I was up at the Apollo Theater in Harlem last night to pay my respects to the Godfather of Soul, James Brown. While I did not get to view his body - the crowds were seven blocks long and there was a guest list for the viewing during the hours I was there- I did speak with a couple of local women who had spent all day waiting in line and had just come out who were lamenting the fact that he had a "European mortician do his hair." While they loved his last outfit, especially his shoes, they felt that the "White media would focus on his hair." Their words reflected so much of the fear of easy stereotyping that Brown's presence evoked - he was raw, super-bad, a sex machine - although he could bring it down and transform into a smooth soul singer for a ballad, he always had a hard-livin' rasp in his voice. I happened to be standing next to a young Black man from Rock Hill, South Carolina, and we started talking. He was shocked to see a man in a yarmulke in front of the Apollo, and when I told him that I was from Charlotte he just flipped. "A Jew from Charlotte in front of the Apollo? damn. I'll remember this day." I also met an Elder from a local Apostolic Church. When I told him I was a rabbi, he asked if I could use my clergy card to get us both inside. Note to self: find out where to get a clergy card.
James Brown was and will always be one of my musical rebbes. WFMU's Dave the Spazz did a wonderul tribute to Brown and tonight, before shabbes, I'll be playing my James Brown discs and vinyl to usher his superbad soul to the next world. Zichrono l'vracha.