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Dynamic James Brown always gave more

Dynamic James Brown always gave more

The raw voice and dynamic feet of singer-dancer-musician James Brown, the self-acclaimed Hardest-Working Man in Show Business, were stilled on Christmas morning when the 73-year-old performer died of congestive heart failure in an Atlanta hospital.
His quiet death was in stark contrast to the way he lived. For nearly 50 years, Brown gave exhausting performances on the world's stages and challenged the public to keep up with his pace and rhythm. Brown made it nearly impossible for most to duplicate his dancing style. He twisted, turned, spun, strutted, whirled, cavorted, flipped and landed in splits, all while flashing his inexhaustible smile as his fans begged for more.
Inner city instincts
More is what Brown offered. He possessed the perpetual instincts of an inner-city teen performer who sometimes sent old-timers like me searching for a sympathetic chiropractor. He offered an array of hits, ranging from "Sex Machine" to "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" to "Mother Popcorn (You Got To Have A Mother For Me)." In mellower moods, he banged out the popular "Try Me" and songs with irresistible pathos such as "If I Ruled the World."
On occasion, he'd pull a celebrity like Sammy Davis Jr. from the audience and trade steps with him until his guest begged for mercy. It was all in fun, but few could compete.
He accumulated hit after hit, including the classics "Get On the Good Foot," "Night Train," "Cold Sweat," "Hot Pants," and "Please, Please, Please." He influenced a legion of rhythm and blues legends from Otis Redding to Jackie Wilson to Teddy Pendergrass. He also influenced pop and rock performers such as Michael Jackson, Mick Jagger and Prince. None ever denied copying his dynamic stage moves.
For all his talent, riches and fame, Brown never fully escaped the instincts of inner-city survival. He occasionally fled from the police and occasionally landed behind bars. He dabbled in excessive drink and in recreational drugs. But mostly, he excelled in being a one-man entertainment industry.
Brown was a demanding performer, insisting on near-perfection from his musicians. He sometimes ridiculed and fined them for mistakes - as well as cheering their over-the-top accomplishments, sometimes in the midst of performances. Few musicians used horns the way Brown's players did. He drove them relentlessly and worked even harder himself. He'd often talk them through the performance and warn them that "I'm standing up here, and I want to scream." Without further notice, he'd let loose with a high-pitch squeal that would spur both musicians and audiences to greater heights. I can still recall his pushing the great saxophonist Maceo Parker, who was also from the South: "You got to have a whole lot of soul."
The same language
"In music," he once told me, "everybody speaks the same language." As somebody said: "When he sang the word love, you could almost hear the Venetian blinds coming down."
I was privileged to write a TV special about Brown in the 1960s and traveled with him as he tried to quell riots in New York and Washington. We talked in his home on Long Island. He boasted that he had once shined shoes outside a radio station in the segregated South. When he earned enough money, he bought the station. A devoted admirer of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Brown thirsted to be a black leader, and he indeed had social impact with songs such as "Say It Loud - I'm Black and I'm Proud."
But clearly, his forte was music and dance. For once, U.S. President George W. Bush got it exactly right when, upon hearing of Brown's death, he declared that the singer was "one of a kind." That's precisely what James Brown was.
Claude Lewis is a retired columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.


Updated : 2021-10-24 20:25 GMT+08:00