The first James Brown fans began lining up at the Apollo Theater a full 24 hours before the public viewing of his body was to begin. By the time his shiny gold casket was brought to the theater by horse-drawn carriage, many thousands had already lined up to pay their final respects. Some vendors had set up tables selling pirated copies of Brown’s CDs. Others wove through the crowd peddling cheaply made James Brown T-shirts or James Brown photographs in paper frames.
Given that the world-famous Harlem theater had been the site of many of Brown's greatest performances, it was only fitting that his body should lie in state there. Brown's debut at Apollo Amateur Night in 1956 launched his career on the national stage. By the time one of his many returns was captured on the album "Live at the Apollo" in 1963, Brown had become an international megastar. Abrahim Bah, 44, manager of the Porta Bella men's clothing boutique, four doors down from the Apollo, put speakers out and blasted "The Best of James Brown" for the fans on queue. "James Brown was my idol," he says, recalling the first time he saw him perform in his birthplace of Dakar, Senegal, in 1968. Bah was very sad when he heard of Brown's death on Christmas Day—he had been planning to attend Brown's New Year's Eve show at B.B. King's music club in New York.
The block on 125th Street where the Apollo stands was shut down to vehicular traffic. The New York police department—present in large numbers—had placed crowd-control baricades on the sidewalks, cutting off shoppers' access to the stores near the theatre. Bah didn't mind the commotion outside his door or the fact that his store was empty. "He was a wonderful man," he says. "You can't compare him to anyone." Deborah Mitchell, 53, arrived at the Apollo in a wheelchair, but didn't mind the congestion either. She only regretted that she never had the chance to see James Brown perform live. “I was 15 or 16 when I first heard him sing,” she says. The song “Don’t Be a Drop-Out” influenced her to stay in school. “His songs have a message and kids today need to hear it.”
At least one "kid" in attendance hadn't been born when James Brown was topping the charts. Twenty-three-year-old Malcolm Crockett learned about the Godfather's music and message from his parents. "James Brown was the original. No one could do what he was doing or dance the way he danced," he says. Although he never had the chance to see Brown perform live, his mother, Delphine, was standing right beside him to offer her own James Brown memory—seeing him at the Apollo several times in the 1960s. "His music hits you in your body and you feel good," she says.
Sure, he was best known as the Godfather of Soul, but Brown was also the Hardest-Working Man in Show Business—which, of course, encompasses every genre. “Any time you listen to music that takes rhythm seriously, you have James Brown to thank for that,” says Jay Smooth, host of the New York City hip-hop radio show “ The Underground Railroad .” “James Brown brought everything back to the drum, and hip-hop is an extension of that,” he says. “Brown used every instrument in the band as percussion. He used vocals as percussion, and in hip-hop we use the turntables as percussion,” to say nothing of beatboxing . Glen Holt, 39, who co-hosts The Underground Railroad, believes James Brown’s influence extends far beyond the realm of music. “He owned radio stations back in the '50s and '60s, when things were still segregated," he says."‘Say it Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)’ is the ringtone on my phone. I think that says it all.”
Although most of the mourners would spend several hours waiting on line, once inside the Apollo, things moved pretty quickly. Brown’s casket was on the stage behind a velvet rope, keeping mourners just beyond arm’s length. Brown was dressed in a blue suit with silver shoes, and in death, as in life, his hair was perfectly coiffed. His classic hits played from a loudspeaker, and there was an enormous flower arrangement that spelled out the words “God Father” in carnations. Several large photos of him sat on easels near the casket. Most mourners paid their respects quietly, but a few broke into tears or wept loudly. Tomi Rae, Brown’s companion and the mother of his 5-year-old son almost collapsed in a fit of grief in front of Brown's casket. Rev. Al Sharpton, Brown’s close friend/protégé and ubiquitous political personality in the wake of his death, arrived with a large entourage of black-suited men and women. Most of the seats in the theater were cordoned off for Brown’s close friends and family, but a few rows were available for those who wanted to sit and reflect. Many people stood in the back of the theater, hesitant to leave. Some nodded quietly to the music.
Outside the theatre, on Frederick Douglass Blvd., a large group had gathered to remember Brown in a different way. They danced, wildly in a circle as “The Payback” blared. Although his body lay in state inside the Apollo Theatre, James Brown’s spirit was still alive—and dancing.