WHEN JAMES BROWN walked out on the stage of Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theater on Oct. 24, 1962, the 29-year-old was on the cusp of what was to become one of the most influential careers in music. It wasn’t the first time Brown had played the Apollo, but it was the first time the show was being recorded.
The recording cost $5,700, every bit of coin Brown could lay his hands on at the time. He was paying for it himself. “It was more than a financial bet,” Brown later recalled in a 2005 autobiography, I Feel Good. “It was the greatest career risk I or anyone I knew had ever taken.” When he had asked his record company, King Records, to make the recording, the company promptly said no. Few live albums had been released, and none had done well. But Brown believed that if people who had never seen him live heard a recording of his Apollo show, they’d understand what he was all about and want to hear more. So Brown put his money where his mouth was.
The subsequent 1963 release of Live at the Apollo marks, if not the beginning of soul, the first time soul music was available in raw, visceral intensity for the masses. And the masses loved it. Record stores bought the album by the case, and still couldn’t keep it on the shelves. By the time the fanfare died down, after a dizzying 66 weeks on the Billboard charts, James Brown was the indisputable Godfather of Soul.
Brown was still years away from being credited with the invention of funk. Eventually, a long string of hits—like Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag, I Got You (I Feel Good), Cold Sweat, Mother Popcorn, and Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine—would bring him international fame as well as white and black audiences. By the time Brown was finished, his career would span six decades, spawn 91 Billboard hits (a number second only to Elvis), and make him one of the most sampled and influential entertainers in history. Brown left his distinctive imprint on everything from dance moves—both Mick Jagger and Michael Jackson openly admitted to studying his dance routines—to musical genres spanning R&B, soul, rock and even rap.
Born in a one-room shack near the South Carolina–Georgia border in 1933, Brown was poor even by Depression-era standards. When he was 4, his mother left for New York City. Brown wouldn’t see her again for 20 years. His father worked the trees for turpentine, leaving young Brown on his own for long stretches. In a 1986 autobiography, The Godfather of Soul, Brown recounted, “I don’t think you can spend that much time by yourself as a child and not have it affect you in a big way. Being alone in the woods like that, spending nights in a cabin with nobody else there, not having anybody to talk to, worked a change in me that stayed with me from then on: It gave me my own mind.”
When Brown was 6, he and his father walked the 40 miles to Augusta, Ga., where Brown was left to live with an aunt who ran a bordello while his father traveled to find work and then joined the Navy. Brown grew up rounding up business for his aunt, buck dancing for soldiers at a nearby army base, shining shoes and singing for dimes in school. As a youngster, Brown was sent home from school for “insufficient clothes.” In R. J. Smith’s biography, The One, a childhood friend remembers: “Oh man, he was pitiful. For me to really tell you what he looked like in the wintertime—the soles coming off his shoes, snot coming out of his nose, I didn’t see no jacket on him ever. He was always cold.”
“One of the things that helped me to survive in those days was music,” recounted Brown in The Godfather of Soul. “Gospel is what got me over.” Brown’s father, who visited him off and on in Augusta, bought him a harmonica before leaving him with his aunt and later got Brown a legless organ that he propped up on a cheese box. By 12, he had started his first band. He organized another musical group as a teenager in prison, where he was sentenced to eight to 16 years for stealing clothes out of a white person’s car. Brown would wind up serving a little more than three years of his sentence, most of it at a juvenile detention center. He believed that had he been white, his sentence wouldn’t have been nearly as harsh, he recounted in his 1986 autobiography.
Brown had grown up in the worst of the segregated South and had seen what segregation, racism and poverty could do. “My father was conscious of his responsibility to civil rights,” says Daryl Brown, James Brown’s son with soul singer Bea Ford. Days after Martin Luther King Jr. was shot to death in 1968, the singer performed a free concert in Boston that was credited with sparing the city from the riots rampant across the rest of the country. A few months later, Brown released what would become one of the anthems of the civil rights movement: Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud. His endorsements of presidential nominees were considered crucial. Brown also recorded the song Don’t Be a Drop Out to keep black kids in school.
“He saw integration firsthand when black kids and white kids rushed the stage,” notes Daryl. Brown refused to play segregated shows in the South, and likewise refused to cave to pressure from black groups to replace white members of his band. “My father did things his own way, always,” says Daryl, who played lead guitar with the Soul Generals, one of his father’s bands, and now performs with the Sons of Funk, which includes many performers from the Soul Generals. If a promoter wouldn’t allow Brown’s audience to be integrated, the Godfather of Soul would simply refuse to perform.
