Christmas was always an emotional time for James Brown. In the early 90s, the soul legend started The James Brown Toy Giveaway, allowing him to play Santa to the needy. Every December, at the Imperial Theatre in Augusta, Georgia, a short distance from a bronze statue commemorating the man known as The Godfather Of Soul, James Brown Christmas gatherings would see him give away hundreds of presents to delighted children.
“I remember when I was poor. I remember Christmas days when I had no toys at all. So enjoy your gift and do well at school and follow your dreams,” a local paper reported him telling one boy in 1992 after handing him a basketball. The James Brown Family Foundation continues the legacy of his charity, 12 years after his death on Christmas Day 2006.
Brown’s frenetic dancing, brilliant funky beats and heartfelt vocals changed the musical landscape. He was one of the first artists inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, along with Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry. “He was an innovator, an emancipator, an originator. Rap music came from James Brown,” said Little Richard.
A soulful Christmas
As well as his legacy of brilliant soul and R&B hits – including ‘Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag’, ‘It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World’, ‘I Got You (I Feel Good)’, ‘Cold Sweat’, ‘Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine’ and ‘Hot Pants’ – James Brown also released important social songs.
One of the most significant was ‘Say It Loud – I’m Black And I’m Proud, Pts 1 & 2’, which turned 50 in August 2018. Surprisingly, this political anthem first appeared on a 1968 festive album called A Soulful Christmas. Brown then re-released the song as the title track of his following LP.
In all, Brown released three Christmas albums (A Soulful Christmas was sandwiched between 1966’s James Brown Sings Christmas Songs and 1970’s Hey America), and all three were gathered together on the 2CD, 37-track James Brown Christmas compilation The Complete James Brown Christmas, which was first released on Universal Music’s Hip-O Select imprint in 2010, and has since been made available digitally.
Though the title of the instrumental ‘Believers Shall Enjoy (Non-Believers Shall Suffer)’ hardly seems to sum up a spirit of forgiveness, Brown certainly loved the festive spirit. He even commissioned lavish black Santa Claus lawn sculptures for his home in Queens, New York. He delivered his own funky Christmas sound on ‘Santa Claus Go Straight To The Ghetto’, ‘Christmas Is Love’ and ‘Let’s Make Christmas Mean Something This Year, Parts 1 & 2’. ‘Tit For Tat (Ain’t No Taking Back)’, which is vintage Brown, reached No.86 on the Billboard top 100 singles chart in 1968 – the only James Brown Christmas single to enter the chart.
Brown also recorded versions of the festive standards ‘Merry Christmas Baby’ and ‘Please Come Home for Christmas’, along with two takes of Mel Tormé’s classic ‘The Christmas Song’. Meanwhile, the single ‘Hey America’ was a minor hit in the UK in 1971. “White or black, blue or green/Even a man I’ve never seen/Let’s get together,” sang Brown on this tune.
“He would have it no other way”
Three days before his death, at the age of 73, Brown – the former poor boy from South Carolina who’d spent time in prison as a youth but ended up being world famous and owning his own Lear Jet – was back at the Imperial Theatre handing out presents. A day later he was admitted to the Emory Crawford Long Hospital in Atlanta, where he lasted through Christmas Eve, before dying at 1:45am on 25 December as a result of congestive heart failure caused by pneumonia.
“It was a dramatic, poetic moment, dying on Christmas Day,” said US civil-rights leader Reverend Jesse Jackson, who had been a friend of Brown’s since 1955. “He was all over the news all over the world on Christmas Day. He would have it no other way.”