Dec 28, 2006

A tribute to a musical legend...

It feels like a stunt: Passing on Christmas morning. Shouldn't James Brown get on up and do one more swirl, like he did at the end of every show: feigning exhaustion, being helped off the stage by his emcee, then suddenly throwing off his cape and leading his band -- some of the best players in the history of R&B and rock 'n' roll -- through one last paroxysm of energy and sound?

In the face of crushing odds -- abandonment, poverty, incarceration, racism -- Brown begat funk as the sound of ecstatic defiance. The hardest working man in show business built his persona on his seemingly divine stamina. How Shakespearean that it was his lungs' collapse that finally silenced the Godfather of Soul.

Never mind Presley, Dylan, or the Beatles. You would be hard-pressed to find a single more important influence on the music of the last half-century than James Brown. The echoes of the string of extraordinary records in the '50s and '60s that the son of the rural South made reverberate through today's hit styles. The propulsive soul that Brown not merely forged but personified is the heartbeat of Justin Timberlake's rhythmic pop, Jay-Z's hip-hop, Lil' Jon's crunk, Beyoncé's R&B. Mick Jagger owes his strutting style and Bruce Springsteen his cathartic routines to Brown's legendary stage shows. Eddie Murphy tapped him for comic genius. Michael Jackson trained at his altar. The Rev. Al Sharpton copped his pompadour and President Clinton could easily have studied the James Brown guide to charismatic performance (and sexual shenanigans).

Even President Bush interrupted his holiday to pay tribute to a true legend: "An American original, his fans came from all walks of life and backgrounds."

"I feel God is finally blessing me," Brown told The Miami Herald four years ago, when the BMI Urban Awards paid tribute to him at Club Tropigala in Miami Beach's Fontainebleau.
It was a funny thing for a living legend -- a man who decades earlier had risen from abject poverty to sell millions of records -- to say. But then, with arrests and time served for drugs, guns, and domestic violence, Brown's life in the '80s and '90s had fallen almost as far as it had soared. The BMI honor was one of a slew presented in his last years, from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to the Kennedy Center. At the Tropigala, Brown got on stage with a band of modern heavyweight producers -- the Neptunes, Dallas Austin, Rodney Jerkins -- and singers Angie Stone and Betty Wright. Today's musicians, used to studios rather than the precision-making grind of hundreds of shows a year, couldn't hold a candle to the Famous Flames, Brown's first group, or its followers, the James Brown Band and the J.B.'s.

Brown's act was sweat and gloss. He was a taskmaster band leader and choreographer who laid down the funkiest jams in history. Along with other soul singers, he brought the transformative fever of black gospel to Harlem's Apollo Stage, to secular radio and to the world. Surely, he has one last resurrectionary, insurrectionary "HUH!" in him, followed by a blast of horns -- Gabriel's trumpet this time, not "Pee Wee" Ellis' sax -- before the final curtain falls.