When you're black and arrested at 15 for car theft, then arrested
again in your middle aged years and placed in prison for 2 1/2 years,
you might come out bitter. But James Brown isn't. His
tribute to America and to the great opportunity of life in this
country is spellbinding. He sang last night to the
Sentinels of Vigilance at Ground Zero. Find out how the
Godfather of Soul did.
28, 2003—Ground Zero Plus 623
James Brown At Ground Zero--America:
Love It or Leave It
Editor, New York City Combat Correspondent News
GROUND ZER0, New York, New York--May 28,
2003--James Brown, America's self-proclaimed "Godfather" of
sang his heart out at Battery Park last night, just a few blocks from
Ground Zero. In the midst of his free New York concert, he
paused to pay tribute to America, including asking the audience to
raise their hands if they loved America. For those who
chose not to, he said: "If you don't love it, then you can leave
"The Godfather of Soul"
American flags, his incredible band belting out his trademarked primal
beat offered a rendition of God Bless America as dancers, draped in
American Flags, bobbed and weaved and gyrated before an audience of
thousands, packed into a pie-shaped section of Battery Park.
The event, sponsored by American Express, was the 2nd Annual kick-off
of the River-to-River free concert program.
Last year, singer Sheryl Crowe, launched
the festival which offers more than 500 no-cost events to New Yorkers,
and is designed to boost business and interest in Lower Manhattan
following the tragic events of Nine Eleven.
The event was close up and personal for me.
My wife, a long-time James Brown fan, hoists James on the pedestal of
rock and rolls greatest, just a fraction of an inch below The King,
Elvis. When I heard James Brown was going on tour this
year, I searched the Internet for tickets. Alas, he had no
venues scheduled for New York.
Then the other day, our older daughter
called to alert me that James was giving a free concert in Battery
Park. I rushed to the phone to find out about tickets.
Last year free passes were required, and I was unable to find any for
Sheryl Crowe. We ended up getting in, however, but were
relegated to the last row of late-comers.
This year, there were no tickets required.
So, about noon, I packed up my computer, umbrella, strapped on a
couple of lawn chairs to my shoulders, made sure I had the Boggle
game, blankets, extra jackets and trundled down the N Subway toward
the South Ferry where Battery Park is nestled on the tip of Manhattan.
I expected a herd of people, crushed in
line all night long to see the "Godfather of Soul." To my
elation and surprise, I was the first in line--a single, solitary
Soldier of James Brown Vigilance poised at the entrance of Battery
Park, eight and a half hours ahead of Brown's scheduled appearance at
There is a community of people who queue up early
to hear fabulous legends sing or dance for free. Mary, a
social worker from Harlem who took a half day off, joined me in line.
She has two children and is a James Brown fan. We talked
about being overweight, dieting, food, children, life, and she made me
in charge of keeping line cutters from trying to edge their way to the
Also early was a Japanese lady who had seen James
Brown in Japan three years ago. She spoke broken English but as
the bad warmed up throughout the day, she made the moves to the beat
of the drums in a universal dance that knows no borders.
When the crowd was let in, I rushed with Mary and
our Japanese friend to the front of the stage, just a few feet away
from where the Godfather of Soul would be belting out his legendary
sounds in a few hours.
The ground was wet, soaked from days of
rain. I cabbaged a piece of plastic and spread it out so
we could sit without getting wet, and then waited for my wife to come.
They call the section up front the "mosh
pit." I didn't know why until people started to press forward,
some trying to edge their way in front of us to grab the railing and
block our view. Then the Terror began.
and the crowd sang "God Bless America"
A big guy, I stood as Sentinel of
Vigilance for the railing. At 6-4 and 280 pounds, with a
growling Voice and stern look, I was able to confront a number of guys
who tried to block the view of those of us who had stood in line for
five hours. Mary shot volleys at them.
On one occasion I had to call the security
guards to remove a rabid rough-looking guy who refused to move from
the railing in front of the couple next to us. A couple of young
thuggish teenagers got into a bout with my wife. They were
crowding into her space, kicked her by accident or intention, and she
slapped at one's leg in retaliation and to ensure the removal of his
foot from the top of her other hand. There were long
moments of tension, words spat back and forth as the two ruffians
tried to extract an apology from my wife, and I intervened to quell
the potential conflagration.
As the crowd pressed tighter, the tension
coiled. It was a like a frag grenade. If someone
pulled the pin there would be an explosion.
One rasty fan got into a confrontation next
to us over shoving himself ahead of others. He was pulled over
the rail by security guards and ejected, but not after tempers and
words flew like shrapnel.
It was my first "mosh pit"
experience. I thought there might be some civilized
behavior about watching the show, but the rule was to press in as
tight and close as possible--to get within "sweating distance."
More than a year ago, my wife and I had
gone to the opening of B. B. King's at Times Square, and gotten
front row seats where we could see the sweat dripping off Little
Richard's forehead. I was sure a great deal of it was
caused by the massive wig he wore.
In the Battery Park 'arena' we stood for a couple
of hours, listening to the opening band and then the interlude before
James Brown came on.
