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20 People Who Changed Black Music: James Brown, The First, The Last, The Legend

At 73, most folk are thinking about winding down with their careers and taking it easy, but that wasn't the case for the Godfather of Soul. James Brown took off on tour at 73, singing at places like Punchestown, Ireland, where he rocked 80,000 people on the main stage at the Oxegen Festival. That tour, called the "Seven Decades of Funk World Tour," was the last for the man known as the "Hardest Working Man in Show Business." Brown died on Christmas Day 2006, but not before leaving a legacy of unduplicated rhythm and blues, topped with a strong message of pride and determination. Brown merged his music and his actions with the civil rights movement of the 1960s. He flew to Mississippi in 1966 to visit activist James Meredith, who was wounded during the "March Against Fear." And it wasn't unusual for Brown to perform at benefit concerts for civil rights organizations, sometimes canceling other shows to do so. And once on stage, he would raise the fist in the air and lead the crowd in shouting, "Say it Loud ... I'm black and I'm proud!" While some singers would change their style in hopes of attracting a larger crossover audience, Brown always chose "to be himself," said Shelley Stewart, a Birmingham-based associate of Brown who also spent decades in the music business.

"James Brown was definitely before his time," says Bobby Bennett, program director for XM Radio's popular Soul Street. "He was a perfectionist. He was a businessman. He was always working to get the show just right," Bennett told BlackAmericaWeb.com. As a teen, Bennett met Brown at a concert with a friend whose father was a disc jockey. Years later, the two would meet again in the business and develop a friendship. People would see James Brown on stage, and not know the "real" James Brown, Bennett said. "He was a very caring man. There were times he would help his friends who were disc jockeys if they were having tough times. That's just how he was." At various points in his life, Brown amassed millions, partly because he maintained control of much of his business. When it wasn't popular to do so, Brown handled his own show promotions. He even wrote many of the songs that went on to become hits. "When James Brown performed in a city, he would send his manager in to make arrangements for the venue. He would buy the radio time to advertise the show. There was no middle man," Bennett said. Not only did he handle his own show promotions, he owned his own radio stations in the 70s, and he owned his own airplane. The pride Brown sang about in his music duplicated the pride he had in his life, his friends maintain. "James Brown wasn't looking for a handout. He said ‘Open up the door, and I'll get it myself," the Rev. Al Sharpton said Tuesday night during a tribute to the Godfather at the BET Awards. Sharpton developed a relationship with Brown as he grew up in New York and continued it for a lifetime. "He was pro-black ... he was proud," Sharpton said. We must "teach another generation to rare their shoulders back and ‘Say it Loud, I am black, and I am proud.'" Sharpton described Brown as an "American original."

"Donald Trump flies on his own plane, but that's what you expect. He inherited money," said Marc Eliot, author of Brown's memoir, "I Feel Good," published in 2005. "James Brown earned his money on stage and through the selling his chart topping music." "James Brown was loud and proud. The person you saw performing on stage was not an act. It was an extension of the man and who he really was," Eliot said. "He started his own publishing company because he didn't trust anybody. It wasn't a racial thing. It was about being in business for yourself to control your own organization." That music and that style of doing business will be around forever, as others borrow from the lessons taught by James Brown, observers said. "He was the first in his generation to combine things that came from the church with things that did not come from the church. And he did it with excitement and sincerity," says Steve Waksman, assistant professor of music and American Studies at Smith College. One of Brown's first, big commercial records, "Please, Please, Please," recorded with the Flames in 1956, mixed moans, groans and screams with a passionate ballad. Brown would record several songs between 1956 and 1963, but they did not enjoy the same success. Then came "Live at the Apollo in 1963," and Brown was soon riding high on the charts, a position that became familiar for the entertainer for years to come. "In the beginning, he stuck with the traditional soul. Then in the 1970s, he shifted from soul to funk," Waksman told BlackAmericaWeb.com. Brown realized that black music was popular and that there was no reason why blacks should not reap the benefits of that popularity, Waksman said. He knew that "if all you do is perform, you'll only get so much of what is owed to you." Today, rappers and hip-hop singers continue using some of James Brown's flavor in their music through sampling, Bennett said. "Most of James Brown's music was made for dancing," Bennett said. "That music will live on forever."

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