SINCE the world got word that James Brown had passed at age 73 on Christmas Day, tributes have been dropping fast and furious, like the beats in one of his funky classics. Thousands gathered at Harlem's Apollo Theater on Thursday, to weep and dance at his first public viewing; another was scheduled for today in his hometown of Augusta, Ga. The outpouring is only right for this titan of American popular music -- anyone who ever saw him shout and strut through an epic performance knows he couldn't be contained. In that spirit, we asked some notable friends, colleagues and fans to offer their toast to Brown's immortal flame.
Rhythm and blues founder
We lost a good one, man. I knew the guy all my whole life. We were good friends. We got closer as we got older too. When we were young we used to be battling on the stage. They would have Ike and Tina on the back of one truck and James on another truck. They backed the two trucks up and we'd do one song and then he'd do a song. It went back and forth like that.
James, he was a real nice guy. There were people who thought he was strict, too strict. He made his band stay dressed on the bus, during their rides. It made a good impression, though. He cared about what people felt about him and the things they said. He cared about the way he handled his thing. He didn't want any of his guys looking like a slouch. Later on, those guys came back and they said to him, 'Thank you, man, I learned a lot from you, I got a lot and I didn't even know then that I was learning.' And that's how it is. We lost a good one.
Producer and member, Black Eyed Peas
We were in London and I met him and I told him we should do a song together, and he said he'd think about it. The next thing, not only did he call, he showed up at the studio. He told me, "Something told me to work with the Black Eyed Peas. I don't usually work with people. I don't because I don't have to. But something told me to work with the Black Eyed Peas."
So we set everything up and got to work. He asked me, "Do you want to do this thing your way or the way we used to do it?" I said, "Um, I want to do it the way you do, Mr. Brown." "All right then, we're just going to do it."
We got to it and jammed for a while ... later, he said, "OK, do what you going to do," and he left to get something to eat. He came back after a while and listened in and he really liked it. "From now on, I'm gonna call you Baby Brown." That was amazing ....
Later, he told me, "You got a good thing going, the positive message of the Black Eyed Peas, good messages, the world needs life
Comedian, actor, radio show host
I'll always remember one time while in Augusta, Ga., performing at a comedy club, I saw James Brown sitting in the hotel restaurant. We started talking; he knew me from my appearances at the Apollo. As we talked, I told him how my parents would feel if they knew I was sitting here talking to you, Mr. Brown! He said, "Get them on the phone." JB sat there and talked to my mother and father like they were old friends. My parents talked about those moments with JB until they passed a few years later. I was later able to thank him several times; as a matter of fact, every time I saw him I thanked him for doing it. And every time he acted like he was supposed to do it. But having a mere taste of the fame he had, I can tell you what he did was big. Thank you, Mr. Brown, for letting me see that with my own eyes. In my book, you were, are, and will always be the Godfather of Soul.
Original drummer, Little Richard and the Upsetters
During 1953-1955, James Brown and Little Richard had the same booking agent, Clint Bradley. Bradley would send Richard and James out on weekend gigs. We'd play the Douglas Theater in Macon, Ga. During the weekdays, when we weren't playing, James would start dancing in front of the theater, stopping traffic.
We'd go to the ladies' beauty shop to get our hair pressed and curled. James would be talking and singing in the beauty parlor, entertaining customers as well as the employees. They had never seen men getting their hair curled and pressed, especially in Macon, Ga.
James was my friend for 53 years. In 1990, he told Rolling Stone magazine that I was the first to put the funk into the rhythm. He was a giant among men and will be greatly missed.
In 1980 I set myself the task of reviewing every James Brown album of the '70s -- 23 by my count, many borrowed from my neighbor Vince Aletti, who'd had the sense to keep even the soundtracks. To add verisimilitude, I worked in order of release, playing each record until it sunk in, then proceeding to the next. Ten titles I judged good-to-great, but though I home-taped like there was no tomorrow, many of these I never played again.
That job I undertook was part of a book project. Now James Brown's death has occasioned another job, only this time I'm immersing willy-nilly, often streaming albums I still own only on cassette. And so it came to pass that I woke from a brief nap to hear ... what the hell was that? At first Brown's grunts sounded African, or more African; later I decided maybe he was speaking in tongues. The track was "Time Is Running Out," from 1973's good-not-great "The Payback." Seven minutes in it gets really crazy, Brown's tongues and Fred Wesley's trombone dueling over a typically locked-in groove. But it kept morphing and it kept staying the same. I couldn't believe how experimental it was, and how enjoyable.
