James Brown

1933-2006
By TED DROZDOWSKI  |  December 28, 2006

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“It is indeed a great pleasure to present to you at this particular time — nationally and internationally known as the hardest working man in show business... the man that sang ‘I’ll Go Crazy,’ ‘Try Me,’ ‘You’ve Got the Power,’ ‘Think,’ ‘If You Want Me,’ ‘I Don’t Mind,’ ‘Bewildered,’ million-dollar-seller ‘Lost Someone,’ the very latest release ‘Night Train’ . . . Let’s everybody shout and shimmy! Mr. Dynamite, the Amazing Mr. Please Please himself: James Brown and the Famous Flames.”

Those words are shouted above the rising screams of a legion of female fans by organist and emcee Lucas “Fats” Ponder at the beginning of James Brown Live at the Apollo (Polydor). He’s introducing a man who, at the time this 1962 concert was being put to tape to result in one of the best live albums ever made, truly needed no introduction. Add to that list “Please Please Please,” “I Got You (I Feel Good),” “Prisoner of Love,” “ Soul Power,” “The Payback,” “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” “ Cold Sweat,” “ Licking Stick — Licking Stick,” “Mother Popcorn,” “Out of Sight,” “Sex Machine,” and “Living in America” and the titles become a roll call of some of the most vital tunes recorded in the rock era, and a memorial to their maker — a hardscrabble kid who got in trouble with the law and found salvation, if not always peace in music, and became the Godfather of Soul.

Brown died from congestive heart failure on December 25, Christmas day, at a hospital in Atlanta after being admitted for pneumonia 48 hours earlier. During his 73 years on Earth, Brown revolutionized popular music and set a standard for frenzied live performances that few musicians have equaled. Although age slowed his splits, high-speed pirouettes, and frenetic footwork in recent decades, the 1965 film The T.A.M.I. Show captures Brown at the climax of one of his concerts in peak form — wailing “Please, Please, Please” into the microphone, dropping to his knees and weeping in spasms, being draped in a cape and helped to his feet by his backing singers the Famous Flames only to run spinning and dancing back to center stage to do it all again until the crowd crackles with a howling intensity that’s the aural equivalent of fireworks.

Brown’s voice remained arresting until the end, shredded and distinct — a soul voice sprung from the clay of the city he called home, Augusta, Georgia, where he was buried on Saturday, and from the church, where he first experienced the evangelical fervor he injected into his shows.

The odds were stacked against Brown from the start. He was born on May 3, 1933 in a shack in Barnwell, South Carolina. Four years later he was taken to Augusta by his aunt Honey, who ran a brothel. Soon he was at work: picking cotton, shining shoes, and dancing for pennies in the streets. He was barred from school because his clothes were too shabby. And in 1949 he broke into a car and was sent to prison where he spent three years before parole.

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Spin patrol:The essential James Brown
1 | JAMES BROWN LIVE AT THE APOLLO THEATRE | Expanded Edition | Polydor | One of the all-time greatest live albums caps Brown’s early career and finds him — in 1962 — in absolute control.
2 | STAR TIME | Polydor | The nearest-to-definitive collection: four CDs span the Federal years to the rap era, including Brown’s “Unity, Pt. 1” with Afrika Bambaataa. “Living in America” is missing.
3 | SAY IT LOUD — I’M BLACK AND I’M PROUD | Polydor | Musical and cultural history meet in the title track of this groove-obsessed 1969 album, available only as an import.
4 | IN THE JUNGLE GROOVE | Polydor | A compilation of Brown’s funk and soul jams from 1969 to ’71, capturing a transitional era in his music — and the great playing of bassist Bootsy Collins and supremely funky drummer Clyde Stubblefield.
5 | THE T.A.M.I. SHOW | Hunt for a bootleg of 1965’s “Teen Aged Music International” concert movie, which also includes the Rolling Stones — who are cursed with following Brown — and the Beach Boys, Chuck Berry, and other popular acts of the day. It’s worth it for Brown’s breathtaking stage artistry alone. Beware of available T.A.M.I. DVDs. Some, incredibly, omit Brown’s earth-scorching “Please Please Please.”

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