I had been harsh with the two ruffians, and kept
imagining a shiv sunk into my kidneys as I watched the show. I
was wearing an NYPD t-shirt, so perhaps, I hoped, the punks would
think I was a cop. Still, it would be easy to inflict great
bodily pain upon someone in such a crowd and slip silently away.
I tried not to think the worst, but my nature is to focus on the worst
of things and expect the best. Maybe that's why I survived 100
combat operations, and nearly six decades of life.
Then there was the Terror of rain.
The Great Godfather of Soul had guardian angels looking out for his
New York Fans. The open air venue was dangerous. If
it rained, the musical equipment would be subject to the water damage
and there was no rain date. This was a one-time event.
My thoughts shifted from the Terror of being
kneed or cut by the tough guys I had challenged to the Terror of
Nature. I was hoping the Sentinels of Vigilance were alert
tonight. They were just up the road, a few blocks
northwest of us, at Ground Zero.
On that fateful day of September 11, 2001, when I
was at Ground Zero, I was sure I saw the spirits of those lost in the
attack rise up out of the smoke and ash. I remember
writing about their spirits hovering over the site, providing us with
Courage to replace Fear, with Conviction to overcome Intimidation, and
with Right Actions for the Children's Children's Children to quash the
horrible effects of Complacency.
We let two young boys, about six or seven, one
white and one black, edge up to the fence in front of us.
They were swaying to the music, within an arm's reach of the Godfather
of Soul. I never had any music idols, but these kids
did. They were into the music, their color and ethnicity
dissolved by the commonality of James Brown's music.
An added bonus for the crowd was the celebration
of James Brown's birthday. In the middle of the show, the
band rolled out a cake. Mary had earlier told me she didn't
believe James Brown was only seventy years old. She laughed and
said he was going backwards.
The icon of music blew out the candles and danced
and sang. His fabulous band and back-up singers
plussed the show.
I forgot about the guys behind me whom I had
challenged earlier, and even paid little head to about fifteen minutes
of pelting rain that finally subsided. I found
myself immersed in the show.
When James Brown brought out the flags and had us
all sing God Bless America, I was impressed. And, as his style,
when he challenged the audience: "Raise your hand if you love
America....Raise your hand if you love America..." I found myself
raising my hand along with thousands.
"If you don't
love America, you can leave it"
Then, when he dropped the bombshell, "Well,
if you don't love it you can leave it," I felt a chill.
James Brown could have easily ignored
or given America a karate chop. At 15 he was jailed for
car theft, and after an arrest in 1998 stemming from drug and assault
charges, he spent 2 1/2 years in jail.
Another problem for him is that he is
being sued by his two daughters, Yamma Brown Lumar, 29, and Deanna
Brown Thomas, 33. They claim they own the rights to 23 of his
For more than five decades, his
performances have been marked by splits, slide gliding dance steps,
and stop on a dime antics. But, as he pushes into the seventh
decade of life, his body is not what it used to be. He has
diabetes, a bad back, and complains his feet often hurt.
But, he doesn't carp to his fans. "I smile instead," he says.
In a way, America
has been good to the Godfather of Soul. Last week he was
pardoned of the 1998 charges, plus additional ones for using a weapon
under the influence.
When James Brown was in jail, my wife wore
a T-Shirt frequently that stated: "Free James Brown." I
understood why. Locking up an American icon is a deficit
for his fans.
For a number of years, Brown has been
using his skills to promote anti-violence among young people.
One of his songs, "Killings Out and Schools In," stresses love and
He wrote the songs after school shootings in Santana, Jonesboro and
of Vigilance and James Brown "Feel Good"
While not a chart buster like Brown's
"Night Train," "Pappa's Got A Brand New Bag," "I Got You" (Feelin'
Good), or "Living In America," he still promotes the Vigilance side of
"I'm mad," he said in an interview in
2001. "We're letting these kids get killed out here and we're
not doing anything about it."
Last night, however, James
Brown did something about it.
As he ended the concert, the
marched around the stage and collected a handful of small American
Flags he had placed among band members during his tribute to New York
and the U.S.A.
He gave the flags to the black and
white boys, and to three little girls pressing up against the railing,
arms outstretched toward the Godfather of Soul, Soul Brother Number
One, The Hardest Working Man in Show Business, Mr. Dynamite.
The children clutched the flags.
They were red, white and blue.
They were Flags of Vigilance,
mementos not just of a great singer whose flashy smile and stage sweat
have sparked the hearts of millions, but icons of a man who has
learned the power of Vigilance over the bitterness of Terrorism.
James Brown stood tall the
other night for Vigilance.
I could hear the Sentinels,
just up the road at Ground Zero, singing with him: "I Feel
And I saw the magic of the
Godfather in the eyes of the children, and the treasure they held
close to their chests--the great present of Vigilance the Godfather
had given them, tiny American flags.
If they listen to the Godfather of
Soul, they'll love America as he does, and not want to leave it.
Feeling good with James Brown
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