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James Brown, dead at 73

Music legend made his first mark in Macon

There was only one Godfather of Soul.

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James Brown, who died Christmas Day at Emory Crawford Long Hospital at the age of 73 of congestive heart failure, was one of the key figures of popular music in the 20th century. Aside from his own landmark records, he single-handedly invented funk music, which in turn inspired rappers and hip-hop. In fact, Brown is known as the most sampled artist in hip-hop.

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"Disco is James Brown, hip-hop is James Brown, rap is James Brown, you know what I'm saying?" he told the Associated Press in 2003. "You hear all the rappers, 90 percent of their music is me."

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Born in Barnwell, S.C., in 1933, Brown was sentenced to hard labor at a juvenile work farm in Toccoa at the age of 16 for breaking into a car. After his release in 1952, he began to sing in a gospel quartet called the Gospel Starlighters. When the group switched to R&B music, they changed their name to the Flames.

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While Brown was always associated with Augusta, he made his musical mark in Macon. In the spring of 1955, Little Richard played a concert in Toccoa at a joint called Bill's Rendezvous Club. During the intermission, Brown led the Flames on stage and began to perform, uninvited. Little Richard's road manager was impressed enough to give them the number of Clint Brantley, who managed most of the R&B acts based in Macon.

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The following Saturday, the Flames showed up at Brantley's office. Brantley was hungover and at first told them to leave. Finally, he invited them to sing him a spiritual. They huddled and began to sing a song called "Looking for My Mother."

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"Goddamn, man, them sons-of-bitches, they looked for her, too," Brantley would recall. "All under the tables, all under the damned seats. Everywhere. When they got through, I said, 'Boys, y'all can sing!'"

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Brantley signed the group and months later, Brown recorded his first record in a little radio station in Macon: "Please, Please, Please." Brantley sent a copy of the song to Hamp Swain, the influential DJ at Macon's WBML-AM who had first aired Little Richard and would later help break Otis Redding. "It was one of those acetates like we used to cut commercials," Swain said. "I put it on the air and we got a tremendous reaction. Immediately. The phone lines just lit up." Weeks later, the song broke nationally and reached No. 5 on the R&B charts. Brown followed it with songs that helped define his generation: "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," "Cold Sweat," "Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)," "I Got You (I Feel Good)."

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Brown was known as the "hardest working man in show business" but was also known for his temper. He'd fine musicians if they made a mistake on stage, sometimes berating them in front of the crowd.

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There also was the legendary night in the early '60s when Brown returned to Macon for a "homecoming show" at the City Auditorium. Joe Tex opened the concert and decided to have some fun at Brown's expense. Mimicking Brown's traditional closing bit, Tex walked out on stage wearing a ragged blanket as a cape. He did a picture-perfect imitation of a James Brown fall, except he grabbed his back as he reached his knees. He tangled himself up in the blanket and fought to get out as he sang, "Please, please, please ... get me out of this cape."

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Brown was not amused. He found Tex at a Macon club later that night, where a young Otis Redding was performing. Brown walked in and gunshots erupted. Redding and the other musicians scrambled off the stage and took cover behind a piano, while Tex ran outside and hid in the woods until Brown left.

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Brown's later years were marked by run-ins with authorities in Augusta. He served 15 months in prison after he got high on PCP in 1988 and led police on a chase through Georgia and South Carolina.

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But it is his music that will endure. What Elvis Presley is to rock 'n' roll, James Brown is to R&B.



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