A Bump in the Road
By the late 1980s, Brown was making headlines not for his music, but for frequent encounters with the law because of alleged PCP use, weapons possession and domestic abuse. He was on his third marriage, and plagued by troubles with the Internal Revenue Service. But musically, Brown was doing what he always had done: working harder than ever, even when playing to audiences a fraction of the size he had entertained in the 1960s.
Of all the nicknames Brown had—“Mr. Please, Please, Please,” “Soul Brother No. 1,” “Mr. Dynamite,” “Godfather of Soul”—the one he was most proud of was “The Hardest-Working Man in Show Business.” Brown’s work ethic was legendary. He’d sometimes lose six or seven pounds through sweat at a show and have to replace fluids via an intravenous drip backstage. “I’m telling you, he wouldn’t let nothing slow him down, he’d dance with a sprained ankle if that’s what he wanted to do,” says Daryl. At Brown’s peak, his schedule included 37 performances and a recording session in five cities in 11 days. “If I had a tenth of his motivation and energy, I’d be a millionaire 10 times over now,” says Daryl.
Brown’s persistence paid off. A role in the 1980 film Blues Brothers introduced him to a new generation of fans. He soon followed up his movie performance with a hit single, Living in America, on the Rocky IV soundtrack. In his 2005 autobiography, he wrote, “I’m in the prime of my life in my early 70s, and it’s better now than it’s ever been—as long as I have three things—my health, my integrity, and my family—nothing else really matters.”
Brown had reason to value his health. Only a couple of years earlier, in 2003, he had just returned home to Beech Island, S.C., from a tour of Canada when he received worrisome results from his primary care doctor regarding a routine blood screening test, the prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test. Soon, the 70-year-old found himself at the office of James Bennett, a urologist at Atlanta’s Midtown Urology Clinic. A biopsy revealed that Brown had prostate cancer. “As any man when they first get diagnosed, James had a little bit of that deer in the headlights reaction,” says Bennett. “He wanted to know how long the cancer had been there, how he got it, can it be cured.”
According to the National Cancer Institute, about 242,000 American men were diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2012 and about 28,000 died of it, making the disease both the second most common cancer and the second leading cause of deaths from cancer among men nationwide. Brown’s case was, in many ways, a classic picture of the disease. The average age at diagnosis is 67, and it is more than 1.5 times as likely to affect African-American men as any other racial or ethnic group. African-American men are also more than twice as likely to die of prostate cancer. “No one knows why exactly that it is,” says H. Ballentine Carter, a urologist at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, “whether there is a genetic reason or the difference is due to access to health care or lifestyle factors like diet. There is research being done, but no firm answers yet.”
Like Brown, most men have no symptoms, and they are diagnosed after a PSA test or a digital rectal exam. A biopsy, in which samples of prostate tissue are removed and examined under a microscope, is needed to confirm the diagnosis. The cancer is then graded and given a Gleason score. Gleason scores range from 2 to 10, with higher scores corresponding to more aggressive cancers. The cancer is then staged, or classified as to how widespread it is in the body. “The most important distinction from a treatment and a prognosis point of view is whether the cancer has spread outside of the prostate,” says Andrew Armstrong, a medical oncologist at Duke Cancer Institute in Durham, N.C.
Brown’s PSA was only slightly elevated, his Gleason score was 6, and the cancer cells were confined to his prostate. That meant his cancer was considered low-risk. “Because of routine screening tests like PSA, the majority of men diagnosed with prostate cancer are diagnosed while they are low-risk,” says Armstrong. “In terms of diagnostic screening for early prostate cancer, there hasn’t really been much change since Brown was diagnosed. I think we’ll start seeing some better screening tests in the next decade, and that’s something that will be crucially helpful.”
In fact, in response to studies suggesting that PSA tests lead to overtreatment of prostate cancers that would have remained non-life-threatening, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommended in May that PSA tests no longer be used as a widespread screening tool, sparking a heated debate in the medical community. “I disagree with the task force,” says Bennett. “The real problem isn’t that we’re overtesting, it’s that we’re overtreating.” Little has changed in the field of early prostate cancer treatment, but the story is different for advanced cancers.
Next-Generation Prostate Cancer Drugs
In recent years, the number of treatment options for advanced prostate cancer has increased significantly.
