The Godfather Fills the Apollo One Last Time
Thousands Pay Their Respects At Wake for James Brown
Friday, December 29, 2006; Page C01
NEW YORK, Dec. 28 -- It was a spectacle that James Brown would have loved.
The Godfather of Soul made a pre-show habit of getting a look at the line to see him perform at the Apollo Theater. But for all of his sold-out concerts at the legendary venue, nothing could match the crowd that turned up in Harlem Thursday for his onstage wake.
VIDEO | Fans Honor Godfather of Soul at Apollo
Thousands of fans crammed the blocks around 125th Street, hoping to pay final respects to Brown, who died Monday at age 73 and whose body lay in an open casket at the Apollo. Helicopters hovered overhead, police officers struggled to corral attendees, a horde of television cameras jostled for better views. Fans sang James Brown songs and reminisced about James Brown concerts.
"I'd have to say that musically, the first half of the 20th century belonged to Louis Armstrong, and the second half to James Brown," said Brian Polite. "Without him, there would have been this enormous hole in modern music, and funk, rock and hip-hop would not have been the same."
"He was an innovator at every level," said Ron Paizley, standing next to Polite and holding a James Brown album. "See this song, 'Give It Up or Turn It Loose'? That's the beginning of hip-hop, right there."
Brown's body arrived at 1 p.m. in a white carriage drawn by two white horses. The casket left a Georgia funeral parlor Wednesday for an all-night drive to New York. It arrived at the Rev. Al Sharpton's Harlem headquarters just before noon Thursday, and was quickly transferred to the carriage for a 20-block procession to the theater.
Sharpton, a close friend of the singer, accompanied the body from Georgia and walked behind the carriage. He stood at Brown's side for hours during the viewing.
On Friday, a private ceremony is planned at a church near Augusta, Ga. A second public viewing of the singer's body will be held Saturday at the James Brown Arena in Augusta.
Brown's casket was placed in the middle of the Apollo stage, beside a floral arrangement that spelled out "Godfather." He was flanked by in-concert photos, and dressed, as though his band were about to tear into "Mother Popcorn, Pt. 1," in a sparkly bright-blue suit, with epaulets and silver trim and matching silver shoes. Instead of reverential organ chords or silence, the Apollo played Brown's uncontainably funky music.
The announced schedule called for Brown's body to remain until 8 p.m., but seven hours hardly seemed enough time for everyone there to say a personal goodbye. It wasn't just that a line went around the block. Two lines -- one out the door to the right, the other out the door and left -- went around the block. At 4 p.m. one of them curled three blocks north to 128th Street.
For decades, Brown and the Apollo were a devastating combination. His live album at the venue, from a sublimely kinetic performance in 1962, landed at No. 2 in the Billboard charts -- one of the great crossover moments in the history of pop. Brown returned again and again to the Apollo, selling out two shows a night, night after night, killing each time. Other performers who had to follow Brown in the days and weeks after his shows complained that nobody in the neighborhood had any money left once he'd swept through the place. People Thursday talked about his concerts as if they were tropical storms.
"You were in a roar until you left," said Kolu Baysah, as she waited near the front of the line. "The sheer excitement of him changing from one outfit to the other. And when he sang, it was like he was singing directly to you, and you just needed to get up and shake it."
A few hard-core fans reportedly showed up at the Apollo at midnight. When it seemed for a moment that the media would be admitted into the theater before anyone else, a few hundred people started chanting, "We were here first!" Ultimately, they entered first, too.
Fans waved placards bearing photos of the artist and emblazoned with "James Brown Forever." Bootleg James Brown CDs were on sale, as were bootleg James Brown shirts. One guy, who looked far too old to be trying James Brown's dance steps, was giving it his best shot on a sidewalk.
"Do the split!" one onlooker shouted. "I'll give you $20 if you do the split."
Among those who turned up was David Butts, a backup dancer for Brown when he was a kid and a former member of the Parkettes, which he described as "the first professional rock and roll dancers in the world." Brown saw the Parkettes at the Apollo and approached the group's manager, telling him he needed six kids to work with him for six months.
It wasn't exactly a vacation. Brown was a perfectionist and if a musician or dancer missed a cue, he or she was fined for the infraction. Butts was fined exactly once.
"He thought I didn't give my best performance at Madison Square Garden. $25. But then he gave it back. He said, 'Aw, David, you did the job.' We had good times, we had bad times. That's part of life."
The Associated Press contibuted to this report.