Thousands crowd Harlem theater to honor music legend

James Brown had his final gig at the Apollo Theater on Thursday.

Three days after the singer died of congestive heart failure in Atlanta, Ga., thousands of his fans flooded Harlem to view the hardest working man in show business at rest in a gold casket.

Admirers began arriving shortly after midnight Wednesday, and by noon Thursday, the lines snaked down 125th Street up to 127th Street, ending outside the Harriet Tubman Learning Center.

Rev. Al Sharpton, a close friend of the singer, arranged for the transport of Brown’s body from Atlanta to New York, where it made its way from Sharpton’s Harlem office to the Apollo in a white carriage drawn by white horses. Onstage, Brown lay resplendent in a blue suit, white gloves and silver shoes. Flanking the casket were giant photographs of the singer performing. An arrangement of red flowers on a white background spelled out “Godfather.”

Outside, under the Apollo’s marquee that read “Rest in Peace Apollo Legend The Godfather of Soul James Brown, 1933-2006,” the crowd waited, surged and sometimes pushed, shouted and chanted Brown’s lyrics, among them, “Say it loud — I’m black and I’m proud.”

Brown started his relationship with the famed Apollo in 1956 and recorded his landmark album “Live at the Apollo” in 1962.

On 125th Street, traffic was at a near standstill as thousands of people waited in disorganized lines and filled the sidewalks on both sides of the street. Police had the four-lane street funneled into two lanes as cars cruised by blaring Brown’s tunes.

“I saw him here in 1969,” said Brooklyn resident June Holder, who was turned away mere steps from the front doors after learning that she was not in the proper line. “I’ll wait here all night to get in and see him.”

Around the corner on Frederick Douglas Boulevard, a group gathered outside of Bobby’s Happy House, where Brown’s music played and people took turns dancing like Brown. Inside the music shop, one of Harlem’s oldest, Denise Robinson worked at the counter.

“James was just a teenager when he arrived here,” she said. “He ran into trouble and needed cash. My father helped him and out, and they’ve been friends ever since.”

Nearby, her father, producer, songwriter and storeowner Bobby Robinson, sat in a chair wearing a fedora and snakeskin shoes. People came in to pay condolence calls on Robinson, who sadly peeked out from beneath his hat with wet eyes and silently nodded.

Brown was scheduled to play two New Year’s Eve shows at B.B. King’s Blues Club in New York. Chaka Khan will perform in his place.

(Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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