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Froma Harrop: The James Brown Paradox

Froma HarropThere were many wondrous things about James Brown, who just died at 73. One is that he died at 73, and not at 55 or 37 or some age more appropriate for someone who drank, took drugs and amassed wives. Nothing in the Godfather of Soul’s bio suggests that he followed many of the surgeon general’s recommendations. In his case, the grim reaper had chosen leniency.

We read of people his age who attend to their health as a full-time job. They do Sudoku puzzles to stay mentally sharp. They puff on stationary bicycles to build stamina. Yet how many of them could, like James Brown, do leg splits in the air while screaming “I Feel Good!” into a mike.

What was Brown’s secret? How is it that he didn’t die of a drug overdose at 27 like Jimi Hendrix, or at 21 like Sid Vicious? Brown was arrested in 1988 after a high-speed interstate car chase, but he evaded death by auto accident — unlike the Byrds’ Clarence White, who perished at 29, or Keith Godchaux of the Grateful Dead at 32. He was treated for prostate cancer, but cancer did not get him, as it had felled Frank Zappa at 52 and Nat “King” Cole at 48. Heart failure finally did him in, but at the ripe age of 73, not at 27, like Jim Morrison, or 53, like Jerry Garcia.

“A miracle” is how Rich Lupo, a Providence rock club owner who twice booked James Brown, characterized the man’s longevity. Lupo recalls a day in the late 1970s when Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci tried to give Brown the key to the city at Wes’ Rib House. As word spread that Brown was at Wes’, hundreds of fans gathered to see him. The police, unaware that Brown was there, thought a riot was in progress and charged into the restaurant with German shepherds. The mayor, Lupo and Brown ran out the back door to get away.

Yes, Brown led an eventful life. He spent his early years in crushing poverty. Born in a shack in Barnwell, S.C., he moved into his aunt’s brothel at age 4. His early contact with medicine must have been minimal. He married three times — four if you count the last union, which may not have been a legal marriage because his bride already had a husband at the time of their nuptials.

Eat right. Sleep eight hours. Take vacations. The man who called himself “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business” — or “Dynamite,” for short — did none of those things.

He did, however, exercise. Jumping on stage, fast footwork dancing, breathing in and yelling out — he did the equivalent of a step class at every performance, and he kept a full schedule. Brown must have been aerobically superb.

Perhaps also, black artists who survived the stresses of poverty and Jim Crow developed an almost superhuman vigor. Recent commentary marvels that white rock stars like Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney, both in their early 60s, continue to do shows. That’s nothing. R&B legend Bo Diddley still tours at 78, as does rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Chuck Berry, who recently turned 80.

James Brown’s demise on Christmas morning seemed a bit untimely in that he had plans for New Year’s Eve. However, he did pack a house a couple of days after dying, this time at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. Several visitors said they half expected the body — dressed in a rhinestone tux, pompadour in place — to jump out of the gold coffin and start dancing to “Sex Machine.”

Not this time. The reaper had finally put his foot down.

Copyright 2006 The Providence Journal Co.

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