For many of us who loved James Brown, it’s difficult to think of Christmas Day and not think of his dying on Christmas morning five years ago.
While his death was sad, I also remember the good things associated with James Brown and Christmas.
Every year when he held his private Christmas party for his office staff, band members, business associates and friends, he would ask them to bring a gift that would go toward his annual toy giveaway at the Imperial Theatre.
And that’s where he made his last public appearance, in the lobby of the Imperial on Dec. 22, 2006; once again seeing the faces of children light up when they were given gifts by either him or Santa Brown’s helpers.
Even though his face looked gaunt and his body looked tired in his last days, you could see in Brown’s smile just how much giving away those toys to children meant to him.
After all, he once was in their place, having grown up dirt poor in rural Barnwell County, S.C., and in the city of Augusta. He knew what it was like not to get any nice gifts at Christmas.
He knew what it was like to walk along the city’s train tracks in winter and hopefully find pieces of coal that had fallen off the carrier cars just so his family could have heat.
It used to anger me so much when I’d hear supposedly intelligent people say, “Well, you know he doesn’t really buy those turkeys or the toys he gives away. He just gets others to buy them.”
My response always was, “Well, what’s wrong with that? There are many other influential and wealthy and politically-connected people of this area who could be doing the same. They could be lending their influence to make others happy at Thanksgiving and Christmas.”
The Augusta area is full of wonderful, kind-hearted, giving people who love to help the less fortunate in their time of need. Just look at the long list of donors to The Augusta Chronicle’s annual Empty Stocking Fund in this poor economy.
But what they usually need is a motivator or someone to rally them into positive action. And James Brown was exactly that. He was a motivator who could bring out the best in others, even though with sometimes very tough incentives.
Ask his band members. Brown would fine them various amounts out of their paychecks if their shoes weren’t shined, their stage clothes not pressed, for being late to a rehearsal, missing music cues or playing the wrong notes.
It was his way of using monetary punishment to make his band members look and sound as professional as they possibly could be. And everyone who ever heard his band knows that Brown always had some of the best musicians and performers in music history.
His form of discipline wasn’t very different from parents who ground their children for bad behavior or military organizations that punish soldiers for less than proper conduct with menial chores such as KP (kitchen patrol) duty or scrubbing toilets and floors with toothbrushes.
Brown loved singing Christmas songs and even wrote many of them.
Several can be found on the CD compilation Funky Christmas, which derives many of the 17 tracks from his albums Soulful Christmas, released in 1968, and James Brown and his Famous Flames Sing Christmas Songs, released in 1966.
Besides his original songs, the Funky Christmas album contains his unique versions of more traditional Christmas numbers such as Merry Christmas Baby, Please Come Home For Christmas and The Christmas Song, which most people know from its opening line, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire.”
Among the songs is his classic composition Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto, which was inspired by his own poor childhood.
Some of the lines are: “Santa Claus, go straight to the ghetto. Tell him James Brown sent you. Ha! Go straight to the ghetto. You know that I know that you will see ’cause that was once me.”
Yes, it’s sad that one of this area’s musical heroes is not around anymore to enjoy Christmas.
But it’s a joy to remember how much James Brown loved Christmas, and how he made it happier through his music and through his good deeds of helping others in their time of need.
Merry Christmas, JB. We surely do miss you.
TRAVIS, DOC AND DAVID: Country superstar Travis Tritt will perform at 8 p.m. Jan. 19 at the Newberry (S.C.) Opera House ($60), followed by Doc Watson and David Holt at 8 p.m. Jan. 21 ($40). Call (803) 276-6264 or buy online at newberryoperahouse.com.
ELVIS FOR THE NJROTC: Elvis Presley served two years in the Army. That’s why it seems appropriate Elvis tribute artist Jeff Barnes will be singing G.I. Blues and other numbers to benefit the Navy Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps Unit at Greenbrier High School in Evans.
The benefit show will take place at 7 p.m. Jan. 7 in the high school auditorium. Tickets are $10 for adults and $7 for students.