Originally created 12/29/06

Harlem fans say farewell

NEW YORK - In his prime, when James Brown rocked the Apollo Theater as no other performer ever had or ever has since, these were the fans who stood in line for hours, then packed the seats of the legendary music hall as history was made.

On Thursday, with the late Godfather of Soul's body lying in repose on the Apollo stage, they did it one last time.

The fans - most of them black New Yorkers in their 50s and 60s - turned out in such massive numbers to pay their final respects that police on the scene and theater management wouldn't venture a guess as to how many people filed past the casket.

Bundled in winter coats and hats, some of them had been waiting in the cold since midnight, packed between guardrails and forming lines on both sides of the theater marquee on Harlem's 125th Street that at its height stretched the length of five city blocks. At 7 p.m., after a stirring eulogy by the Rev. Al Sharpton, the line outside stretched back to 129th Street. Those at the front of the line said they had been waiting five hours.

The Rev. Sharpton, Mr. Brown's longtime friend and onetime tour manager, recalled how, when he used to play the Apollo, Mr. Brown would teasingly keep asking him to check outside and see how long the line was. He said he thought of that as he pulled up to the theater Thursday with Mr. Brown's body.

"I looked at his casket and said, 'Mr. Brown, the line's all the way up to 130th Street,'" the Rev. Sharpton said.

The reception his body received in Harlem was the kind that he could never quite garner in his declared hometown. Whereas Augusta crowds at the unveiling of his statue or the city's James Brown Day might have been in the hundreds, this one was well into the thousands.

His arrival Thursday was like so many he made at Augusta functions in recent years - fashionably late, in style and with a crowd chanting his name.

The white, horse-drawn hearse pulled up to the Apollo Theater at 1 p.m. The driver wore a black top hat, and the two white horses pulling Mr. Brown's carriage had large white feathers on their heads.

At times, it seemed pandemonium would break out, but police said the crowd was peaceful, just occasionally irritable over the long wait.

When police barked at Doris Johnson to get out of a press area while she awaited Mr. Brown's hearse, the 66-year-old Brooklyn, N.Y., resident barked back.

"James Brown is my badge!" she said to the officer, who let her linger for several more minutes before finally making her move out of the area.

"The Godfather's coming, and here y'all are, acting like this," Ms. Johnson said.

She said she saw Mr. Brown perform at the Apollo three times in the 1960s.

"I showed up here when he was alive," she said. "This is his last time at the Apollo, and I want to be here for it."

The crowd included plenty of whites, along with teenagers and Generation Xers, but black Baby Boomers were by far the majority. When asked, many of them couldn't count the number of times they saw Mr. Brown perform at the Apollo.

When he was in his prime, so were they.

"To me, he was just wonderful," said Ella Williams, 63, of Harlem, who grew up in Savannah, Ga., and has lived in New York since the mid-1960s.

"A lot of people criticized him, but we all got our faults," she said. "He never forgot where he came from and he gave back."

Nellie Williams, 58, from Greer, S.C., happened to be visiting her daughter in New York when she found out about Mr. Brown's Christmas Day death.

She said she couldn't count the number of times she saw Mr. Brown perform. The first time, she said, was in Greenville, S.C., when she was 17.

"He was my favorite entertainer. I can even do the 'James Brown,' but I don't have the right shoes on," she said.

She attributed the large crowd to his effect on so many black people, because he came along with a positive message - "I'm black and I'm proud" - during turbulent times when blacks needed to hear it, during the civil rights struggles of the '60s.

On Thursday, some of those who heard that message back then needed canes to get up the stage stairs to see Mr. Brown's body. Their heads were gray, and some tugged grandchildren. They brought bouquets of roses, and when they approached Mr. Brown, pumped their fists or tapped their hearts. Several of them danced a few steps.

Lying in the gold coffin with white lining, Mr. Brown seemed impossibly still and impossibly silent. His face was gaunt, but still recognizable. He wore a blue-sequined suit with white gloves and silver shoes.

For a wake, though, it seemed a lot like a party.

Funk music blared from a sound system - the pounding rhythms, hard-driving horns and wailing vocals of Mr. Brown's music.

Posters of Mr. Brown belting into a microphone stood on each side of the coffin, along with a 6-by-4-foot floral arrangement with "GOD FATHER" spelled out in red carnations.

In his eulogy, the Rev. Sharpton compared Mr. Brown to Bach or Beethoven. He said with the song Say it Loud - I'm Black and I'm Proud, Mr. Brown erased the word "negro" from the nation's vernacular.

He also criticized hip-hop acts who sample Mr. Brown's riffs, then in their raps use black racial slurs, promote violence and call women "ho's."

"To sample James Brown, you've got to throw your shoulders back and hold your head up high and make your community proud," the Rev. Sharpton said.

At the end of the service, he called Mr. Brown's family to the stage, and there was a collective cringe when his widow, Tomi Rae Hynie Brown, took the podium.

"He wasn't always the nicest man, but he was always right," she said.

She said she wanted the news media in attendance to know that she loved Mr. Brown, that he was her husband, that she lived with him in Beech Island, and that she wasn't at his side when he died because he wanted her to be somewhere else.

She has told The Augusta Chronicle that she was in California seeking treatment for an addiction to medication. She and Mr. Brown's attorneys are currently in a dispute over whether she was, in fact, married to Mr. Brown when he died.

After viewing the body Thursday, Beryl Brown, 57, of Brooklyn, was on the verge of tears. She recalled a happier time, in her youth, when Mr. Brown had a house in Queens with German shepherds outside. Twice, she said, he shooed the dogs away and invited her and her friends inside.

"It's hard to see a man who was so active and so lively just lying there stiff," Ms. Brown said. "It hurt me."

Reach Johnny Edwards at 706-823-3225 or johnny.edwards@augustachronicle.com.


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