I saw James Brown just once, ten years before his death. He was 66 years old at the time, and I wondered beforehand how his onstage prowess might be affected by his advanced age. After all, this wasn't an artist who sat on a barstool and sang; this was the Godfather of Soul, known for getting up, getting down, staying on the scene like a sex machine. It turned out I needn't have worried.
The show was at Chene Park, a beautiful venue on the Detroit River. While Brown performed we could see the lights of boats passing by behind him. The opener was Jimmie Walker, the comedian best known for playing the cartoonish son J.J. on the 1970s sitcom Good Times. His was a strange set of dated racial humor that was not very incisive or funny, and ended with a weak apology. (The gist of it was, "Ha ha, white people are such idiots... but seriously folks, I was just joking and really we should all get along. Thank you and good evening!")
Brown was a marvel onstage, shimmying, shaking, and doing the splits with the zest and skill of man one-third his age. He performed various hits spanning the many decades of his career, everything from "It's a Man's World" to "Living in America." Just as he had for years, Brown did the bit with the cape and had a bevy of young and attractive female dancers onstage. You didn't see showmanship like that very often by the mid '90s, and certainly not on the level of James Brown. It was inspiring to see that, despite the many ups and downs of his life, he remained a dynamic performer in his sixth decade, reinforcing his legacy at a time of life when many lesser artists are dishonoring theirs.