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Froma Harrop: The James Brown Paradox

Posted on Dec 31, 2006

Froma Harrop

There 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.


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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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By Henri NGOBITO, February 8, 2010 at 12:30 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)



“James Brown: The Man, The Music & The Message” is
an inspiring and entertaining program about the
remarkable life of “The Godfather of Soul.” Hosted
by television veteran Dick Cavett, this definitive
biography features up-close and personal interviews
with the legendary entertainer, as well as his great
music, stirring concert performances and major
events in his life. The program also features
interviews and appearances by an impressive list of
music celebrities, including Dick Clark, Michael
Jackson, Little Richard, Bobby Brown, MC Hammer and

Mr. Brown often said, “This film is the best one
ever done on me.”

Purchase the DVD as seen on TV One, with additional
video of recent studio performance by James Brown.

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By Skiracer, January 4, 2007 at 11:03 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

James Brown,
He was THE MAN before any of us knew
what THE MAN was. I first saw JB in concert at the Fargo Civic Auditorium when he was 37 years old. The year was 1970 or so and I was a lad of 19.

Clad in a superfine sharkskin suit, he commanded a well drilled advance combat unit of soul. He was the hardest work’in man in any business and I thought, as he made that stage (dance splits included), that if I should be blessed by the heavens and reach age 37, please god I want to be just like him!

I am now 55 years old, a successful white business man, and ya’ wish granted.

James my man, you still went too soon!

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By johnny keys, January 3, 2007 at 11:35 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

staying in the groove keeps you alive. look at dean martin-made it to 79. he was groovin’ on that walking bass.
don’t forget-Soul Bro #1 James was also a good jazz-blues piano player. he was ” all up in the music ” and that’s what kept him going.

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By Gloria Picchetti, January 3, 2007 at 8:30 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

James Brown set the example for moving it or losing it just as much as Jack La Lanne or Richard Simmons.

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By Michael McCray, January 3, 2007 at 6:33 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Goodbye—Soul Brother #1,Mr.Please,Please,Please-The Godfather of Soul.Now get sum much needed rest.I remeber when “they wouldn’t even play you records on the radio”,and you still went GOLD!!! REST IN PEACE DR.JAMES BROWN

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By David, January 2, 2007 at 11:29 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

He was and will always be a one-in-million star.  His music will continue to endure and appeal to so many across generas & across divides.  There’s something in JB for everyone.  Thank you JB!

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By Darryl Hill, January 1, 2007 at 6:19 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

A lot of great people have passed away over the past
10 years and Dr.James Brown was the first to bring tears to my eyes.
He truly has touched are lives.
A national holiday would be a great way to honor his
contributions to our country.

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By pjay_dml, December 31, 2006 at 9:03 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

“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.”

You forgot to mention, that the white-fellas lack any respect for their continued performance. Not because their white, but because they, as well as their “music” are just pathetic.

While such “legends” as Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry are of a whole different caliber. When they perform, one doesn’t perceive their age. Simply because they don’t try to act, as if for some miracle, they were excluded from growing old. To the contrary, their music seems to benefit from the wisdom that [might] comes with age.

Them white-fellas live in a world of lies, while the black-fellas are down to earth. Hence I’m convinced, that you wont see the same phenomenon with those wanna-be Hip-Hop jocks.

Surviving “the stresses of poverty and Jim Crow” has a lot do with it I believe.

Rest in peace James, and thank you for all you have done, especially for the inspiration and power you were able to instill in people, for which I’m personally very grateful. We’ll miss you being around, but we still have your music to remind us of your great deeds.

A White-Fella

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By steffi m, December 31, 2006 at 10:58 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I saw James about 15 years ago in Vegas-My son wanted to go. We were seated at a front table. I’ve
seen lots of stars, sammy davis, ella fitz, duke
ellington, etc. so I guess you could say I’ve got
a pretty good frame of reference. My son said"You’re
going to see God tonite” before the show started. Was he ever right. I think I know why he lived so
long-he loved his work and he loved the audience and
the audience loving him.Only truly great performers
really connect-the man is entertaining upstairs. He
just can’t stop.

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By Skruff, December 31, 2006 at 7:28 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Amazing to me the things folks find “amazing”

Brown’s dead at 73 after a hard life.  73 still short of a normal life span.

I know several people in their nineties who survived the depression, the second world war, the Sixties revolutions, the disappointments of the unfulfilled Kennedy dream, the watergate deception, and our country’s current venture into facism… They’re still alive and some even attempting to change things.

Too bad they can’t sing and dance.

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