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Legendary Soul Singer James Brown Dies at Age 73

December 25, 2006 at 5:50 PM EDT

GWEN IFILL: There was no more distinctive voice in American pop music than James Brown. But he was also a consummate showman, singer and cultural force. He was the “Godfather of Soul.”

James Brown owned the sound, the flair, the in-your-face lyrics: “I’m black and I’m proud,” “Papa don’t take no mess,” “I feel good.”

APOLLO THEATER ANNOUNCER: Ladies and gentlemen, it’s star time at the Apollo Theater. Let’s bring him on right now, everybody, the hardest-working man in show business, James Brown ladies and gentlemen…

GWEN IFILL: He was Mr. Dynamite, soul brother number one. He spent 30 years at the top of the charts, as the master of all he surveyed–in blues, funk, soul and all-around good-time party music.

The Reverend Al Sharpton, activist and former presidential candidate, toured with Brown as a manager in the 1970s.

AL SHARPTON: James Brown was not just a guy who made a lot of hits. He changed culture for us. He made the common man matter. We’ve lost more than an artist; we lost a way of life.

GWEN IFILL: That way of life began in 1933 amid crushing poverty in Barnwell, S.C. Abandoned at age 4, young James was raised by relatives in August, Ga. A brush with the law landed him in reform school as an adolescent, but it opened a door onto his future career.

A friend’s family took the wayward young man into their home, and into a gospel group. But it didn’t take long for Brown to cross the line into the secular. His first big hit, now a rhythm-and-blues classic, was recorded in 1956 with the Famous Flames — “Please, Please, Please.”

JAMES BROWN: “Please, please please…”

GWEN IFILL: For Brown, it was the first of many to come.

JAMES BROWN: “I feel good…I got you!”

“Papa got a brand new bag…”

“Stay on the scene…like a sex machine…”

“Say it loud! I’m black and I’m proud…”

GWEN IFILL: Brown was scheduled to perform at B.B. King’s club in New York New Year’s Eve. Today, outside the club, fans remembered.

FAN: I’m a product of the 1960s and he was the first person that made Afro-Americans proud of their heritage. He started with “Black and I’m Proud” and from that day on the black community felt a lot better with their ethnicity. So he will be missed.

GWEN IFILL: Offstage, James Brown commanded his share of lurid headlines. Four marriages, charges of spousal and drug abuse, jail time served on traffic and assault charges after a 1988 police chase — he was paroled in 1991 after 15 months in prison.

Brown never stopped working hard, keeping up a grueling tour schedule of up to 70 dates a year.

His influence was wide and profound. Performers decades younger than he mimicked his over-the-top showmanship, and his music echoed through a multitude of musical genres, including R&B, rock and roll, soul, funk, hip-hop, even country.

Brown, who was one of the first performers inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, won three Grammy awards, including a lifetime achievement honor. At the Kennedy Honors in 2003, the hip-hop artist LL Cool J put it best.

LL COOL J: In music law there’s three B’s: There’s Bach — I love Bach; there’s Beethoven — I love Beethoven; and there’s Brown — JAMES BROWN.

GWEN IFILL: James Brown died this morning in Atlanta of congestive heart failure. He was 73.