Tuesday, January 02, 2007

RIP Soul Brother Number One

In 1999, me and my friends, on a whim, took a road trip to Los Angeles to see James Brown. It was a Tuesday afternoon. We picked up one of my friends off the street and brought her along. It was that random.

At the House of Blues on the Sunset Strip, we waited for our inside guy, a tagger named Nuke, to sneak us in. We saw Ronald Isley walking to his car in front of a hotel. Across the street, Eddie Griffin was performing at The Comedy Store. It was the middle of summer, and LA was on full display. I was 21 years old, with 20 bucks in my pocket, if that, about to go to my first James Brown concert.

Our guy got us in through backstage, just in time to see the LA band The Blues Experiment, playing the biggest gig of their lives. Me and my friend Jesus and Victor hung out near the bar, drinking Bud Lights and figuring out what we were doing in Los Angeles, hundreds of miles from home, with no place to stay, on a weekday night.

Then James Brown's band came on stage, something like a 20-piece collective dressed in fancy suits. They played Sex Machine, and everyone went absolutely nuts. They played for a few minutes before the announcer introduced The Hardest Working Man in Show Business. At that point, the only people not dancing were the bartenders, and that was only because they had to work.

Brown wore a nail-polish red suit hair round as an astronaut helmet, dancing like a crazed lion. He was in his 70s, doing the splits, singing his guts out, leading his band. I'm not sure I had seen anything like it up to that point, and I felt lucky that I was old enough to realize how special that moment was back than.

Of course, the night was interesting for a lot of other reasons: I saw Dan Akroyd, one of the owners of House of Blues, parading around the crowd with a six-foot blond bombshell in each arm. I also scoped a seven-foot brother in a suit and thought it was Shaq. It wasn't, but I was still a little awestruck (I remember turning to my friend and saying "I gotta check this out!").

But most of all, I remember the godfather of soul, the inventor of rap music, the Soul Brother Number One, sweating up a storm in a loud suit and still managing to be the coolest thing for miles. He died last week, on Christmas Day, no less, quasi-tragic yet appropriate.

RIP James Brown. You left your mark on the world, and kept it moving to the beat at the same time.

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