Just like James Brown to pack them it at the Apollo Theater one last time.
A standing-room-only throng of people jammed the historic Harlem venue Thursday as thousands more spilled out into the adjacent streets for an appropriately rollicking sendoff to the Godfather of Soul.
With his own music providing the soundtrack, Brown lay in state on the famed stage where, almost exactly 50 years ago, he made his scorching debut and launched what would become one of the most influential music careers of the 20th century. (For the highlights, see our James Brown photo retrospective.)
Outside the venerable theater, the marquee read: "Rest in Peace Apollo Legend. Godfather of Soul James Brown 1933-2006."
Ever the showman, Brown's memorial was marked with the same theatrics as one of his sweat-inducing, pulse-pounding, foot-tapping concerts.
Brown died in Atlanta on Christmas Day of congestive heart failure at the age of 73. Eschewing airplanes and the night train, family members had the entertainer's body driven by hearse from Georgia Wednesday night, escorted by his close friend, the Reverend Al Sharpton. The mini-convoy arrived at the Sharpton's National Action Network headquarters, 30 blocks north of the Apollo, at approximately 10 a.m.
An hour and a half later, some 300 mourners accompanied Brown's gold casket, borne inside a glass-sided carriage drawn by two white horses, in a procession down Malcolm X Boulevard to the Apollo on 125th Street. By the time the march finally reached the theater and pallbearers carried the coffin inside, several thousand fans were on hand, the largest crowd the Apollo has ever seen.
Many more filled the streets, chanting Brown's name and holding up signs with slogans like "Say It Loud, I'm Black, I'm Proud," as boomboxes and nearby stores blasted his greatest hits and enterprising street vendors hawked T-shirts commemorating the Hardest Working Man in Show Business.
"Thirty years ago, I heard 'Say It Loud' on the radio and it inspired me," Rene Wright, a Brooklynite in her sixties on line since 8:30 a.m., told E! Online. "He's an icon and a legend. We will never forget James Brown the man, either. He was the only one who was able to bring calm to the [African-American] community enraged after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King."
Larry Love, a 53-year-old Harlem native who estimates he's seen Brown in concert 15 or 20 times, praised the singer for encouraging African-Americans to take pride in their heritage.
"This guy taught me to be black, black and proud," said Love. "J.B. did a lot for bringing blacks together in the sixties and had a positive message in his music."
Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, who was among the VIPs allowed in to view the body first, and who arranged for Brown to appear at a benefit show in Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights in 1993, recalled the music icon as a humble man and a mesmerizing performer.
"I grew up with him," Markowitz, 61, told E! Online. "He represented great music and put on a great show. He belonged to all of us and he is definitely a proud son of the African-American community."
Billy Mitchell, the Apollo's manager of group sales and a theater historian, said that fans are expected from all over the country for the public viewing. Some fans turned up before midnight to get a spot in line, he said.
According to Mitchell, typically only Apollo employees, not performers, have been allowed to lie in state there, a tradition dating back to the theater's vaudeville origins in 1934. The last Apollo staffer to receive the honor was Ralph Cooper, the man who founded Amateur Night, the weekly talent show that propelled the careers of Brown, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder and Lauryn Hill.
But theater operators were willing to make an exception for Brown, considered by many personnel to be the biggest act to ever play the hallowed hall, selling out five shows a day, six times a week at his peak. And, of course, Brown's breakthough album was the 1962 chart-topper, Live at the Apollo, Vol. 1.
"I used to work as the Apollo's errand boy as a teenager, and back in the '60s, James Brown—Mr. James Brown, I should say—was always the most popular," Mitchell told the New York Times, recalling lines of fans four deep snaking for blocks around the theater.
Inside the Apollo, an exhausted-looking Sharpton ironed out some last-minute details regarding the setup, and finally, after what seemed like forever, the first mourners were allowed in to pay respects after 1 p.m. Mr. Dynamite looked mighty dynamite, dressed in a sequined blue suit, silver boots, silver turtleneck and white gloves, an ensemble befitting the man who tutored the likes of Michael Jackson, Prince and Usher.
On either side of the casket were massive photographs of Brown performing; an arrangement of red flowers spelled out "Godfather."
According to Tamika Mallory, associate director of communications at the National Action Network, at 6 p.m. the viewing will be halted for approximately a half-hour while a private service is held for family and close friends. The Reverend W. Franklyn Richardson is expected to say a prayer, followed by Sharpton, who will give the eulogy. The theater will then reopen to the public until at least 8 p.m.
The whole shebang will pretty much repeat itself in the coming days in Brown's hometown of Augusta, Georgia. A private ceremony will be held at a local church on Friday, and on Saturday Sharpton will preside over a public memorial at the 8,500-seat James Brown Arena.