James Brown

The 'Godfather of Soul' – His Immortal Legacy

People wait in a line to view the body of soul singer James Brown on Dec. 30, 2006, during what was described as a "Homecoming" at the James Brown Arena in Augusta, GA — the singer's birthplace. (Photo: Stan Honda / AFP-Getty Images)

James Brown's polyrhythmic funk earned him the accolade "Godfather of Soul," but he was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth, nor did he inherit a life of privilege and opportunity — evidently, destiny was not carved out for him by a benevolent deity. Through his resilient mental muscle and hard work, he crafted his own success story in his genesis from rags to riches and stardom.

"Funk is about the injustices, the thing that go wrong, the hungry kids going to school trying to learn. 'Funky' is about what it takes to make people move," a pundit said. Brown got a practical education on the brutal streets of a South that was historically plagued with racism, injustice amid slavery. The quest by minorities for civil rights necessitated the birth of the Civil Rights Movement that was led by the legendary Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who's legacy we celebrate in January.

Brown was born in 1933 in South Carolina, where slavery had deep roots. The state was home to the Gullahs, who were seized like property and shipped as sardines from Sierra Leone to the United States. They have never abandoned their roots or culture and still speak pidgin English-Krio, the lingua franca of Sierra Leone. The Gullahs have made trips to Sierra Leone, visiting sites where their ancestors were captured as cargol and taken to America in order to provide free labor. Personally, I bear deep roots to the Gullahs and probably to James Brown.

At age seven he was abandoned by his parents and forced to live on the harsh streets of Augusta, GA. He paid his own rent by picking cotton, doing tap dancing, polishing shoes or sometimes breaking into cars. His bleak and difficult life is a reflective caricature of what is systemically and culturally wrong in America. Harsh laws passed to curb delinquent kids sent them to prison, and Brown was caught up in a plethora of brushes with the law that often landed him in penitentiary at a tender age. The root cause of his problems was simply swept under the rug, instead of being diagnosed and remedied while in the bud. Without parents or role models, the streets became Brown's teacher. His schooling, barely at the seventh grade level, did not determine his education in life. It was his experiences that forced him to become very conscious of society's ills.

Despite his dismal beginning in life, he emerged a visionary genius who thrived on the philosophy of being a risk taker rather than a ticket taker. He appealed to America to open the equitable door of justice and provide opportunities so that he could follow his dream. He believed neither in handouts nor in minorities being institutionalized into a culture of welfare. And he realized that by flouting the law he could jeopardize his dream while on a quest for the stars. After his conversion to Christianity and involvement in the church, things began to look up. His music career took off when he met Bobby Byrd, whom he partnered with to found the Flames gospel group in the 50's. The door was now open for him to pursue a budding passion for R&B music. He scored a hit with his song "Please, Please, Please" in 1956, and sold a million record copies. But he was not insulated against failures and other personal problems. Brown executed a "punishing work schedule," working 350 nights a year while adopting a high-energy performance style. In the 60's he had gigs at Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York. His 1963 album helped to launch his career in Harlem. It was during the depression era that was predominant in the South, and the endemic cancers of segregation cum racism, and stereotypes, consciously watered to blossom as weeds on the fertile American soil.

His 70's hits included "Papa don't Take no Mess." Success generated immense wealth for Brown. He pursued the American dream to the best of his ability, owning radio stations, fast food franchises, and private jets. Although his resume was impressive, his demons were still haunting him. His personal life suffered major setbacks. Tragedy struck when his son Teddy died in a car crash. He also had a brush with the I.R.S. A police chase for gun violence would follow years later that landed Brown in jail. As changing trends in music began to bite, disco music took a toll on his career. But he bounced back with more hits like "Living in America," "How Do You Stop" and "I'm Real." He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, despite his personal problems continuing unabated. Brown received an official pardon in 2003 from the State of North Carolina.

Brown had 110 entries on the R&B Billboard chart, and more than 90 of his singles are among the hottest 1000 songs. He also earned three Grammys including a catalog of more than 800 songs. Speaking about his musical legacy, he said, "There are so many I can't remember 'em. … I'm a man that God made to bring people together, and that's what I do. My style is unique, my style is so distinctive."

