Walking the Line for James Brown

(Cary Conover slideshow here)

Thousands of New Yorkers sang and danced in the cold Thursday to give James Brown a final goodbye. The Godfather of Soul died over Christmas at age 73. Early yesterday morning, a white carriage pulled by two horses brought Brown's body to the Apollo Theater in Harlem.

By noon, hundreds of visitors had arrived; thousands more would come before nightfall. Record stores along 125th Street blasted Brown's hard funk into the chill air. I stood in circle of people, watching a homeless woman flap her knees as we whooped and hollered. A man joined her, then another until we stopped watching, stepped in, and rode Brown's rhythms with our hips, grinning wildly.

The joy was catching. Police bobbed their heads. After dancing, I got in one of the two lines that began at the Apollo Theater and wove around the block. The mainly black crowd waited in line for hours in what felt more like family reunion than a funeral.

A man held his radio above his head, showering us with Brown's funk. As he passed by, the older black woman leaned over and told me, "His music was hopeful."  Soon she was telling me of her childhood in New York and listening to James Brown, and why Prince, not Michael Jackson, is the real heir to his throne. It was like that, with people sharing memories and gossip. Three hours, we later we turned the corner to 125th Street.

City Councilman Charles Barron worked the crowed, shaking hands as behind him media trucks hummed and satellite dishes blinked in the air. Reporters dug through the line of people for stories. Others dug into the line for spots. A woman asked a group of whites if she could cut in. They stuttered a no and she just stood in with them. The older black woman I'd been talking to murmured, "She's knew better than to ask us."

We began to tell progress by feet, then inches. Whomever you were around you were stuck with. One brother with a skull-cap kept yelling, "Holla black from your core!" The white couple behind me stopped chatting and got still. A lot of us held our breath waiting to see how crazy he was until another brother with a fedora hat turned and bellowed, "I'll say it loud. I'm black and I'm cold!"

Another hour passed. We stamped the chill off our feet. The wind seemed to freeze our voices as we waited. A macabre sense of humor settled in. A young man began it. "We should just grab his body and pass him along," he said. "Let everyone see him real quick." Laughter rippled down the line. "Yeah, I'm going to grab his hand and give myself an autograph," a woman snapped back.

Near the Portabella store, a TV jutted out above our heads. The slow-blinking lady pointed to it. On the screen flashed a video of Brown. He howled into the microphone, then stood and leaned in, cooing a syllable that became a shriek. He danced and dipped into a split. "Damn, ain't no one can do that," the brother in the hat said. "Michael Jackson got all his moves from James, but was nowhere as good."

Brown did in death what he did in life, made strangers into family. The hustler, the white liberal couple, the crazy woman and the old school fans danced together. The line moved and we squeezed forward a foot and the bright Apollo sign was in our faces.

Around 6 p.m., family of Brown went in to the Apollo for a private prayer. We waited for an hour, shuffling inch by inch until the NYPD opened the barricades again. We crushed into the opening. "Hold back," an officer said. "Hold back!"

It was warm inside the theaer. On the walls around us were photos of black performers from Nina Simone to James Brown and Al Green. They looked like royalty in a museum of the black voice. As if all these faces had shaped and reshaped our need to be heard, lifting it so the world could hear us.

"We made it," I said. My friend nodded back. "Yep, we did." I lost sight of her as we lined up to enter the auditorium. Overhead played a crackly recording from Brown's 1962 Apollo concert. "He is the best blues singer in the world. He is the best country singer in the world. He is the best soul singer in the world," shouted the announcer to an audience that would never hear him again.

Close friends and family sat in the front rows, studying Brown as if too etch in the mind every detail before he was beyond sight. I walked up the stairs to the coffin. He lay inside, his face stoic, his blue suit glittering. He had on silver shoes. I thought, man, what a beautiful defiance of death to be buried in shoes that shine. The ushers hurried us off the stage, and I walked outside to the Harlem streets that hummed like an open-air church. It was out here in the ecstatic joy that I could understand how James Brown, a man raised in a brothel and taught to sing in a church, achieved his success. He created a religion even sinners could believe in.

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