Out of curiosity, I reread my review of "The Payback." Hmmm.
I had noticed it, actually: "a horn-and-voice excursion that shambles on for 12:37," I'd sniffed. What then I'd disdained, now I loved. That's how profound James Brown is. We're still trying to catch up with him. I doubt we ever will.
Former singer with the James Brown Revue
One of the scariest moments in my life I had on Mr. Brown's Lear jet. It must have been around early 1969. It's no secret that I was his girlfriend at that time.
On that particular day, we were on our way from Cincinnati to Atlanta, if I remember it correctly. It was pretty late at night and dark outside while we flew about 30,000 feet above sea level. Suddenly I heard something like a big bang, and something shook the plane. The oxygen masks dropped down, I put mine on and started to pray. Mr. Brown's personal pilot announced that both engines had failed and he was gonna try an emergency landing. I looked at Mr. Brown and noticed that he had not put on his oxygen mask. He completely froze up and stared out of the window. On top of that, his face was as white as a sheet.
After what seemed like an eternity, the engines went back on. Mr. Brown didn't say anything until we landed. He kept on staring out of that window; his shirt was soaking wet. That day I learned that James Brown freezes up when he gets scared.
Novelist and African American studies scholar
James Brown has become such a world figure that there's a danger people will forget his impact specifically for African Americans. I grew up in North Carolina in the 1960s, and during the black power movement, he was the one person who gave African Americans such pride. "Say It Loud ... " was a popular song that gave black Americans hope and said they were somebody. Another one of Brown's songs, "I Don't Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing (Open Up the Door, I'll Get It Myself)," allowed them -- allowed us -- to think it was possible not to depend on anyone else. What Brown had to say to us, to African Americans, no one else had said. And we could dance it. We could bring it into ourselves.
Former tour manager
When I went to work for James Brown, it was a pretty difficult time for white people in the black music business. The militant end of the civil rights era was at its peak, and the black community frowned on white involvement in anything within their community.
Brown represented the antithesis of that. At the passing of his manager in 1968, he took complete control of his career. I had met Brown through a radio station and stayed in touch with him through the year, and he offered me a job as tour manager, to go out and sell the show around the country. I said, "Are you sure you wanted to hire me -- is this the right thing to do?" He said, "To hell with the industry, I've got a place for you." He was as difficult a boss for me as for everyone else. He was like the tough-love father, the patriarch of this extended family of people who came through his orbit.
Writer-scholar and creator of soul-sides.com
Like many in my generation, I was introduced to Brown's music via hip-hop samples. Moving backwards to his original songs, what I discovered was the incredible intensity he could bring to just a single moment. He and the JBs could do more with a horn stab or grunt than most other artists could achieve with entire songs. My favorite example of this comes on the "Sex Machine"-era version of "Give It Up or Turn It Loose," where, in the midst of the stripped-down bridge, James yells out, "Clyde!" [drummer Stubblefield] and one heartbeat later, the funky drummer himself drops in -- on the one, of course -- and lays out a nasty breakbeat. It's that pause between James' command and Stubblefield's response that sums up Brown's genius -- he understood that rhythm was built from as much promise as it was fulfillment.
Vocalist, the Pietasters
We were fortunate to serve as Mr. Brown's backup band for one show in 2002 -- the WHFS Christmas Nutcracker concert at the MCI Center in Washington, D.C. We learned a few of his songs, recorded them without vocals and sent them to him to see if he would approve of our sound.Two days later we were rehearsing with him in a small studio in Springfield, Va. The rehearsal lasted about an hour; he taught us important hand signals, jumps and dance moves that signaled changes, choruses and the all-important bridge.
The next night we were onstage with the Hardest Working Man in Showbiz, playing for 25,000 people. It was an amazing experience, and through it all Mr. Brown was a gracious teacher and band leader. He has a reputation for being hard on his band, but he had no complaints for us. Since then Mr. Brown would always have us on the guest list when he played in D.C. He would give us a shout-out from the stage every time. This was above and beyond what this legend had to do.
Music reporter, L.A. Times
What bigot could listen to "I Got the Feelin' " and not renounce racism? Back in the 1960s, James Brown repeatedly demonstrated his superiority. The man could dissect the atomic structure of a beat better than Einstein. He could inject more soul into one tiny syllable than existed in the entire catalog of every white band in the British invasion. And for anyone too slow to comprehend his musical genius, here was a guy who could dance out its invisible architecture step by step live on stage in front of an audience.
Ann Powers and Geoff Boucher compiled this report.