Though treatment options available for low-grade early stage prostate cancer haven’t changed dramatically in the past decade, there has been an explosion in options for advanced disease—especially for cancers that do not respond to the hormone therapies used to block testosterone and other androgens that fuel the growth of most prostate cancers.
For years, the only option was Taxotere (docetaxel), a drug with the harsh side effects of traditional chemotherapy, which was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2004 for metastatic, androgen-independent prostate cancer. When a patient’s tumor stopped responding, there was little else doctors could offer. That changed in 2010, when the FDA approved Jevtana (cabazitaxel), another traditional chemotherapy drug, and Provenge (sipuleucel-T), a vaccine that primes the immune system to attack cancer cells. Trials had shown that these treatments could extend life for patients with prostate cancer that no longer responds to Taxotere.
The most promising advances have come from better understanding of those cancers that have stopped responding to traditional anti-androgen therapy, says Andrew Armstrong, a medical oncologist at Duke Cancer Institute in Durham, N.C. Newer targeted therapies can slow the growth of cancers that would have previously been considered unresponsive to hormone therapies. “Cancer cells can adapt to older hormone therapies over time,” says Armstrong, “and we’re now seeing newer therapies that show there are other ways to stop that [biochemical] pathway” that leads to the production of testosterone. In 2011, Zytiga (abiraterone)—a targeted drug that blocks a key step in the synthesis of androgens—was approved by the FDA after clinical trials showed it extended survival by about four months for men with metastatic cancers that weren’t responsive to other prostate cancer treatments. In August 2012, the FDA also approved Xtandi (enzalutamide), which targets androgen receptors. And in December, Zytiga’s approval was expanded to include the treatment of metastatic castration-resistant prostate cancer prior to chemotherapy.
These newer drugs are only the beginning of more targeted and less toxic therapies—several similarly acting drugs that target androgen or androgen receptors are currently in clinical trials. “At some point, I think we’ll see biomarkers for prostate cancer, like HER2 for breast cancer, that really allow us to predict which patients will respond to certain drugs and allow even more precisely targeted therapy,” says Armstrong. “There is a lot of research being done, and it’s an exciting time to be in prostate cancer research.”
After Brown was diagnosed, he was offered the option of active surveillance, radical prostatectomy, cryosurgery or brachytherapy—the implantation of tiny radioactive seeds that deliver high doses of radiation directly to the cancerous tissue. Brown chose brachytherapy, because it had a lower risk of side effects. “He was very candid about not wanting to compromise any of his sexual prowess,” says Bennett. “Or be leaking urine. I mean, really, can you see that caliber of entertainer up on stage saying, ‘Hey, excuse me, I have to go change my Depends?’ ” says Bennett.
After the initial shock of his diagnosis wore off, Brown handled the situation with his usual bravado. “My father, he thought if he had it, it was the thing to have. He said it was going to make him bigger and badder and bionic,” says Daryl. “He was the same way about his diabetes—he called it ‘the BeBe.’ ” Within three weeks, Brown resumed his usual grueling schedule. Follow-up PSA tests showed his treatment was successful, and he had no detectable traces of the disease for the rest of his life.
In 2006, the 73-year-old hardest-working-man-in-show-business did 81 performances, including shows in Europe and Asia. By the end of the year, he had returned to his South Carolina home and was busy planning one more event: a live New Year’s Eve performance in Times Square. But by Dec. 22, the date of Brown’s annual Christmas charity toy-drive in Augusta, he was clearly ill. “He had this real heavy cough,” says Daryl. “It wasn’t like anything I’d ever heard him with before.” Brown hadn’t seemed terribly sick, and all those who knew him were used to his working through just about everything—even cancer.
Brown was admitted to Emory Crawford Long Hospital in Atlanta on Saturday, Dec. 23. On Christmas Day, Brown passed away from pneumonia related to congestive heart failure. At a funeral ceremony at the Apollo, the line of mourners stretched around the block twice.
“My father had his demons, but he also gave a lot back, to the civil rights movement and to charity events that no one seems to remember,” says Daryl.
Bennett agrees. “The James Brown I knew was a sensitive and humble man,” he says. “One of his first responses after his [cancer] diagnosis was to ask what he could do to help [others], and I’ve worked with a lot of famous people, but he was the only one who followed through.” Each year Bennett would hold a charity men’s health day, and Brown never missed an appearance. “He wouldn’t be there at eight in the morning when it started—we’d expect him around 11 because he needed time to do his hair,” says Bennett. “But that was James Brown.”
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