NEW YORK — James Brown had one last appearance at the Apollo Theater on Thursday (December 28) as his body arrived for a public viewing in Harlem, drawing upward of 10,000 people to the tiny neighborhood block.
Fans braved the frigid temperatures, lining the streets as early as 7 a.m. ET to remember the legendary soul singer and recognize his achievements in America’s music and social history. “He was loyal to us,” the Reverend Al Sharpton said during a private memorial service held for family and friends. “That’s why we were loyal to him.”
Brown died early Christmas morning of congestive heart failure at age 73 (see ” ’Godfather Of Soul’ James Brown Dead At 73″ and “Nas, Snoop, Fans React To James Brown’s Death: ’He Was Pure Greatness’ “ ).
The line of mourners wrapped around the block in both directions, filled with fans who traveled from as far as Virginia and South Carolina to pay their last respects. People of all ages came together and chanted Brown’s pro-black anthems and exchanged tales of meeting him, including a couple who fell in love at a Brown concert 40 years ago; the groom wore a bowtie he caught from Brown at his wedding.
Inside the theater, a solemn Sharpton, who had looked up to Brown as a mentor and father figure, eulogized the late entertainer, bringing the crowd to its feet on several occasions. “Unthinkable,” he began. “I don’t think any of us could think James Brown could die. It didn’t seem possible.
“When I heard the word about it,” Sharpton continued, his words trailing off. “I don’t think I really believe it now. Because how could someone filled with so much energy and life really be gone?”
Sharpton went on to note Brown’s many accomplishments, including his being honored by the Kennedy Center, his helping to bring peace in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, and his influence on music, including funk, R&B and hip-hop. “Some people had Bach, some people had Beethoven,” Sharpton said. “We had James Brown. He impacted music just like they did. He changed the beat of music around the world.”
New York Congressman Charles Rangel, Apollo President Jonelle Procope and Brown’s common-law wife, Tomi Rae Hynie, also offered brief remarks during the ceremony.
Hynie, who earlier in the week was denied access to the home she shared with Brown, took the opportunity to address the media and reports that she was not legally Brown’s wife. “I loved that man,” a distraught Hynie said, pointing to Brown’s casket. “He wasn’t always the nicest man, but he was right. In the nine years that I knew him, he was always right.”
Brown’s body arrived earlier in the day in Harlem around 12:30 p.m. in a carriage led by white horses, and the crowd cheered as a gold-plated casket was carried inside the Apollo.
Brown might be best remembered for the album Live at the Apollo, which he recorded at the legendary venue in 1962, catapulting the singer into America’s consciousness. The singer is only the second figure to ever lie in repose at the Apollo; Ralph Cooper — who founded the theater’s famous Amateur Night and gave many entertainers, including Brown, their big breaks — was the first.
The public viewing for Brown began shortly after his body arrived, and true to the singer’s flashy style, he wore a rhinestone-studded, royal blue suit with silver shoes. Sharpton greeted mourners as they walked past Brown’s casket, and at 6 p.m., he began the memorial service for Brown’s family. The private service halted the public viewing for close to an hour, prompting Sharpton to extend the viewing for an additional hour.
“If Mr. Brown was here right now, he’d say, ’Al, why are you talking so much? Just give the people what they want,’ ” Sharpton joked.
Hip-hop luminaries Fab Five Freddy, Kid Capri and DJ Premier were in attendance for the ceremony, along with boxing promoter Butch Lewis, New York politicians Charles Barron and Bill Perkins and actress Tichina Arnold.
Brown’s body will be driven to his hometown of Augusta, Georgia, overnight, where another private ceremony will be held for his family at the newly renamed James Brown Convention Center, according to Sharpton. On Saturday, Brown will be laid to rest.
Even in death, he continues to be the hardest-working man in show business. But as Sharpton reminded Brown’s family and friends during his closing remarks, now the entertainer can have the one thing he was never able to achieve: peace.
“We’ve never seen him at rest,” Sharpton said. “So right now it’s not ’goodbye,’ it’s just ’so long.’ “