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A salute from the soul in Harlem

December 29, 2006|Ellen Barry | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — As the caisson carrying James Brown's body rolled through Harlem on Thursday, people climbed out onto their fire escapes and stuck their heads out of windows. Some stood on police cars, and others ran out of beauty salons with rollers still in their hair.

When the carriage arrived -- finally -- on 125th Street, a ripple of sound went through the crowd. The horses drawing it were white, with tall white feathers trembling above their heads. Brown's casket appeared to be solid gold.

When Clarissa Hall saw this, tears welled in her eyes. She had taken the day off as a hospital secretary and spent five chilly hours waiting in front of the Apollo Theater for the chance to view his body.

"A gold casket," said Hall, who was wearing a tiger-print overcoat. "But what else would he have, you know? What else would he have?"

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday December 30, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
James Brown memorial: An article in Friday's Section A about a viewing at New York's Apollo Theater for singer James Brown said his casket was carried through the streets of Harlem on a caisson. It arrived on a horse-drawn hearse.

Brown's death prompted an outpouring here unlike any in recent memory. The line to see his body began forming before dawn, and at 8 p.m. -- the hour the viewing was scheduled to end -- it still stretched for five long blocks. The day brought any number of spontaneous expressions of love; at one point, a man began performing wiggly dance steps in the middle of two lanes of moving traffic on 125th Street.

The snaking queue would have greatly pleased Brown, who ritually monitored the length of lines outside his performances, the Rev. Al Sharpton said in a eulogy.

"They came because this man stood for something. This man represents us, the common man," said Sharpton, a decades-long friend of the musician. "James Brown shines for us that never had anybody shine for them."

Inside the theater, a silent column of mourners climbed the stairs to the open coffin. Brown's body lay inside, hands clasped on chest, wearing a suit of spangled midnight-blue satin and pointy silver boots. Spotlights in pink and orange played on the stage, and on a background of white mums, red flowers spelled out GOD FATHER.

Some mourners crossed themselves; some danced so vigorously in the aisles that they had to be hurried along by security.

In his eulogy, Sharpton apologized for the viewing's late start. He explained that the gold coffin was so heavy it could not be flown to New York on a commercial airline, so he ended up driving with Brown's body to New York, a journey that took all night. Out of concern for the hundreds still waiting outside, Sharpton arranged to keep the Apollo open for another hour, until 9 p.m.

But even this seemed hopeless. Five blocks away, at 129th Street, people kept joining the end of the line. A policeman told Yolanda Collymore she probably wouldn't get in to see Brown, but she said she would take her chances.

Collymore, 56, first saw Brown when she was a girl in Barbados. At that point in her life, she had never seen a black man succeed so sensationally. She wanted to say goodbye.

It was not an obvious move to schedule a New York viewing for Brown, who died Monday in Atlanta and is to be buried in Augusta, Ga. But the musician had a special bond with the Apollo, the northernmost venue on the "chitlin' circuit," which featured the country's top black entertainers before the days of integration. It was here that he recorded his breakthrough album, "Live at the Apollo," in 1962.

But Brown also identified the Apollo with more tender moments. After an appearance there in 1958, he was packing up to leave when a small figure appeared at the door, he wrote in his autobiography, "Godfather of Soul." It was his mother, who had abandoned him when he was 4, leaving him to support himself by shining shoes and dancing in the streets of Augusta. In the autobiography, he describes watching her walk toward him for the first time in 20 years.

"When she did I could see she'd lost all her teeth," he wrote. "All I could think to say was, 'I'm going to get your mouth fixed for you.' "

Brown returned to perform at the Apollo dozens of times. He was a favorite among the staff. Billy Mitchell was a preteen errand boy at the theater when he first brought a delivery to Brown, and was rewarded with a crisp $100 bill. Every time he saw Brown thereafter, he would get another $100 bill -- most recently two years ago, though Mitchell was, by then, a dapper man of 54 and the theater's tour director.

Brown was a notoriously exuberant performer. Once when he was booked to sing at the Apollo, the theater's promoters scheduled a free "teaser" performance at the Harlem State Office Building. They directed him to play no more than three songs -- just enough to increase ticket sales -- and were furious when Brown performed the entire concert for pedestrians, Mitchell said.

That generosity was rewarded in Harlem on Thursday.

"Not only are the lines long -- I mean thousands of people -- but it's cold out there," Mitchell said. "We have a president who just died. I don't think he's going to get that reception. God bless him, but ... "

Many who waited in the gray morning said Brown had changed their lives in some way. Desi Middleton, who was wearing black cowboy boots and a tiger-print hat, began modeling himself after Brown in high school. Twenty years later, he can still do four of Brown's signature splits in rapid succession.

It was a festival atmosphere. Women screamed when they saw a 58-year-old man named Charles Bradley, who has hot-combed his hair in a glossy 3-inch bouffant, like his idol, since he was 14. Over the years, Bradley's eerie resemblance to Brown has brought mostly ridicule. But on Thursday morning his presence almost started a riot.

"Give him some room! Let him get his thing off!" yelled a man as the crowd pressed around Bradley, who looked frightened. "The Godfather is here!" someone shouted. "James! James! James! Sing 'Please Please Please'!"

ellen.barry@latimes.com

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