Getting James Brown to stand still was just about the hardest thing in show business. Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin found a way to do it three years ago by interrupting a concert to present Brown with the key to the city. Before long, though, the singer went right back to imitating a pack of lit firecrackers. “At 11 p.m. the city tried to stop his show because of a curfew, but James insisted he should be able to continue because the mayor had taken too much of his time,” says Bob Young, a former mayor of Augusta, Ga., and one of Brown’s closest friends. “He kept performing until they actually had to unplug the amplifiers to get him to stop.”
James Joseph Brown Jr., billed the world over as the Hardest Working Man in Show Business, finally stopped working last week, at 73. Stricken by pneumonia, he entered an Atlanta hospital and died of heart failure on Christmas Day. Pure energy in skintight pants and sky-high pompadour, Brown devised his own delirious brand of hard-charging R&B, writing and performing songs like “I Got You (I Feel Good)” and “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag”—hits that shaped dozens of today’s top artists, from Mick Jagger to rapper Snoop Dogg. “James Brown has influenced black music more than any other entertainer dead or alive,” says Island Def Jam chairman L.A. Reid. “His influence will be felt for generations.”
Yet the Godfather of Soul (which, like all his nicknames, was self-bestowed) was just as famous for his over-the-top personal life. Married four times and the father of at least six children, he was arrested in 2004 for domestic violence. In 1988, police trying to arrest him had to shoot out the tires of his truck, and he spent 15 months in jail on assault charges. Those close to him say he was driven by demons born of racial discrimination. “He was a poor black guy from the South, and that pain was always with him,” says his lawyer and friend Debra Opri. Despite winning two Grammys and being named a Kennedy Center honoree in 2003, Brown “never thought he was treated the same as others because of race,” says Opri. “He just never got past that hurt.”
Brown was only 4 when his mother left him to be raised in poverty by an aunt in Augusta. At 16 he broke into cars and earned three years in jail. Once free, he toured with a band called the Famous Flames; their first single, 1956’s “Please, Please, Please,” was a huge hit. “He sang with so much feeling you could feel it in your toes,” says longtime friend Little Richard. “When he sang [his 1968 hit and civil rights anthem] ‘Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud,’ he made black people feel special about themselves.”
Enduringly iconic—Eddie Murphy’s turn as James Early in the new movie Dreamgirls is based in part on Brown—he fought off prostate cancer in 2004 but grew weaker in his final months. “At the end he couldn’t get through a sentence without coughing,” says Young. His death was not without controversy: In the ensuing days, while lawyers wrangled over whether or not he and backup singer Tomi Rae Hynie, 36, were legally married (they have a son, James II, 5), Hynie was locked out of Brown’s Beech Island, S.C., home.
None of that mattered to his many saddened fans, who marked his passing by focusing on the ferocious and primal joy of his music. “His legacy will live on in every way you can imagine,” says Snoop Dogg. “Soul Brother No. 1, we miss you.”