James Brown! Gone on Christmas and born in 1928 with his sun in Taurus and his moon in Leo in Barnwell, South Carolina; educated at the Alto Reform School; as a kid dodged the cops by ducking into a canal and sipping air through a reed; never let the master tapes for Live at the Apollo leave the tote bag at his side; more hit songs in America than anyone behind Elvis; touchstone for every musical genre devised since “Please Please Please” in 1956; most sampled artist in history; an atomic star for an atomic age! If one man should score the soundtrack for the last heavy half of this American century, it is James Brown, who performed in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. and for Zairean president Mobutu Sese-Seko, who grew up in a brothel and finished life in a mansion and quite probably changed the world—the entire world, not just the Beatles-speaking Western world—all on his own. “I was always innocent,” he said once. “My crime was that I was James Brown.”
As a boy, James Brown was sent home from school for wearing insufficient clothes. He would later correct this issue—perhaps overcorrect. Time was, Iggy Pop once said, you could look at the Rolling Stones and learn everything about dressing cool, looking cool, sounding cool. But the Rolling Stones looked to James Brown—Mick Jagger said his greatest mistake was going onstage after Brown in 1964—and what did James Brown say? “Do your hair in different styles,” he said. “Make people notice.” And what did James Brown do? Pretty much everything: Look magazine wondered if he was the most important black man in America in 1969. He was independent (master tapes in hand!), rich (started buying whole radio stations in 1968), popular (96 Billboard Top 100 hits, 116 Billboard R&B hits), had something for everybody (“I'm Black and I'm Proud,” “Don't Be a Drop-Out!”), and for about 15 or 20 years, couldn't helm a bum set. The hardest-working man did 150 to 200 shows a year, sometimes half a dozen albums in a year, once led police on a high-speed chase after waving a gun at a real-estate seminar, and was once asked what he felt soul—the soul that made the hits but also made the car chases—was about. He gave a good answer: “Soul,” he said, “makes you fear God more.” Of course he also said, “Every time I see the words 'sex machine' it reminds me of a cash register opening up.” And on Christmas Eve, he said, “I think I'm going tonight.” Reports say he left quietly.