AUGUSTA, Ga. (December 30, 2006) — More than 8,500 James Brown fans filled an arena bearing his name Saturday in a final, joyful farewell to the singer that seemed as fitting for a civil rights leader as for “The Godfather of Soul.”
Mourners returned to Brown’s hometown to pay tribute to the musician, who some fans also considered a political figure.
“‘I’m black and I’m proud’ was the most influential black slogan of the 1960s,” said fan Maynard Eaton, referring to the chorus of the Brown standard “Say It Loud.”
Brown’s body lay in front of the bandstand. Fans lined up in the rain before dawn to get in. When James Brown Arena was full, they gathered on the streets outside to listen to the service over a public address system.
The Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson and a tearful Michael Jackson were among those who took turns at the podium overlooking the casket where Brown lay in a black jacket and gloves, red shirt and sequined shoes.
“We come to thank God for James Brown, because only God could have made a James Brown possible,” said Sharpton, a longtime Brown confidant who also spoke at a boisterous ceremony Thursday at the famed Apollo Theater in New York and a private service Friday.
Brown, 73, died of heart failure Dec. 25 in Atlanta while hospitalized for treatment of pneumonia. Jesse Jackson said Saturday that Brown had “upstaged Santa on Christmas Day.”
Michael Jackson, whose arrival sparked a roar from the crowd, bowed before the casket and shared a hug with Sharpton just as Brown’s latest backup band, the Soul Generals, started to play.
“James Brown is my greatest inspiration,” the pop star told mourners, adding that when he was a child, his mother would wake him, regardless of the hour, whenever Brown was on TV.
“When I saw him move, I was mesmerized,” Jackson said. “I knew that’s what I wanted to do for the rest of my life because of James Brown.”
Brown was born in Barnwell, S.C., in 1933 and spent much of his childhood in Augusta, singing and dancing for change on street corners. Even when he became an international superstar, Brown considered Augusta his home.
Much of the funeral took on the feel of one of Brown’s famously high-energy concerts.
The Soul Generals cranked out Brown hits including “Soul Power,” “I Feel Good” and “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” for a crowd that clapped, cheered and danced in the aisles.
“I can hear Mr. Brown now,” said Charles Bobbitt, Brown’s longtime manager who was with him when he died. “He’s saying ‘St. Peter … I don’t deal with the middle man. Take me to the main man.”’
The service was followed by a private burial.
Brown’s hits, such as “I Got You (I Feel Good)” and “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag,” inspired generations of soul, funk, disco, rock and rap artists.
A day earlier, thousands of fans poured into the Apollo in Harlem for a sometimes raucous celebration of Brown at the venue where one of his concerts launched him into the international spotlight in 1956.
“He was a God-sent person — almost like an angel,” said Vickie Greene, who saw her first Brown show more than 30 years ago and attended Saturday’s ceremony.
While growing up in Augusta, Brown sometimes committed petty crimes that landed him in reform school. In later years, he returned annually to give away Thanksgiving turkeys to needy families. The community was also the scene of a drug-fueled police chase that landed Brown a 15-month stint in prison.
The city named a street after Brown a decade ago and last year erected a statue of him in a downtown park. Earlier this year, Augusta’s main auditorium was also named in his honor.