- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 28, 2006

Can James Brown really be gone? Are we sure? After all, no one could stage a false exit better than the Godfather of Soul.

He would be singing “Please, Please, Please” down on one knee at the foot of the stage, his face gleaming with sweat, his pompadour gleaming with pomade, after two hours of sweet, pulse-pounding soul stirrings. Then his dapper assistant would appear and drape a bright satin cape over Brown’s shoulder’s and Soul Brother No. 1 would slowly stand up, turn around slowly and step rhythmically offstage as the band and backup singers, moaned, “Please, please don’t go-oh-oh” and… the… crowd… would… go… wild.

And Brown would stop, shake off the cape, which the dapper aide would catch in the nick of time, and dance back to center stage for an encore. And another. And another.

It was pure cornball show biz, but we, the James Brown Baby Boomers, loved it because Brown did it with so much, ah, yes, soul.

Brown died, ironically, on Christmas Day, a day of giving, of heart failure in Atlanta after a lifetime of gifts to our musical and political culture.

His hit 1962 “Live at the Apollo” album set the mood of countless “blue light” parties in our parents’ basements. His eye-defying, quick shuffling, rubber-legged dance moves were widely imitated but never quite duplicated.

Ever wonder where the Rev. Al Sharpton found his exotic hairstyles? Blame Brown. J.B. befriended Mr. Sharpton, then a prodigious teen preacher and youth leader who became Brown’s road manager in the 1970s. When Mr. Sharpton married show business and civil rights activism, he learned from the master.

Ever wonder why Mick Jagger started dancing like a madman on stage? Blame Brown again. As a singer, Mr. Jagger was a remarkably calm-looking chap until the Rolling Stones were booked to follow Brown in the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in 1965.

“The Hardest Working Man in Show Business” whipped up those California kids to such a frenzy that a nervous young Mick Jagger decided to explode onto the stage with a manic chicken-walk herky-jerk he has been dancing ever since.

After surviving the Motown wave and the British invasion, Brown jumped ahead of the 1960s political curve with an anthem for a new sociopolitical consciousness: “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.” No one did more to drive nails into the coffins of “colored” and “Negro” as acceptable labels.

Looking back, it is easier to appreciate the message Brown was trying to deliver. “Black power” rose in 1966 in the wake of the civil rights movement as a slogan in desperate search of a program. Brown, a seventh-grade dropout, suddenly became the least academic yet most influential voice to give at least a little intellectual meat to the new movement.

For both music and message I prefer a lesser-known Brown anthem with a mouthful of a title that says it all: “I Don’t Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing (Open Up the Door, I’ll Get It Myself).”

Musically, the song’s compelling beat displays to full effect Brown’s distinctive emphasis on “the one’s” (the one and the three, instead of the two and the four) in his rhythms. Its message offers an important response to many who were asking in the midst of urban riots and a rising “black power” movement in the late 1960s, “What do black people want?”

Brown’s answer appears to be, “We want equal opportunity, not guaranteed results.” If so, it should come as no surprise that he endorsed President Richard Nixon’s re-election in 1972. After all, it was Nixon, not John Kennedy or Lyndon Johnson, who actually signed the first affirmative action executive order into law. In those days, even a Republican president like Nixon could safely say affirmative action was only an open door, not a “quota” that guaranteed results.

As an impressionable student, I was changed forever by Brown’s recounting in an interview in the late 1960s his own struggles against childhood poverty. “I used to shine shoes on the front steps of an Augusta, Ga., radio station,” he said. “Now I own that radio station.” So could we all, he was telling our generation, if we took full advantage of the doors that were opening to us.

Unfortunately, Brown took great advantage of those open doors only to lead a life of maddening swings between wealth and ruin, artistic genius and spousal abuse, amazing fitness and drug abuse. Yet, he kept coming back for more encores and honors.

The curtain has come down on his turbulent life. This time his exit is for real. Fortunately we still have his music, his memories and his messages. They’ll be taking encores for many years to come.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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