Soul Brother Number One is Done
It’s show business as usual as the Godfather of Soul is laid to rest.
On December 30, 2006, fans packed the 8,500-seat James Brown Arena in Augusta, Georgia, to say goodbye to the hardest-working man in show business, James Brown. The hometown farewell was anything but reverent. A gathering of notorious friends and family created an embarrassing spectacle while Brown lay in an open coffin that gleamed like a polished brass trumpet. Admirers had begun lining up at 9 p.m. the night before to view Brown’s immaculately dressed body—pristine black suit, red shirt, and jewel-tipped shoes. As always, the bouffant hair-do was combed to perfection. The Soul Generals, his touring band, walked on stage as Brown’s longtime show emcee Danny Ray took over as master of ceremonies. The horns knocked out a typically funky riff to a James Brown hit, but something wasn’t right. The world is accustomed to a simple fact: when the band plays, James Brown moves. Instead, a large oil portrait of Brown singing stood near the casket. It was the beginning of an ugly afternoon.
A series of former backup singers took turns belting out James Brown numbers, all except for Tomi (pronounced “Tommy”) Rae Brown, Brown’s widow, backup singer, and mother of the late star’s five-year-old son. Formerly Tomi Rae Hynie, a Janis Joplin impersonator whom Brown met in Las Vegas in 1997, Tomi Rae made headlines when she was locked out of the couple’s mansion in Beech Island, South Carolina, after Brown’s death on Christmas Day (whether the couple were legally married has been questioned). Instead of a James Brown song, Tomi Rae sang Sam and Dave’s “Hold On (I’m Comin’)” as she knelt over Brown’s open casket.
She sang the chorus while staring at her husband’s corpse, her performance marked by what appeared to be a touch of sarcasm. At one point, she snatched a rose from a nearby bouquet and dropped it on top of the singer’s body.
Their relationship had been tumultuous. Tomi Rae had Brown arrested in 2004 for threatening her with a metal chair. The charges were dropped. It was not the first time Brown had been locked up for abusing wives. Third wife Adrienne Rodriegues had him arrested four times during their 10-year marriage.
Michael Jackson’s appearance was predictably dramatic. After a grand entrance into the arena with his entourage, Jackson hovered close over Brown’s corpse, face to face. Speculation based on television images was that he kissed Brown’s cheek. In his trademark childlike voice, Jackson later addressed the gathering: “James Brown is my greatest inspiration. Ever since I was a small child, no more than like six years old, my mother would wake me no matter what time it was . . . to watch the television to see the master at work. And when I saw him move, I was mesmerized. I’d never seen a performer perform like James Brown. And right then and there I knew that was exactly what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”
Al Sharpton was in charge at the event. Sharpton appeared distracted throughout the service until he took the microphone to eulogize Brown. He began by welcoming Jackson. “Michael says he don’t care what they say, Michael came for you today, Mr. Brown! I don’t care what the media says tonight. James Brown wanted Michael Jackson with him here today!” The crowd cheered. Sharpton then focused on Brown, noting that the singer had to struggle because “he wasn’t light-skinned with smooth hair. He looked like us.” (Unfortunately, Jackson’s reaction could not be seen when Sharpton said that.) The reverend spoke of Brown in heaven, speculating that he’s probably bragging to Ray Charles about how many people are showing up for his memorial services. (This was the second service; the first was two days earlier at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem.)
Sharpton implored, “St. Peter, if you don’t consider it too arrogant, I don’t know too much yet about what you do in heaven. But if you have Sunday morning service, you ought to let James Brown sing tomorrow morning. I know you got angels that can sing, but they never had to shine shoes on Broad Street (in Augusta)! They never had their heart broken! They never been to jail for doing nothing wrong!” From the podium, Sharpton openly criticized police for once “shooting 22 bullets into [Brown’s] vehicle, blowing out the tires . . . and for what?”
Sharpton omitted the rest of the story. In 1988, Brown, high on PCP, carried a shotgun into an insurance seminar next to his Augusta office. He accused the participants of using his private restroom. Brown was then pursued by police for half an hour into South Carolina. The chase ended when the tires of his truck were shot out. Brown served more than two years in a South Carolina prison.
Sharpton then introduced “my rabbi, mentor, and friend, Reverend Jesse Jackson.” Taking the stage, Jackson promptly announced, “James Brown upstaged Santa Claus on Christmas Day by making his transition!” Activist Dick Gregory spoke next. Then came the president of Augusta’s Paine College, who walked on stage in cap and gown to bestow a posthumous Doctorate of Humanities. It had been a four-hour service by the time the coffin was closed. For Tomi Rae, it had ended a little sooner. According to the story she told CNN’s Larry King several nights later, she had been asked to leave the funeral after vehemently denouncing Reverend Sharpton for referring to her on stage as “Tammy.” &