please, Please." In the middle of the song he would collapse. We would all leap to our feet crying "no, no!" Two assistants would emerge from the wings, cover him with a purple cape, and slowly help him to his feet to lead him offstage. Just before disappearing, he would throw off the cape and explode with even wilder dancing and screaming. It was the most ecstatic stage show anyone had ever seen (you can still see part of it on VHS as "The T.A.M.I. Show," taped at Santa Monica Civic in 1965).
His 1965 record "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" brought a revolutionary transformation to popular music. Rolling Stone called the song "epochal." Brown eliminated the chord changes that had provided the structure for song melodies for centuries, and in its place put rhythm–an irresistible beat, played by all the instruments–a stuttering, choked guitar, choppy base lines, riffing horns, and on top his awesome voice, raw, harsh and insistent, itself the greatest rhythm instrument in his band.
A decade of Brown-inspired funk followed, and after that rappers spent three decades sampling his tracks to provide the basis for their own.
"Poppa's Got a Brand New Bag" somehow announced the new era when an assertive black power replaced the dream of civil rights. He seemed to personify black power, especially with his 1968 song "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud."
But his relationship to politics was complicated and troubling to many of his fans. In the late sixties he became an advocate of black capitalism and offered himself as its exemplar, with a fleet of cars, a private jet, and a well-publicized mansion. When inner cities exploded in rage in 1967, he urged young blacks to cool it. Politically he aligned himself with Hubert Humphrey, LBJ's vice president and a defender of the war in Vietnam. In 1972 he endorsed Nixon for president.
Born in 1933 in South Carolina, James Brown grew up at the bottom in the segregated South, shining shoes and dancing for pennies on street corners. He served time in prison, first as a youth and later as an adult in the late 1980s. His death reportedly came as a surprise–he had planned to do a New Year's Eve show in New York City.