The passing of time brings the passing of people. It is no great secret that the older you get, the more people you know who die. It’s a fact of life…and death. Getting older doesn’t necessarily mean you get smarter, I’m living testimonial to that truth, but it does mean that your circle of knowledge widens. Put simply, you know more people, which means you know more people who die.
The death of someone you know can be tragic, life changing, terribly sad or a milestone, something which marks a particular phase of your life. The latter, to me, was the death of James Brown.
I’ve known a lot of people who have died…famous people…infamous people…and people who were important to me in one way or another. Because I have a forum, I’ve written about some of those deaths and shared the lives of those who passed on. But this Christmas marked a particular milestone.
James Brown, the self-proclaimed hardest working man in show business, Mr. “Please Please” himself, has passed on to the great theatre in the sky. His death touched me deeply.
As a white kid growing up in Mississippi, it wasn’t fashionable to like “R&B” music. If you didn’t like country music, by God, you just might be a communist. And if one showed a delight in Black music (of course, it wasn’t referred to as Black music in those days and times), you were a conspirator or a rebel. I guess I proved to be many of those things.
The growth, acceptance and wider marketability of the music of James Brown marked my growth as a person and solidified many of my beliefs in the process. Of course, I just thought it was the music.
Late at night, long after my family went to sleep, I used to turn on my radio under the covers and tune in exotic locations to hear music our local radio station would never play. I listened to Big John R on WLAC in Tennessee and Wolfman Jack skipping in from Mexico. Besides selling baby chicks and crosses “blessed by the Saints of Jerusalem,” these famous Dee Jays pumped in the latest from artists like Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, Lee Dorsey, Little Richard, and, of course, James Brown. I was forever, wonderfully corrupted.
Music became the beat to which my life danced.
In 1963, I bought “Live At The Apollo” and my education continued. One year later, I attended my first concert. It wasn’t the Beatles (that would be my 2nd), but it was James Brown and the Famous Flames. I had no idea when I bought the tickets that I would be one of only five white people there. The concert at Jackson State University preceded the demonstrations on the campus by a year, but that evening, there was no racial tension…only R&B harmony as we all, black and white alike, were mesmerized by the music, the dancing and the antics of the Godfather of Soul.
Did the influence of James Brown lead me down the path that became my life? Without the influence of his music, would I have participated in the demonstrations a year later at Jackson State and in the process stand on the opposite side of the segregation question from many of my friends? Would I have become the flash point for the KKK when they burned a cross in front of the radio station where I was working as a Dee Jay because I played too much “black” music? Would I have made my mark in radio by the “crossing over” of many R&B records that my competition wouldn’t play?
I don’t know. It’s hard to argue that James Brown’s influence wasn’t great. I have no idea if it was the key, but it definitely was part of the pattern of the fabric of my life.
Years later, when I was programming in San Francisco, James Brown came to town. I took many of the people working at KFRC to see him live. Afterwards we went backstage. We all tried to connect with James, but he only had eyes for my assistant, JJ. For the next several months, James Brown was in the studios at KFRC as much as I was. He did all he could to convince JJ to marry him…he even asked for my intervention…but he couldn’t pull it off.
During those conversations about love and life, I watched my life come full circle as the man who had influenced me so much as I was growing up was now seeking my help. Unfortunately for James, he did more for me than I for him.
Perhaps that is the moral of James Brown’s life. He did more for us than we did for him, whether it was a listener or one of the many performers who claim James as an influence. And I’m sure James will continue to influence, both here and in the hereafter.
No doubt, Heaven just got a little funkier. I’m sure James Brown’s cape was waiting for him.