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At the Apollo 

Last Thursday, James Brown fans got one last chance to see the great man onstage at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem as he lay in state. He was laid out in strictly top-end Godfather of Soul style: dressed in a sequined jacket that the New York Daily News reported to be "gleaming in the spotlights" and silver shoes. He lay onstage in a 24-carat gold casket that had been delivered to the Apollo in a white-and-gold carriage drawn by a pair of white horses.

Thousands of fans clustered all along 125th St. in front of the Apollo. Some of them had waited since 2 or 3 o'clock that morning. The mourners sang his hits, carried signs with his picture and danced in the streets while they waited to pay their respects to Soul Brother No. 1. The authorities at the Apollo had to extend visitation for an extra hour, until 9 p.m., to accommodate the legions of fans waiting in line. The Rev. Al Sharpton addressed the crowd at the theater, and he also officiated at a public funeral that took place at the 8,500-seat James Brown Arena in Brown's hometown of Augusta, Ga., on Saturday.

Talking to CNN before the spectacular Apollo memorial, Sharpton remembered something Brown had said to him often, with characteristic hubris: that there were only two American originals, and those two were himself and Elvis Presley. Whether or not there are more than two in that pantheon and what criteria Brown was using to pick them don't really matter. James Brown revolutionized soul and practically invented funk in a way that's certainly comparable to the way Elvis gave a sexed-up adrenaline shot to hillbilly music and -- historical nuances aside -- pulled rock 'n' roll out of his pegged-pants pocket. Both men were electrically charged onstage; both showed a tumultuous, confused country something magic, busting up barriers of race, sex, class, age and right from left with hip twists and music and charisma and sheer artistry. And their reverberations and aftershocks are being felt -- arguably, often with very little dissolution of the original impact -- to this day. Hearing James Brown never feels nostalgic or dated -- it feels like hearing the first shot fired in a brand-new war.

In the first hours of Christmas morning, James Brown died in a hospital in Atlanta of congestive heart failure as a result of pneumonia. He was going to be buried in Augusta from the beginning. But it was so important, so obviously right, for him to take that final curtain call on the stage he burned up for the first time in 1956, 50 years ago almost exactly, that his remains were flown to New York and back, because that many people wanted and needed to give the Godfather of Soul his due. Who in the arts and entertainment world merits that kind of send-off anymore? Few dead world leaders even attract that kind of grand-scale tribute. I can't think of any contemporary artist who's even on a track toward that kind of Godzilla-sized impact on the country and the world. I can't think of anyone with the potential for that kind of authentic superstardom; certainly not anyone born after the first time James Brown stepped out onto the stage of the Apollo and made the world feel like he could probably shoot lightning bolts out of his fingers and fly if he wanted to.

I'm listening to him right now, at a ridiculously late hour, and feeling like I won't be able to get to sleep. When he died, I happened to be the DJ on the air at WWOZ-FM. Calls came in nonstop from all over the country, starting less than an hour after the reported time of death. The shockwave positively kept the country -- or at least the community radio-listening segment of it -- awake. When a personality of that magnitude dies, I believe the world can feel it. It's like a gaping hole rips open silently in the sky, or a white noise you don't know you're hearing suddenly stops and what you thought was silence wasn't silent at all.

So many lights have gone out in the past few years, from Johnny Cash to Johnny Ramone, and the horizon looks awfully dim in terms of inheritors. Not just the stars, either, but their architects. In the past few weeks, we lost Atlantic Records' legendary Ahmet Ertegun as well as one of New Orleans' own, producer Marshall Sehorn. I don't know if this pessimism and exaltation of the old school is just my generation (slightly younger than the Xers) doing what the baby boomers seem to do -- worshipping some kind of grander meaning they decided to discern in the World War II generation -- but the conditions aren't there anymore for another Ahmet Ertegun or Johnny Ramone. Too many information streams flow too fast now. Bands (and styles and ideas, for that matter) are sold before they're made. Culture's a product. The situation that let the unpredictable, irascible, galvanizing light of James Brown shine so brightly is long gone. If there ever was another one, the music business -- and the over-marketed-to kids -- wouldn't even know what to do with him.

click to enlarge James Brown remade American funk and soul music in his - own image. - AZALEA
  • Azalea
  • James Brown remade American funk and soul music in his own image.
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