A COLOSSUS OF POPULAR MUSIC ; James Brown, Who Died Yesterday, Was the Most Unlikely Embodiment of the American Dream. Born into Abject Poverty in 1933, He Became Perhaps the Most Influential Performer of the Twentieth Century. Andrew Gumbel Surveys His Enduring Legacy ++ Godfather of Soul

By Gumbel, Andrew | The Independent (London, England), December 26, 2006 | Go to article overview
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A COLOSSUS OF POPULAR MUSIC ; James Brown, Who Died Yesterday, Was the Most Unlikely Embodiment of the American Dream. Born into Abject Poverty in 1933, He Became Perhaps the Most Influential Performer of the Twentieth Century. Andrew Gumbel Surveys His Enduring Legacy ++ Godfather of Soul


Gumbel, Andrew, The Independent (London, England)


"Funky," James Brown once said, "is about the injustices, the things that go wrong, the hungry kids going to school trying to learn. Funky is about what it takes to make people move - take it from the gospel, from the jazz." Brown was the consummate showman, a performer who didn't just own the stage so much as seem possessed by it, a singer and a dancer who seemed to defy gravity and the laws of ordinary musicology with his crazy rhythms, vocal inflections and, above all, his boundless energy.

The reason it all worked, though, was that he was never less than absolutely genuine. He poured everything into his music - his hardscrabble childhood in segregation-era Georgia and South Carolina, his sheer determination to make something of himself against the odds, the rags-to-riches trajectory that made him the unlikeliest of embodiments of the American Dream, and the glaring flaws he carried with him well into middle age and beyond, when he made as many headlines with his run-ins with the law as he did with his devotion to his art.

That unswerving authenticity didn't just make him a great musician, and an enduring influence on generation after generation of new styles - from soul to funk to disco and rap. It also made him continually subversive, a true revolutionary.

It's impossible to listen to his music - everything from his groundbreaking Live At The Apollo album of 1962 to his 1980s comeback hit "Living In America" - without sensing the deeply political nature of everything he did. Here was the black man wild, magnetic, sexual, unpredictable - shoving himself in the face of the white establishment.

Brown's death yesterday at the age of 73 was, in many ways, at peace with the way he lived his life. It was unexpected, unpredictable and immediately commanded centre stage. "He was dramatic to the end dying on Christmas Day," said Jesse Jackson, the civil rights leader who first met Brown at the start of his career in 1955. "Almost a dramatic, poetic moment. He'll be all over the news all over the world today. He would have it no other way." Three days earlier, he had presided over the Christmas toy giveaway he organised for years in his hometown of Augusta, Georgia. The following day, he had a dental appointment in At-lanta, and his dentist sensed there was something seriously wrong. He was admitted to hospital on Christmas Eve with a severe case of pneumonia, and died within hours.

His agent, Frank Copsidas, told reporters it wasn't clear exactly what had happened to him. "We really don't know at this point what he died of," he said.

Along with Ray Charles, who died two years ago, Brown was one of the towering giants of 20th century American popular music, inventing entire genres and inspiring a musical following that remains undiminished decades after he first came to prominence.

Mick Jagger's hyperkinetic stage style is at least part-homage to Brown. Michael Jackson's stratospheric success as both performer and artist on albums like Off The Wall and Thriller would not have been possible without Brown's example. Songs like David Bowie's "Fame" and Sly and the Family Stone's "Sing A Simple Song" carried Brown's unmistakable inflections.

In the first flowering of the hip-hop era in the 1980s, he became known as the most sampled man in showbusiness, with snippets of his recordings being reused and recycled by everyone from Public Enemy, Dr Dre and Easy-E to Prince, the Beastie Boys and Sinead O'Connor.

Asked once who had done the best job of sampling his work, he replied: "The one that pays me. And a lot of them didn't pay me, but don't worry, we're going to get them too. Because that's all I have to sell, my songs."

Brown came from the most downtrodden of backgrounds. He was born in Bardwell, South Carolina, abandoned by his parents when he was four and forced to fend for himself on the streets of Augusta, working as a shoeshine boy and cotton-picker.

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A COLOSSUS OF POPULAR MUSIC ; James Brown, Who Died Yesterday, Was the Most Unlikely Embodiment of the American Dream. Born into Abject Poverty in 1933, He Became Perhaps the Most Influential Performer of the Twentieth Century. Andrew Gumbel Surveys His Enduring Legacy ++ Godfather of Soul
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