Depending on where you look, James Brown was born in 1928 or in 1933. He was - again, depending on where you look - born in Barnwell, South Carolina, or in Pulaski Tennessee, or, if you put your faith in Wikipedia, both Georgia and South Carolina simultaneously. Whatever.
He grew up in Augusta, Georgia, raised in a brothel by his great-aunt. As a teenager, Brown committed a series of minor, then increasingly major crimes (car theft, armed robbery) went away to prison, got released, tried his hand as a boxer, then as a baseball pitcher, before finding his calling as "Soul Brother Number One."
People will question a few of the detours he took in life, but none will doubt that he was hell-bent on living. His fondness for booze, crack, and PCP landed him in some dangerous, embarrassing, and expensive mishaps. The late 80s were a particularly colorful era, during which Brown was arrested numerous times on illegal weapons and drug charges.
During this phase, he menaced with a shotgun a group of accountants whom he suspected of having used his private bathroom, led police on a high-speed interstate car chase, coming to a halt only after they shot out all four of his tires, and was finally convicted of attempting to murder his wife. Sentenced to six years in prison, he served two. More importantly, he got some time away from the drugs that had proven so instrumental in the escapades above.
In these "wilderness years" of his, a friend of mine from Augusta happened across the Godfather in a grocery store parking lot. His purple Caddy was parked next to her, and Brown, loading groceries into the trunk, engaged her in an unceasing, high-pitched monologue. Sensing that this "conversation" was never going to end, my friend politely bade him good bye, then climbed into her car. He was still at it, muttering and screeching as she drove away. "What did he say to you?" I asked. She laughed, shaking her head. "I couldn't understand a single word," she answered.
Admitted to an Crawford-Long hospital in Atlanta, suffering from what appeared to be a simple bout of pneumonia, James Brown died on Christmas morning. Not only is he gone, but the world that shaped him, with its hardship and brutality, its grace and laughter, its poignant striving, and its inimitable sense of style . . . that world is gone as well. James Brown was a raging torrent, no wonder he couldn't keep still. By contrast, most of what passes for "soulful" music these days is about as compelling as the spilling open of a bathtub faucet.
Middle-aged nostalgia? Maybe, but Brown brought to his craft a polish and a style, when style was still to be admired. He worked at it, refining each move, but like any other brilliant practicioner, he gave the appearance of effortless, quicksilver motion, even as the sweat poured down his cheeks. God only knows how many singers and dancers he influenced, but then again, a chasm always separates the innovator from the emulator. Take a look at Papa's Got A Brand New Bag, then you decide.
Nothing, and no one, was more American than James Brown.