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Obituary: James Brown

James Brown

Obituary by Jack Foley

JAMES Brown, affectionately christened the “Godfather of Soul”, has died at the age of 73, after being admitted to hospital suffering from severe pneumonia.

The music legend was admitted to hospital in Atlanta but died on Christmas Day, according to his agent, Frank Copsidas. He also had diabetes and prostate cancer, which was in remission.

Brown was a true music icon, famous for hits including I Got You (I Feel Good), Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag and, more recently, Living in America, from the film Rocky IV.

He is widely credited with transforming gospel music into rhythm and blues, and soul music into funk – his own creation, and his performances were always full of urgency of expression.

Born James Joe Brown Junior in 1933 in a one-room shack in South Carolina, the artist overcame a difficult upbringing to emerge as a true inspiration to many (including the likes of Mick Jagger and Iggy Pop).

At the age of seven, he was boarding at a brothel in Augusta, Georgia, where he helped to pay the rent by shining shoes and tap-dancing in the streets.

But nine years later, at the age of 16, he was sent to prison for between eight and 16 years for attempting to steal a car. He eventually served three years and a day and joined a gospel group soon after his release.

A brief attempt at a boxing career followed, before he rose to become leader of the James Brown Revue, which became renowned for its tight R&B sound and live antics (some of the routines reportedly allowed Brown to shed up to seven pounds a night).

In 1956, Brown was thrust into the media spotlight when he wrote the song Please, Please, Please, which sold one million copies and paved the way for other numerous other hits and a reputation as the hardest working man in showbiz.

In 1961, Brown personally financed the recording of the mould-breaking James Brown Show Live at the Apollo after realising that the essence of his music could only be captured live.

The result became a sensation and helped to establish Brown’s reputation throughout the United States. It remains one of the most critically-acclaimed live albums of all-time.

A succession of worldwide hits like Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag, I Got You (I Feel Good) and Get Up (I Feel Like Being A Sex Machine) followed to cement his status as a true musical innovator.

Success inevitably brought wealth and, at times, controversy – but he also had a widespread reputation for his generosity.

The singer owned radio stations, fast food restaurants and a private jet and embraced “black capitalism” even before the phrase was coined. He was always a proud advocator of “the American Dream”.

In terms of generosity, he sponsored food stamps for the poor and gave money and land to those in need, especially in Africa.

But he was criticised for his patriotism and received death threats after playing to US troops in Vietnam.

Such was his influence, however, that when Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, the order went out to broadcast Brown’s show in Boston live across the United States.

The ensuing show is widely credited with helping to stem the tide of anger and violence and helped to earn Brown a personal vote of thanks from US President Lyndon Johnson.

More sadness was to follow in the ’70s. His son, Teddy, died in a car crash and the singer himself was beset by tax problems. The advent of disco music also threatened his career.

But Brown was a fighter and his hard work on the club circuit brought him back from the brink. A cameo role as a singing preacher in The Blues Brothers movie revived his fortunes and helped to bring his music to a new generation.

Controversy remained, however, and in 1988 an incident with a shotgun led to a high-speed police chase and Brown spending two-and-a-half years in jail.

But his release coincided with a resurgence in rap and hip-hop music, both of which were inspired by Brown’s early work, and his role as an innovator was recognised as never before.

His death has prompted numerous tributes and come as a deep shock to a great many people.

A public funeral service is to be held over the New Year weekend in Georgia and he will lie in state at New York’s Apollo Theatre on Thursday.

Director Spike Lee has already announced intentions to make a film about the late US star, according to Variety, with Brown having previously approved the use of his music on the soundtrack.

The project is being overseen by Brian Grazer, the Oscar-winning producer of A Beautiful Mind, with production scheduled to begin in 2008.

Of all the many tributes that have been paid, the most poignant comes from US civil rights leader, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, who described Brown as a cultural, political and social force.

“They call him Godfather of Soul – if soul means feeling and passion and pathos and cultural sensitivity he embodied soul,” he added.

Harlem to honour Brown