"He could resort to grunts and shouts — seemingly flying across the stage in spangled outfits and punctuating his dance moves with a surging fury of slips, spins and kicks," a long time fan said. Songs like "Got you (I feel Good)," "Sex Machine" and "Hot Pants," invigorated Brown to work overtime. "I'm Black and I'm Proud" became a black power anthem that he performed at the late Richard Nixon's initial inauguration. Even in Africa youths imitated his dance innovations to attract beautiful women on the disco floors. When enthusiasm on the dance floor was waning, just playing his hot music would rejuvenate everyone's spirits.

Otis Redding once said, "He made music that people loved and wasn't afraid to make political statements. He created his own sound and was a master musician. He's up there with the best." If the true legacy of a musician is how long his music lasts, Brown's music emphatically passes that test. The icon's legacy will live and resonate forever. He was not just an entertainer but a shrewd businessman. He redeemed his master tapes back from a white-owned record label while running his business empire at his Augusta sanctuary, where he annually distributed Thanksgiving turkeys to poor families. He did not forget the depths from which he had arisen.

"He was dramatic to the end, dying on Christmas Day. He'll be all over the news … he would have it no other way," Rev. Jesse Jackson said. Brown died of heart failure, although he was hospitalized for pneumonia in Atlanta, GA at the age of 73. His homecoming took the form of a blockbuster celebration. More than 8,500 fans defied the weather and jam-packed the arena that bears his name on Saturday, Dec. 30, 2006 to catch a glimpse of the immortal Brown and pay their last respects to the great musician.

Michael Jackson was among the sympathizers. In his eulogy he said,"When I saw his moves, I was mesmerized. I knew that's what I wanted to do for the rest of my life because of James Brown. … As a child growing up my mother would wake me up regardless of the time, whenever he was on TV," the pop star reminisced to the assembled mourners. "James Brown is my greatest inspiration," Michael added, amid falling tears.

Previously, thousands of fans had braved the cold weather for a memorial service at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, NY where his tantalizing concerts had launched him into international fame. "He was a God-sent person; almost like an angel," said an admirer named Vickie who attended the ceremony. She had seen her first James Brown show about 30 years ago.

Brown is survived by six grown children: daughters — Venisha, Yamma and Deanna; sons — Terry, Larry and Daryl; and his fourth wife Tomi Rae Hynie, with her five year old son. Hynie's marriage to Brown and the questionable biological status of her son are all currently caught up in a legal limbo. Brown's lawyer, Debra Opri, would not disclose the worth of his estate. "He is a very wealthy man, and all of his estate is in that trust," she said. "She (Hynie) is not his widow since she was still married to another man when they made their vows. And the vows were not renewed after the annulment of the marriage."

A final abode for Brown's remains has not been settled. His gold casket is still secured in his Beech Island home after the conclusion of the funeral rites. Brown's will states that his personal effects should be divided equally among his children, Opri said. Hynie was absent when the will was recently read. Brown's irrevocable trust agreement won't be divided, the lawyer advised. According to her, the trust will handle the icon's legacy — his music rights and 60-acre estate on Beech Island. The funeral director announced that the family is leaning towards securing the coffin in a mausoleum and probably would be displayed within the estate. But concrete decisions have not yet been ratified.

A writer eulogizing Brown said, "No stage is big enough for the Godfather of Soul, no epithet seemed an exaggeration." Brown's lyrics in the song "I Feel Good" showcased the passion in his message, which resonated to all humanity:

Whoa! I feel good I knew that I would, now
I feel good, I knew that I would
So good, so good, cause I got you
So good, so good, cause I got you

I hear you brother, the rest of the world does too. You deserve to feel good. Truly, you came, you saw, and you definitely conquered. Your legacy will blossom like the evergreen lilies along the river brooks. What inspires me, and invigorates my soul, is not the pinnacle that Brown attained but the depths from which he came.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Roland Bankole Marke.