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Godfather of Soul's hometown send-off

More than 8,000 fill an arena in Augusta, Ga., to pay final respects to singer James Brown.

December 31, 2006|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

AUGUSTA, GA. — James Brown's band shook the rafters of his namesake arena with one of his signature chugging funk vamps as more than 8,000 people stomped and swayed along, the older ones shouting the song's refrain -- "Soul Power!" -- and raising their fists in a long-forgotten habit.

But this time, the man with the pompadour and the silver-sequined shoes did not come out to dance.

Brown died on Christmas at age 73, and Saturday, his body was back in his Deep South hometown, two days after an emotional public viewing at Harlem's Apollo Theater. His golden, 500-pound casket was opened again, and laid at the foot of a wide stage surrounded with flowers in the James Brown Arena downtown.

Augusta residents and far-flung fans began lining up at 5 a.m. for a last look at Brown, sharp even in death, his black tuxedo matching his perfectly-dyed swell of hair. Then they filled the stands to watch a procession of family, celebrities and black leaders -- including the Rev. Al Sharpton and Michael Jackson -- say their goodbyes to one of the 20th century's most influential musicians.

Jackson, his face hidden behind dark glasses, said that as a child "when I saw him move, I was mesmerized. Right then and there I knew that was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life."

In between were singers who belted old hymns, as well as Brown's own slinky, secular compositions, all within inches of his body. During a raucous gospel number, R&B singer Derrick Monk -- who collaborated musically with Brown beginning in the 1990s -- leaned over and stretched his arms out to Brown's inanimate face, as if to lift him back into action.

"I love you, Godfather!" he sang. "You've been good to me!"

The crowd in Augusta was largely African American, and a number of speakers cast Brown as an unsung hero of the civil rights movement. The Rev. Jesse Jackson noted that Brown grew up on the streets of Augusta, poor and black in a segregated, Depression-era South.

"He was born in the blizzard of Southern oppressive law," Jackson said. "And out of the grit and grime of that crisis emerges King James, the Godfather."

Dick Gregory, the comedian and activist, spoke passionately of the "hell" that Brown and other blacks went through in his heyday. Albert "Buddy" Dallas, Brown's longtime lawyer, argued that Brown's music -- especially songs such as 1968's "Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)" -- provided a potent soundtrack for the emerging struggle for black rights.

"Every movement has a horn, every army has a trumpet," he said. "It was James Brown who was Gabriel's horn for the civil rights movement."

Many in the crowd were Augusta residents who were proud of their round-the-way superstar. (Brown was born in Barnwell, S.C.; grew up in Augusta; and later lived across the river in a South Carolina suburb.)

They admitted Brown wasn't perfect, given his arrests on domestic abuse and weapons charges. But they said those high-profile stories crowded out Brown's generosity -- from his yearly Thanksgiving turkey giveaways to dozens of other small, private acts of charity to people struggling, like he once struggled.

John Evans, a 51-year-old music promoter, went to James Brown's grammar school and always looked up to him. "Even when he lost everything, he never quit," Evans said. "And that's what makes me so proud."

The centerpiece of the four-hour funeral was a concert by the Soul Generals, Brown's backing band. They dressed in military-style dress uniforms adorned with yellow trouser stripes and matching epaulets.

Brown's companion, Tomi Rae Hynie, led the backup singers through hip-shaking workouts. Former Brown bassist Bootsy Collins sat in, offering up a slap-bass solo. Rap artist Hammer showed up and danced.

Former Brown protegee Vicki Anderson sang "It's A Man's Man's Man's World." Sideman Bobby Byrd sang his hit "I Know You Got Soul," one of many grooves from the Brown musical machine that were recycled years later as hip-hop samples.

Despite an announcer's early admonition that this was meant to be a church service, it started to feel a lot like Saturday night. The crowd stood up, some in their chairs, and danced.

Toward the end, Brown's longtime announcer and valet, Danny Ray, came onstage with a red sequined cape -- the one he used to drape over Brown when the star would pretend he was too emotionally spent to go on.

But this time the cape had no one to cover. The Godfather of Soul was gone.

richard.fausset@latimes.com

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