Augusta gave the Godfather his due Saturday.
James Brown, the pioneering soul, funk and civil rights icon who died on Christmas Day, had the biggest funeral in the city's history, with more than 8,000 fans packing the arena that bears his name.
It was a send-off that oftentimes rocked with old-time gospel and R&B and was attended by Michael Jackson, whom the Godfather of Soul inspired.
The celebration brought to a conclusion a life that began in abject poverty 73 years ago and ended with the world bemoaning the loss of a music genius.
"I don't know if this is a homecoming or a homegoing," said his longtime road manager Charles Bobbit. "But this is exactly what he wanted in Augusta."
Such adulation wasn't always what he got in his declared hometown. In recent years, Mr. Brown's performances in Augusta drew sparse crowds for an international legend and the city's most prominent ambassador.
But on Saturday, in death, he packed the city's largest entertainment venue. The Hardest Working Man in Show Business also drew the eyes of the world to Augusta for something other than the Masters Tournament.
And he posthumously received an honorary doctorate degree in humane letters from Paine College.
Not bad for a man with a third-grade education, said his attorney Buddy Dallas.
"Today is the end of a long journey and the beginning of a new journey," said the Rev. Al Sharpton, longtime Brown family friend and civil rights activist who presided over the funeral flanked by the Rev. Jesse Jackson. "We came to thank God for James Brown because only God could have made a James Brown possible. And only God can give a James Brown rest."
THE SERVICES BEGAN with a 20-minute video tribute to Mr. Brown in which he professed his pride in Augusta. Part of it featured his spring performance at the James Brown Soul of America Music Festival - a bittersweet affair that had the singer agreeing to perform at the last minute amid threats of a lawsuit by event organizers if he didn't.
It wasn't his best show - because of a scheduling conflict, he didn't have his own band behind him - but it was emblematic of how Mr. Brown refused to disappoint his hometown. The four-song, 30-minute set would be his final performance in Augusta.
At one point in the video tribute, Mr. Brown drew applause when he mentioned his statue in Augusta. The bronze statue on Broad Street and the renaming of the Augusta-Richmond County Civic Center in his honor were part of a recent turnaround, with the city finally beginning to accept Mr. Brown and embrace his accomplishments.
Coliseum Authority member Richard Isdell, one of two members who opposed renaming the arena for Mr. Brown, sat in the second row in the section reserved for government officials Saturday. He said he was taking some heat for the position he took in November, when he said his constituents wouldn't support the name change and that the James Brown moniker might draw soul acts but not country and rock performers.
He said Saturday that he wasn't against the name change, he just didn't like the authority ramrodding the vote through without more discussion. Since Mr. Brown's death, Mr. Isdell said he's begun to appreciate the magnitude of the musician's celebrity.
"You always take things for granted until they're not around," he said. "And I think Augusta as a whole has taken him for granted, and Augusta as a whole is going to miss him."
Charles "Champ" Walker, who organized the Soul of America festival and was roundly criticized for his handling of it, said he believes Augusta will now fully embrace the Godfather and begin to capitalize on him, which is what Mr. Brown wanted.
"If we squander that opportunity, we've had it," he said.
A CROWD THAT was fairly subdued through the video tribute was soon on its feet when Ali "Ollie" Woodson, former lead singer of The Temptations, delivered a stirring rendition of Walk Around Heaven. Some held their arms up toward the sky as the song washed over them.
The next singer, Mr. Brown protege Derrick Monk, belted out God Has Smiled On Me.
At one point, Mr. Monk looked over into Mr. Brown's open casket in front of the stage and sang directly to his mentor.
"God has been," he sang, urging people in the audience to repeat the words.
"Good to me," he continued.
"Good to me," came the response.
Another crowd-pleasing moment came during former Famous Flames vocalist Bobby Byrd's rendition of Sex Machine. Mr. Brown's daughter, Venisha, danced on stage. A moment later, 1980s rapper Hammer did a spot-on imitation of the Godfather's signature dance slide, known as "the James Brown."
At the end of the song, Danny Ray, Mr. Brown's longtime emcee, draped a red-and-black cape over his boss' body one last time. In concerts, Mr. Ray would put a cape over Mr. Brown, feigning exhaustion after singing Please Please Please, then start to lead him off stage. Mr. Brown would then spring into high octane and reclaim center stage.
THE GOLD COFFIN with white satin lining was flanked by bundles and wreaths of red, yellow, white and peach roses, along with yellow daisies and peace lilies. One arrangement of yellow roses was sent by bluesman B.B. King, a fellow Apollo Theater legend. On the far left stood a 5-by-4-foot painting of Mr. Brown singing soulfully into a microphone with the ocean behind him.
For Saturday's service, Mr. Brown wore a black suit with sequined lapels, a red shirt, black gloves, a black bow tie monogrammed with the initials JB and rhinestone-studded boots.
After Sex Machine, Mr. Brown's widow, Tomi Rae Hynie Brown, leaned forlornly over the coffin from the stage for several minutes before finally pulling a red rose from a nearby floral display and dropping it into the casket. Then she kissed the coffin lid.
The funeral started at about 1:30 p.m. By 4 p.m., when it became less a concert and more a church service, the audience began to dwindle in numbers. By 5 p.m., it was down to a third of what it was at 1.
At one point, the Rev. Jackson admonished fans who were crowding around the family.
"This is not an entertainment event, though we've had a lot of joyful expression," he said. "This is a last rite for a dear friend."
But for many, it was entertainment. It seemed that as many people were there to celebrity-watch - rumors were rampant that Paul McCartney and Prince would attend - as they were to pay final respects to Mr. Brown.
They did get Mr. Jackson, whose mere presence in the floor seats, and later on stage, generated ecstatic cries from the crowd. Mr. Jackson - dressed in a black leather jacket, black slacks, a white shirt and a thin black tie, with dark shades and long, straightened hair - didn't perform, but he expressed his fondness for Mr. Brown.
"James Brown is my greatest inspiration," Mr. Jackson said. "Ever since I was a small child, no more than like 6 years old, my mother would wake me no matter what time it was ... to watch the television to see the master work. And when I saw him move, I was mesmerized. ... And right then and there, I knew that that was exactly what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, because of James Brown.
"James Brown, I shall miss you, and I love you so much, and thank you for everything."
IN HIS EULOGY, Mr. Bobbit, the road manager, told the story of the recording of Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud). He recalled driving a school bus through Los Angeles looking for 30 children to sing backup - which Mr. Brown had demanded. He said he paid them $10 each.
He also described Mr. Brown's final moments of life in an Atlanta hospital, after he was diagnosed with pneumonia and congestive heart failure. He said Mr. Brown had been asking for lemonade and water and to have his feet rubbed.
He said Mr. Brown woke up on Christmas and said his chest felt like it was on fire. He knew he was dying, telling Mr. Bobbit, "I'm gonna leave here tonight," and "I think I have to go."
He made his peace with God. He lay back in his bed, and Mr. Bobbit said he covered him with a blanket.
Then he took three breaths, opened his eyes and closed them. Then he was gone.
The Rev. Sharpton administered last rites before the coffin was closed.
"Thank you, Mr. Brown," he said. "You can get your rest now. We won't forget you, and we won't let the world forget you. Sleep on."
Reach Mike Wynn at (706) 823-3218 and Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225.
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