Andy Royston pays tribute to the hardest working man in show business.
I first saw James Brown’s amazing live act in London in the early 1980s. He was around 50 years old, but the show was every bit as passionate and energetic as it as when he exploded onto the stage in the early 1960s. A recent biopic concentrated on his musical impact, but equally important was the energies Brown devoted to social causes, particularly the youth. He was dedicated to preserving the need for education amongst young people.
The story goes that a young James, born in a one room North Carolina shack, was brought up by his Aunt Honey, who ran a brothel in Augusta, Georgia. Poverty dominated his upbringing. At the whorehouse, he was frequently beaten by his father and other male tenants. James said that he danced for money, shined shoes, picked cotton and was thrown out of school for “insufficient clothes”. At the age of 15 he was given an eight-to-sixteen year jail sentence (he served three) for breaking into cars.
“Take those kids and raise them up, teach them how to drink out of a righteous cup”
James Brown – The Payback
This series of events made him a passionate education advocate, and during 1966, when a heavy drop-out rate swept American schools he released the song Don’t Be A Drop-out. Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag, I Got You (I feel good), and It’s A Mans World had gotten the royalties flowing, so he made sure that all the royalties from Don’t Be A Drop-Out were donated to charity used for dropout prevention programs. Brown declares in the song: “Without an education, you might as well be dead.”
The impact of the song got him all the way to the White House and an audience with Vice President Hubert Humphrey who had been working on a stay-in-school program of his own. Lydon B. Johnson cited Brown for being a positive role model to the youth, while Brown later would gain the ear of Richard Nixon who appeared sympathetic to his plea for more federal funds for black businesses and black colleges.
Rather die on our feet, than keep living on our knees.
James Brown -Say It Loud – I’m Black And I’m Proud (Part I)
Brown would later talk of the impact his songs had on his audience: “People called “Black and Proud” militant and angry – maybe because of the line about dying on your feet instead of living on your knees. But really, if you listen to it, it sounds like a children’s song. That’s why I had children in it, so children who heard it could grow up feeling pride…”
Screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard put it more succinctly. In an incendiary review of the recent Hollywood movie “Get On Up.” he wrote “He was a civil rights icon. Put James in the pantheon of the most impactful black men of the 20th century, and he would not be out of place. How can I make such an assertion? One song: “I’m Black and I’m Proud. He took the thing that the oppressor used to bludgeon us and made it a weapon of pride… That song lifted up an entire race! He put us on his back and carried us. Dr. King gave us our rights. JB gave us our dignity.”
I don’t want nobody to give me nothing, open the door, I’ll get it myself.
James Brown – I Don’t Want Nobody To Give Me Nothing
James Brown spoke out against violence right to the end; his last single was called Killing is Out, School is In. He’d spent most of his life focused on helping kids and actively gave through several youth-focused charities. He’s of course known for his vocal opinions on Civil Rights and the Vietnam War (he would travel there to entertain the troops), but throughout the remainder of his life he made public speeches in schools and continued to advocate the importance of education in school. Brown reportedly gave out money and other items to children while traveling to his childhood hometown of Augusta.
Brown spoke to Interview Magazine’s Dimitri Ehrlich and said “What makes me disgusted is when people in positions to help people don’t help. Education is a must. I want a mandatory law that each young kid must have a high school education and at least two years of tech. If you started today, then you would see a difference in about four or five years.”
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What made James Brown though was the show. This non-stop, consummate singer, entertainer, and showman is most-sampled musician of all time, his impact has extended to so many musical genres, including jazz, house, reggae, dance and rock music. But for me it’s on the dance floor where he really rules the roost…
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