Patti LaBelle on James Brown's Serious Funk

Soul singer James Brown will be returning to Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theater for one final show Thursday—a public viewing, as part of his funeral festivities. Thousands of Brown’s fans and musical colleagues are expected to pay their last respects. Patti LaBelle, who worked periodically with Brown for nearly 30 years, regrets that she won’t be in attendance because she will be in South Africa for the opening of Oprah Winfrey’s new school there. LaBelle spoke with NEWSWEEK’s Allison Samuels about the “hardest-working man in show business.” Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: When did you first meet James Brown?

Patti LaBelle: Honey I think it was the 1960s, but it was so long ago that I can't remember exactly. But I used to open for him at the Apollo—me and the Bluebells, and honey he loved us something fierce. I would work the club up into a tizzy, kicking my shoes off and the getting the crowd yelling and screaming so loud that I could hear James saying backstage, "Get her off the stage now so I can do my thing. I need to do my thing.'' He was saying it in a fun way because he was such a performer and he always wanted to be onstage, particularly when the crowd was on their feet. After the show, he'd pull me to the side and say, "Girl, you can tear up some music. Keep on keeping on.''

When was the last time you saw or spoke to him?

Last month in London. We did the [U.K. Music Hall of Fame] event and he was getting honored there along with Prince. He looked great and had lost about 50 pounds but seemed to be in great health. I told him, "James, you're disappearing, honey, right before my eyes.'' But I'm so glad I had a chance to talk to him because it was the last time. When I got to my hotel that day in London, his bodyguard met me in the lobby and told me Mr. Brown wanted to see me. Honey, I hot tailed up there to see him because he was such a fatherly-type man that you always went when James called. He was in the room with his wife and their kids and just seemed so happy and content. He was really at peace, which is eerie to say now, but nothing could have told me he would be dead four weeks later.

Speaking of his wife, you know there are some questions about whether or not she was his wife legally. Is that how he introduced her?

Yes, he said, "Patti have you met my wife?” I hadn't, but we talked, and you could tell they were happy and together. I don't know much about the mess that's going on now with the house and her not getting in, but they seemed together a month ago. I hope that matter gets dealt with in a hurry and doesn't overshadow his death and what he's meant to music around the world. You know people can get caught up in the personal life too much and that's not the point now that he's dead. We need to focus on the man and the music.

I know you've lost a lot of good friends in the music world recently— now James. It must be hard for you.

You know it is with Luther Vandross dying and Gerald Levert dying just last month. My heart is really heavy because it seems all the great ones are leaving us one right after the other now. All of our history in music is just going away without warning, but one thing I can say about James is that he got his props while he was alive. Michael Jackson, Prince, The Rolling Stones, all said they were influenced by James and his music—they said it from the very beginning. That's a powerful and beautiful thing to have people respect you while you are here on earth and can hear it. James got that and I know he appreciated it.

What will be Brown's legacy?

That he kept it funky (laughs). You know half of the time you didn't know what James was saying but you knew what he meant and you knew you could get on the dance floor and shake your groove thang to him and his music. I would sit and listen to him at the Apollo when we were working together and say to myself, "What is he saying?" And then just shrug and get to dancing ‘cause it didn't matter what he was saying. I hope the world knows what they've lost with him because he was such an amazing man who loved Jesus and treated his fellow man with care. It doesn't matter what you read in the news about him and his troubles with the law. He was a God-fearing man who took music and work so seriously and never half- stepped when it came to putting it down for the fans. Performing was his life and if you never got a chance to see him—you really missed a treat.