James Brown’s heart stopped beating Christmas morning, and a piece of my heart did as well.
I first saw James Brown in a movie theater on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn. I was 10 years old, and watching this historic concert film called the TAMI Show, which stood for something called the Teenage Awards Music International show. It was a concert that featured the Beach Boys, the Supremes, Chuck Berry, Marvin Gaye, Lesley Gore, the Rolling Stones and a host of other major acts — a combination of American pop and the British invasion.
Oh, and this force of nature the likes of which I and most of white America had never seen before.
James Brown stole the show. He was so electric, so overpowering, that the Stones protested having to follow him as the final act of the concert, because they knew they had nothing compared to what everyone had just witnessed.
I went back to my friends after the movie and told them about this guy who they kept having to drag off the stage and cover him with a cape, and he would keep running back and out performing.
After that, I was a prisoner of love.
In the days following his death, there has been much written about the influence that Brown had on generations of performers to come — Ice Cube, Diddy and other rappers and hip hop artists have given their props to Brown.
And there is no denying he was one of the most influential performers of his time. But I wonder if they know that the origins of Soul Brother No. 1’s persona can be traced back to a white boy from Nebraska named George Wagner — Gorgeous George, the professional wrestler who was one of the biggest stars of television in its infancy.
Not only that, but Gorgeous George was also a big influence on another of the greatest performers of our time — Muhammad Ali.
How do you think Chuck D and company would like that?
Gorgeous George had an act in the 1950s in which he grew his hair long, dyed it platinum blond and pinned it back with gold-plated bobby pins. He wore elaborate robes, and was escorted into the ring by a male valet, who would spray the ring with perfume, entering the ring to the tune “Pomp and Circumstance.” He was a heel who drove the crowds crazy with his underhanded tactics in the ring, sometimes inciting a riot among crowds. His motto was, “Win if you can, lose if you must, but always cheat!”
Brown has said in various interviews over the years that he got the idea to wear a cape on stage from watching Gorgeous George.
Now, that act might not have worked if Brown had pursued one of his other passions growing up. In his autobiography, Brown wrote he might have been a baseball player.
“People who knew me thought I was going to play baseball,” he wrote. “I was a left-handed pitcher with a good fastball, a sharp curve and a wicked floater.”
He also considered becoming a boxer and said he developed some of his stage footwork from fighting, though it wasn’t conventional. Brown wrote about fighting in “battle royals,” where he would be blindfolded with one hand tied behind his back and in the ring with a group of fighters under the same conditions.
“You swing at anything that moves, and whoever’s left standing at the end is the winner,” wrote Brown, who was a southpaw. “It sounds brutal, but a battle royal is really comedy. I’d be out there stumbling around, swinging wild and hearing the people laughing. I didn’t know I was being exploited; all I knew was that I was getting paid a dollar and having fun — I was too classy for battle royals, though, because I could really box.”
But that stage was reserved for another performer, a kid from Louisville who also grew up watching Gorgeous George and later met the wrestler — Cassius Clay, who later changed his named to Muhammad Ali.
“I saw 15,000 people coming to see this man get beat, and his talking did it,” Ali said. “I said, ‘This is a good idea!’ ”
Both Brown and Ali emerged on the national scene in 1964 — Brown in his TAMI performance and Ali in his stunning upset of Sonny Liston. Unfortunately, Gorgeous George would not live to see his legacy carried on. He died the previous year — on Christmas, just like the man who took his cape and carried it on as the hardest working man in show business.