It was December 28, 2006. Amid the flood of new customers in Harlem, folks behind the counter at Bobby’s Happy House and Music Store managed not to sell their last copy of a James Brown cassette. Now it blasted toward the crowd on Frederick Douglas Boulevard. The sound from the speakers was crunchy and low, but it ripened in the morning air. We could hear the music from the across the street, where we waited in line to pay our respects to the body of James Brown, lying in state at the Apollo Theatre.
Around the corner from the Apollo, we noticed vendors on 8th Avenue hocking at least five or six varieties of commemorative T-shirts. “You’ll be the only white guy on the block with this one,” one of the smiling salesmen beckoned as he slung his T-shirt over my shoulder. I didn’t buy the shirt, but the air of commerce was inspiring. It seemed proper that savvy Harlem hustlers were inaugurating James Brown’s money-shaking legacy.
The crowd in line was mostly black and proud, but it felt good to be white too. “Oh, you know about that,” a woman said to me as I fingered a bootleg Percy Sledge CD. Behind me, two old friends recalled James Brown’s debut at the Apollo. There was soul power in the air. When our neighbors in line chanted, “I’m black and I’m proud,” I didn’t join in, but I felt no exclusion at their testimony to the man who many say invented modern black music and opened it up to the world.
The line continued to move down Frederick Douglas Boulevard, and we were grateful for the funk that blazed forth from Bobby’s Happy House. The music was loud enough so that we could hear Clyde Stubblefield’s drumming as it severed the sounds of passing traffic.
Despite their tears, people in Harlem carried the current of Mr. Brown’s electricity. Funk passed from generations to children with wheels in their shoes and a twitch in their DNA. After waiting with our fellow funk soldiers for nearly two hours in line, it was not a hard decision, ultimately, to leave that line and join the crowd dancing in front of Bobby’s. Crossing the street to dance seemed an appropriate gesture to celebrate James Brown’s legacy. We dodged passing cars and found a place under the speakers. At first, we held to the periphery of the crowd, watching the watchers. From the edges, we could just glimpse the dancers, thickly packed into the nucleus of the throng.
“Go girl go!” someone called, as a child made her way into the center of the crowd. The girl, about 10 years old, at first froze amid the spectacle. But then she dropped a shoulder and got a look in her eyes that shrieked like James Brown saying, “Even if I lift my finger, it will be funky! And you better watch out, ‘cause I got soul and I‘m super-bad.”
James Brown’s gravity—his secret voodoo cloaked in black and gold—is not something that sits still in a coffin. I read recently that his hometown of Augusta, Georgia erected a statue in Mr. Brown’s honor. To me, this seemed slightly odd—how could James Brown fit into a statue? I went to Harlem today to remember him less like a statue and more like a movement across street corners from Harlem to Lagos, from Detroit discos to the backest back-woods barbeques, where funk is something you eat, live and let die only until the next party emerges across the road. Then you cross the road. You leave the past in order to find it alive in front of an old record shop or wherever it is that people still sell cassettes and dance on the corner when the spirit moves them.
Harlem’s wake was testament to the part of James Brown that would never lie in state. In front of Bobby’s Happy House, the hardest working man was still hard and still working in the body of the people who made him what he was and what he still is today: the funky president, the sex machine, the godfather of soul.
In the circle in front of Bobby’s, a grandma grinded and danced toward the sky while someone held her cane. She was with the spirit, and everyone was taking pictures. Cell phones perked up along the skyline of the crowd; flashes filled the space between people. Nothing but smiles and soul, and Maceo twisting his flute around our limbs, making us pass the peas, though no one felt passed over or past. Only dancing and living that beat, that bass, that brass, that logic which scaffolds the “soul”– a Platonic ideal brilliantly co-opted by Mr. James Brown.
Outside of Harlem, people may have been making jokes about James Brown’s mug shots or talking about Gerald Ford’s death; we were doing neither. We were jumping across the street to dance. We were watching the wrinkles in the faces of Harlem, following the threads bold in the jackets of fresh-faced soul men and women. It is written that Brown’s last words were, “I’m going away tonight.” This much is true—James Brown is going, still going tonight.
// Notes from the Road
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