A showman even in death, James Brown drew thousands of fans to pay their final respects in the streets of Harlem and at a tribute inside New York City’s Apollo Theater on Thursday.
The line to enter the Apollo, where the Rev. Al Sharpton was hosting the memorial, stretched across several city blocks. Among those hoping to gain entrance was actress Julia Stiles, who asked a police officer if she could skip the line – but he didn’t recognize her (another officer, who did know who she was, eventually let her in).
The Godfather of Soul’s 24-karat gold coffin was transported to the theater on a white carriage drawn by two white Percheron horses with feather-plumed headdresses as fans for 20 blocks cheered from windows and balconies.
The most dedicated fans had begun to line up at midnight on Wednesday to see James Brown for the last time, laid out on the stage where he started his career. Some brought flowers and signs to pay homage, all brought memories of the music legend that touched their lives.
New Edition and Bell Biv DeVoe member Michael Bivins, 38, came to honor Brown, telling PEOPLE, “I’m just here as a family member, as a student of a legend. That’s what I’m supposed to do. If I’m a part of the music business, it’s a part of me to pay respect.”
The carriage arrived at the Apollo around 1 p.m., where a block party atmosphere ruled on 125th street: Store owners had set out James Brown videos for sale, street peddlers hawked homemade “Godfather of Soul” t-shirts and attention-seekers danced in the street to Brown’s music blasting from record stores. Fans chanted, “Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud.”
Inside the Apollo, Brown was laid out in his open coffin dressed in a blue suit, white gloves and silver shoes. “We wanted a horse and carriage to bring him in because we thought he deserved that,” Sharpton said as such Brown classics as “Gonna Have a Funky Good Time,” “Hot Pants” and “Try Me” played in the background.
Brown’s embattled partner, Tomi Rae Brown, was at the service, as were six of Brown’s children – although his and Tomi Rae’s 5-year-old son, James Joseph Jr., was not present. (“I didn’t think it was appropriate for him to come,” Tomi Rae said.)
Sharpton, who took to the stage at around 6:15, gave a dramatic speech in which he described Brown as a “social leader and innovator” who became a superstar “on his own terms. He made you respect us, that’s why we respect him.”
Sharpton continued, “He was our friend, he was our father. This man stood for us, the common man. It was James Brown that with one song erased the word Negro from our vocabulary forever and made us say it and say it loud, that we were black and we were proud.”
Next Charles Bobbitt, Brown’s business manager, spoke, saying he was with Brown when he died. “Before he passed he said, ‘I’m gonna leave you tonight,’ ” he recalled. “He sighed three times very quietly, closed his eyes and drifted off.”
Tomi Rae Brown also spoke. “I love that man and I have loved that man ever since I met that man,” she said. “He wasn’t always the nicest man but … I’m gonna miss him.”
The program ended at 6:48 p.m. with a closing prayer from Sharpton, but the viewing of the body was extended until 9 p.m. so that everyone who’d waited in the long lines could pay their final respects, Sharpton said.
James Brown’s personal manager, Frank “Super Frank” Copsidas, was impressed by the number of fans who came to pay respect. “The turnout has been simply amazing, and the outpouring of love and support and sympathy has really touched all our hearts,” he told PEOPLE.
He said his fondest recollections of Brown didn’t involve his legendary showmanship. “The memories that I have of him are about his generosity and his kindness,” he said. “We’d be driving in the limousine, and he’d stop at a corner and get out and give a homeless person his coat, or a couple dollars, and that’s a side of James Brown that nobody saw, and he didn’t want anybody to see that. He didn’t do it for publicity. He did it because he was a good human being.”