Thousands pay respects to James Brown
NEW YORK – Even in death, James Brown can move a crowd. Thousands of people danced and sang in the streets outside the Apollo Theater in a raucous celebration Thursday of the music legend’s life as his body was displayed on the stage where he made his 1956 debut.
Music thumped from storefronts and portable stereos. Brown’s wails and growls even blasted inside the auditorium as fans marched quietly, single-file past his open gold coffin.
Brown lay resplendent in a blue suit, white gloves and silver shoes. Flanking the casket were giant photographs of the singer performing. An arrangement of red flowers on a white background spelled out his nickname: Godfather.
It was maybe the first time the hardest-working man in show business graced a stage in stillness, but that didn’t stop his fans from partying.
“This is a celebration of his life,” said 41-year-old Bryant Preudhomme of suburban New York. “James Brown gave you heart. He lifted you up when you were down. He gave you hope.”
Brown, who died of heart failure Christmas morning at 73, lay in repose in the theater that helped catapult him to fame and was the setting for a thrilling live album in 1962.
At an evening program for family and close friends, the Rev. Al Sharpton said it was difficult to believe that a man who was “so much alive” was dead.
“How could someone with such energy and life really ever be gone?” said Sharpton, a close friend of the Godfather of Soul for three decades.
Sharpton credited Brown with inspiring countless musicians in all genres and with refusing to become a conformist.
“He became a superstar on his own terms … he never bent, buckled or bowed,” Sharpton said. “James Brown wasn’t just No. 1, he changed the beat of music all over the world.”
Earlier, Brown’s body was carried to the theater through the streets of Harlem on a majestic white carriage drawn by two white horses.
Hundreds of fans followed behind the caisson singing the chorus of Brown’s anthem, “Say it Loud ó I’m Black and I’m Proud.”
To many, Brown was more than just an energetic performer. As Norman Brand of Harlem waited for the procession to begin, the 55-year-old recalled hearing “Say it Loud” for the first time in his native Alabama.
“It really changed the attitude of most black people. It was like a wake-up call. Before that, if you were called black, it was like an insult,” Brand said. “Just one song and one word can change a whole situation.”
Mourners came from far and wide to attend the first in a trio of services that will keep Brown almost as busy in death as he was in life.
His casket left a Georgia funeral parlor Wednesday for an all-night drive to New York. It arrived at Sharpton’s Harlem headquarters just before noon Thursday, and was quickly transferred to the carriage for a 20-block procession to the theater.
Sharpton accompanied the body from Georgia and walked behind the carriage Thursday. He stood at Brown’s side for hours during the viewing.
On Friday, a private ceremony is planned at a church near Augusta, Ga. A second public viewing of the singer’s body will be held Saturday at the James Brown Arena in Augusta.
Some fans arrived at the Apollo as early as midnight for a chance to pay their respects, and more than 100 were inline outside the theater by 8 a.m.
“He seemed like family, a friend of mine,” said Brenda Harper, who was the first to arrive, shortly after midnight. Fourteen years ago, she said: “I jumped on the stage and he danced with me. I danced with the Godfather that day.”
Musicians and celebrities slipped in to pay their respects throughout the day: boxer Joe Frazier, band members including bass player Fred Thomas, and Ali-Ollie Woodson, who was a singer with the Temptations in the 1980s and again in the early 1990s.
Relatives passed through, too, some wiping away tears.
“He was my uncle, but he acted like a big brother to me,” said Brown’s nephew Earl Swindell, 54, who acted as a pallbearer. “I loved him, though. I was right there with him till the end. He meant a lot to me.”
Brown, who lived in Beech Island, S.C., continued to work to the end, dying less than a week before he was to perform New Year’s Eve in Manhattan at B.B. King’s blues club. Chaka Khan, the Grammy Award-winning rhythm and blues performer, will play instead.
He had also talked recently about returning to Harlem, friends said.
“He told me two weeks ago to book the Apollo for two days,” said his friend and manager, Charles Bobbit. “He said, `Let’s play two days at the Apollo, and we’ll see the lines again around the block.'”
“The Apollo was always his home because that’s where it all started,” said his agent, Frank Copsidas, “and the people of Harlem were his family.”
Thousands pay respects to James Brown