'Godfather of Soul' lives on in spirit

James Brown

MATT DUNHAM

ORANGEBURG — In three rooms here on the campus of South Carolina State University, James Brown is alive and well — at least in spirit.

Universally known as the "Godfather of Soul," the man from Beech Island, S.C., became the legendary icon that dominated black music, provided pride to the black community and taught everybody how to dance.

"The one thing that can solve most of our problems is dancing," Brown once said. And, oh, how he could dance.

In the 1960s, he emerged from the backwaters of Augusta, Ga., to explode onto the national and international scene that was rife with racial turmoil.

With hits like "I Feel Good," and "I'm Black And I'm Proud," he tore the roof off buildings where he performed and allowed a generation of African-Americans to declare their existence.

Those who saw a James Brown show will never forget it. From his funky, funky dance moves to his signature exits under the cape, he earned the title of "the hardest working man in show business," one performance at a time.

Hair and teeth

Today his legacy is being preserved in an exhibit here on this historically black campus, a mere sampling of his life on display at the I.P. Standback Museum and Planetarium through Sept. 1.

Someday a permanent museum may come to be, once his complicated estate is settled.

But for now, we have what looks like a James Brown garage sale — bits of his life, like suits and hats and shoes and photos and plaques and portraits and furniture to gaze upon with wonder.

How, for instance, this small man, only 5-feet, 6 inches tall, became such a giant in the music industry. How he understood how important he was to his race. How he directed his band with one hand and played the game with the other.

That's apparent from the many photos of him with presidents and popes, senators and socialites. He was given keys to cities, proclamations from governors and resolutions in his honor. Ironically, he was a Republican.

But he could walk the walk and talk the talk. He also knew how important his image was to the world.

"Hair is the first thing and teeth the second," Brown said of his trademark afro and dazzling smile. "Hair and teeth. A man got those two things he's got it all."

Fringe and glitter

These rooms are filled with trinkets and letters of a man who said he was descended from Geronimo.

Indeed, James Brown bore a resemblance to the famous Indian chief as well as every soul who suffered under the hand of America's early expansion. But if anger was in his heart, it was not in his music.

Or in his clothes.

Throughout this exhibit are his many uniforms, colorful and loud. He liked fringe, glitter, double-breasted, bright red, deep blue, pin stripes and purple.

Despite his personal struggles with wives and drugs, Brown was a towering figure in America's musical journey. He wrote more tunes than Mozart, Bach, Strauss or Irving Berlin.

Bigger than life, he died on Christmas Day, 2006, at the age of 73.

Indeed, he dreamed of a museum in his honor, saying, "I want young black kids to know they have a chance to make it."

Thanks to James Brown, they can.