James Brown keeps up pace of hard work

Monday, June 2, 2003

The Associated PressNEW YORK -- Five decades of splits, stop-on-a-dime spins and side-gliding dance steps can take a toll even on the hardest-working man in show business.

"I'm getting very tired, and I'd love to quit yesterday," says James Brown, his gruff voice sounding a bit weary after a recent late-night performance at B.B. King's nightclub.

"I've got diabetes, I've almost broke my feet, did something to my tendons, hurt all in my back -- but I work. I don't tell (fans) how bad it is. I smile when I see them."

Yet when Brown is gently asked about retirement -- after all, he recently celebrated his 70th birthday and has logged more than fifty years as an entertainer -- a shocked expression appears on the face of the Godfather of Soul.

"Music has sustained me," he says.

The music world could say the same of Brown. He's a seminal figure in rock, pop and soul -- not to mention rap, disco, or just about any other musical genre with an infectious groove.

Indeed, it's hard to put his achievements into words when his influence has been so widespread -- from his much-replicated funk-based jams to lyrics that not only spoke of social change, but helped influence it.

"You couldn't even list how many people have been influenced (by him)," said blues singer Bonnie Raitt. "In the Mount Rushmore of musical figures, he'd definitely be on it."

"Single-handedly, he has been the epitome of soul music," said Chuck D of Public Enemy, one of dozens of rap groups to sample Brown's groundbreaking beats. "James presented obviously the best grooves. To this day, there has been no one near as funky. No one's coming even close."

Chuck D recalls trying to mimic Brown's famous side-step dance as a kid on patches of ice, and how Brown's 1968's "Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)" helped fuel a new era of black pride.

"I clearly remember we were calling ourselves colored, and after the song, we were calling ourselves black," he said. "The song showed even people to that day that lyrics and music and a song can change society."

Brown knows his place in music history -- and isn't shy about telling you.

"Disco is James Brown, hip-hop is James Brown, rap is James Brown, you know what I'm saying? You hear all the rappers, 90 percent of their music is me," he says in his rapid-fire style of speech.

If his career has been dominated by achievement after achievement, his personal life has been marked by struggles.

Born in poverty in Barnwell, S.C., he's been jailed at least twice (once as a teen, and later as a middle-aged man). He's faced tax problems and lost a wife in 1996 due to complications from plastic surgery. Last year, he was sued by two of his daughters, who claimed they co-own many of his songs.

But these days, Brown's life seems charmed. Recently married to his background singer, they have a 2-year-old son. Despite his health problems, he seems content and inspired.

"Things are going good," Brown says, "and all I got to do is just hold up."

Brown's speech is like his concerts -- engaging, quick-paced, changing gears in mid-step. While a listener may have trouble following him at times, Brown seems clear on the many messages he feels he has to deliver to today's audiences.

He's patriotic and religious. He emphasizes the need for more positive themes in music. And there aren't many artists who inspire him these days.

"When artists don't last for six months, a year, it tells you there's nothing in the music," he says. "When we were making records, and the O'Jays and all those people, Curtis Mayfield, there was a message.

"My thing is, O.K., I'll give you a beat but I'm gonna bring it back here. You can run the bases, but I want you to come back to home plate."

Brown says that the racism and poverty he endured in his early years helped make him a success. "If I had been free, totally free, I wouldn't have been this," he says.

Even when discussing his two-and-a-half-year prison term stemming from a 1988 arrest on assault and drug charges, Brown keeps a slight smile on his face.

"When I went to prison, it didn't bother me. You know why it didn't bother me? I could have gotten out, I went on my word. I knew what I didn't do, and I wouldn't say I did," says Brown, who maintained his innocence in the case.

On May 20, Brown was pardoned for that conviction, as well as a 1998 conviction for using a weapon under the influence. The latter earned him a stint in a 90-day drug program.

Brown also says he holds no ill will against his daughters. Last year, Yamma Brown Lumar, 29, and Deanna Brown Thomas, 33, filed a lawsuit claiming they co-own the copyrights to 23 songs, including the 1976 hit "Get Up Offa That Thing." Brown says the lawsuit is without merit.

Still, he adds: "I can't think of nothing I would sue my daddy for, (even) if he done did it right there in front of me. I love my children and I hope they have all the luck in the world, because I'm not worried. I've done everything I can do."

He still feels as if he's got plenty more to accomplish in other areas. he put out a new album last year on a small label. He'd like to see a movie made of his life, perhaps with Cuba Gooding Jr. in the lead.

And like much of his music, his outlook remains optimistic. When asked about is career highlights, he says simply: "There is no high points. It's getting higher and higher."

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