A long wait to say goodbye

Thousands pay respects as James Brown lies in Apollo

December 29, 2006|By Nick Madigan | Nick Madigan,Sun reporter

NEW YORK -- Thousands jammed 125th Street and waited in line for hours yesterday to pay their respects to James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, whose body lay inside Harlem's Apollo Theater.

On the stage of the historic building, the Rev. Al Sharpton, a longtime friend, stood near the head of the casket, speaking occasionally to people passing by in a slow, deliberate procession. Some took pictures; others simply looked and moved on.

Brown's music blared through the air.

Later, at an evening program for family and close friends, Sharpton said it was difficult to believe that a man who was "so much alive" was dead.

"How could someone with such energy and life really ever be gone?" Sharpton said.

"James wasn't just No. 1," he said. "He changed the beat of music all over the world."

Brown, 73, died in an Atlanta hospital on Christmas Day of congestive heart failure.

Earlier, outside the theater, dozens of police officers did their best to keep the crowds behind barricades.

"Black and white, everyone loved his music," said Noel Wilson, 55, who had flown to New York from Aliquippa, Pa., with her 13-year-old granddaughter, Modesty.

Wilson said she used to watch Brown perform at the Polish Hall -- now a church -- when she was younger than Modesty is now.

"I made her a James Brown fan," Wilson said, patting the girl on her arm. "She'll see him today, but I wish it wasn't like this. I wish it were at a concert, instead of a memorial."

The Apollo Theater viewing was supposed to start at 1 p.m., but it was nearly two hours later when the doors opened. Fans stamped their feet against the cold and weathered the badgering of street peddlers hawking T-shirts, DVDs and other Brown-related paraphernalia.

"Please let us in," one woman yelled at the officers and theater employees at the Apollo's entrance, under the marquee that called Brown an "Apollo Legend" and "the Godfather of Soul." "We've been here since 5 this morning."

As throngs waited outside the theater, Brown's gold casket had arrived in a style befitting his legendary showmanship.

A coachman in a white top hat guided a white carriage, pulled by white horses wearing white-plumed headdresses, through the crowd to the theater's door.

Boom boxes blaring "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" and "I Got You (I Feel Good)" -- songs that cemented Brown's legacy -- mixed with the impatient crowd and rumbling buses.

Many who stood outside waiting to see the performer, known for his funky style with a tinge of blues and gospel, remembered Brown's concerts at the Apollo.

Kathy Womack, an art teacher at Sojourner Truth School, a few blocks away on West 117th Street, carried a poster made by her 17-year-old daughter, Shalimar, bearing the title of one of Brown's most famous songs, "Say It Loud: I'm Black and I'm Proud."

"That was my favorite song," said Womack, who showed up at the Apollo at 5:45 a.m.

"I was in high school at the time, and there was a revolution of black power. That song instilled black pride in ourselves and our communities. He would sing `Don't Be a Dropout,' stand up on your own two feet, and I tell my daughter that."

Perry Little Jr., 62, carrying a James Brown bobble-head doll said that, as a child, he used to sneak into a theater in Brooklyn when Brown was going to play and sleep behind the stage until concert time.

Yesterday, he carried the Brown doll like a trophy.

"I've had a lot of offers for it, one for $400, but I wouldn't sell it for nothing," Little said.

Juan Alvarez, 52, a telecommunications worker, remembered emulating Brown's penchant for wearing capes on stage and tossing microphones around.

"I had my mother buy me three bathrobes so I could do `Please Please Please,' so I could change the robe and put on another one," he said.

"I used to take a telephone and throw it and catch it back with the cord."

Gloria Lowe got a few laughs when she opened her coat to show the vintage hot pants she said she had gone home to put on to help her get to the front of the line.

The ruse had worked at a Brown concert here years ago when, she said, the line was almost as long as this one.

When the crowd finally started filing into the theater, a respectful silence overtook everyone, jarred only by the loud Brown songs emanating from speakers on the stage of the ornate gold-and-red auditorium.

Brown's casket was open, and he was dressed in a royal-blue outfit adorned with what appeared to be sequins.

Ever the indefatigable performer, he had been scheduled to give a concert in New York, at B.B. King's nightclub New Year's Eve, and had other dates lined up. But he was hospitalized in Atlanta with pneumonia Sunday and died early Monday.

A private ceremony is planned today at a church near Augusta, Ga.

A second public viewing of the singer's body will be held tomorrow at the James Brown Arena in Augusta.

nick.madigan@baltsun.com

Wire services contributed to this article.

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