- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 28, 2006

God finally took the “godfather” to the bridge.

James Brown, the seemingly unstoppable force of nature who escaped a poverty trap to utterly transform American popular music, died this week at 73, in the wee hours of Christmas morning.

Buffeted by pneumonia, for which he’d been hospitalized in Atlanta, his heart suddenly failed.

Indefatigable until the end, Mr. Brown, whose personal life was as tumultuous as his showmanship was electrifying, was planning to perform in New York City on New Year’s Eve.

His death, as celebrity deaths are wont to do, reminded the public of how much it loved his music: Several titles in Mr. Brown’s catalog, including the watershed “Live at the Apollo” (1962), spiked on the Web retailer Amazon.com.

Raised on the seedy side of Augusta, Ga., Mr. Brown’s career — from obscure 1950s gospel singer to R&B/soul crooner to grand funk master — neatly tracked, indeed prefigured, the rise of American postwar “race music” from exotic subgenre to the crossover staple it became in the early-‘60s civil-rights period.

Brown-penned hits such as “I Got You (I Feel Good),” “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” and “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a Sex Machine)” were era-defining and sonically revolutionary.

Mr. Brown’s guttural vocal exclamations; the intensely rhythmic, frenetically syncopated arrangements he relentlessly drilled into an assortment of band mates and collaborators; the ecstatically physical stage presence — these were the hallmarks of a vernacular style with distinctly African roots, a style whose electric reverberations upended the European urbanity of traditional American pop.

And by the late-‘60s and early-‘70s, as American society was riven anew by racial tension, Mr. Brown toughened his sound and, with songs such as “Say It Loud (I’m Black and Proud),” embraced the black power movement.

Yet even here, Mr. Brown was stubbornly idiosyncratic; he endorsed the re-election of Republican President Richard M. Nixon in 1972 and was an outspoken critic of the drug culture — somewhat comically in the spoken-word “Fight against Drug Abuse (Public Service Announcement)” from 1970’s LP “Funk Power” — that personally ensnared him years later.

Mr. Brown was well aware — and unapologetically proud — of the long shadow he cast on subsequent popular genres such as hip-hop, whose rhythmic underpinnings owe a huge debt to Brownian funk. The grooves of songs like “The Grunt (Parts 1&2)” could thump hypnotically for 10-plus minutes, and provided rich source material for beat-samplers such as Public Enemy and Wu Tang Clan.

“It’s nice to know they know where the soul is at. They know where the good riffs are,” Mr. Brown told me in an interview three years ago, days before he collected a prestigious Kennedy Center Honor in the District.

Yet for all his bluster — the prizefighter-like monikers such as “Hardest Working Man in Show Business,” the outrageously colorful clothes sense, the cape-covering stage antics — Mr. Brown expressed a profound humility about the course of his life and the strength of his influence.

He credited God for, in effect, planting the seeds of funk. “It came from my head, but somebody had to put it there,” he told me. “No school could’ve taught me that, ‘cause they don’t teach that in school. It came from God.”

His success as an artist and entrepreneur, however, seemed tragically to magnify his more reckless urges. As a boy, he spent time in a juvenile reform school for petty crime; as a man, he abused drugs and frequently made headlines for his bizarre, sometimes violent, domestic proclivities.

“Someday, someone will write a great biography of James Brown. It will, by necessity, though, be more than a biography,” wrote novelist Jonathan Lethem in a recent lengthy profile of Mr. Brown in Rolling Stone magazine.

“It will be a history of a half-century of the contradictions and tragedies embodied in the fate of African-Americans in the New World; it will be a parable, even, of the contradictions of the individual in a capitalist society, portentous as that may sound. … That James Brown should succeed so absolutely and fail so utterly is the mystery.”

Well put.

But let the would-be biographers ponder that one.

For now, the appropriate thing would be to put down that newspaper or computer mouse, and get up off of that thing.

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