Monday, January 01, 2007

Remembering James Brown and Gerald Ford




Last week, the country-and dare I say the world-lost two very different personalitites, two men who traced disparate paths to the top of their fields, and, as is inevitable, fell from glory. Both Brown and Ford prided themselves on their work ethics, with James Brown christening himself "The Hardest Working Man in Show Business" and Gerald Ford remarking that no matter what else history thought of him, it should remember that he had "worked like hell."
For Ford, the hard work began in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His father abandoned the family when Ford was only two years old, and his mother changed his name from Leslie Lynch King, Jr. to reflect his stepfather's name. Growing up, Ford was steeped in traditional Midwestern values and joined the Eagle Scouts, a group known for it's celebration of loyalty. Ford's first run for office ended in failure when he lost his bid for class president of South High School, but in school he excelled at football and was selected most valuable player by his teammates.
Meanwhile, hundreds of miles away, James Brown was born into abject poverty in South Carolina. Stories claim that he was a consummate performer even at a young age, singing and dancing on the street corner for pennies. Unfortunately, while Gerald Ford was returning home a hero after serving in the navy during World War II, James Brown was running into trouble with the law, being convicted of armed robbery. And as Ford was being elected to the House of Representatives, Brown was languishing in prison. At the close of the 1940's, the two men's lives appeared headed in entirely different directions.
During the fifties, Gerald Ford settled into his position as US Congressman, an office he would hold for 26 years. His hard work led him to a position on the Appropriations Committee, one of the most influential bodies in the House. James Brown's life got put on the right track with the help of singer Bobby Byrd, who sponsored the future soul brother's parole and gave him a job singing in his band the Flames. With the Flames, James Brown scored a hit with the single "Please, Please, Please," just the opening he needed to expose fans to his singular live performances. Although his next few singles were not nearly as successful as "Please, Please, Please," Brown's legendary work ethic kept him on the road, touring relentlessly and winning over audiences wherever he performed.
Both men reached important career milestones in 1960's. In 1963, Ford, admired for his staunch fiscal conservatism, was elevated to the third highest ranking position in his party. While Ford was garnering his colleagues' respect with his impressive work manner and genuine personality, Brown was redefining r&b music. He released his seminal album Live at the Apollo, which reached number two on the charts and solidified Brown's reputation as one of the most dynamic performers of his time. 1965 was even kinder to both men; Ford ascended to minority leader in the House and Brown released his two most recognizable hits, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," and "I Got You (I Feel Good)." The last half of the sixties saw both men cement their standing in their respective fields; Brown was a constant fixture on the r&b charts, while Ford earned the respect of his rival Democrats and his fellow Republicans as House Minority Leader.
After reaching such heights, the 1970's could only offer a decline. Critics claimed that artistically, James Brown was fading, his albums inconsistent and padded with filler. After twenty years in the House, Ford confided to his allies that his dream was to become House majority leader. But the political winds were not at his back; the Republican party was never closer than 16 seats to upsetting the Democratic majority. Surveying the landscape, Ford declared that he did not want to be a "minority leader in perpetuity" and indicated he would resign from the House by 1976. Both men were stumbling towards the twilight of their careers, with Brown being undercut by the disco explosion and staring down the dark hallway of musical irrelevance.
Ford was granted a reprieve of sorts when on Oct. 10th, 1973, Spiro Agnew resigned the Vice-Presidency. Ford was put forward as the clear choice for the post, a well liked politician who could perhaps take some of the heat of off Nixon's increasingly troubled presidency. A year later, in 1974, Brown was releasing Reality, an effort panned by the critics and revealing an artist seemingly devoid of inspiration, and Ford was being sworn in as president of the United States after Nixon stepped down in disgrace.
Despite engendering early hopes of a return to normalcy in Washington, Ford's legacy was immediately called into question when after one month in office he chose to grant Richard Nixon a full pardon. Ford believed that it would be necessary to "heal" the nation, but many saw it as a political favor to an old friend and an indication that the powerful could flout the law at will. James Brown was having his own troubles with the law, as the IRS began investigating his finances, threatening him with financial ruin. After two years as the nation's only unelected President, Ford was defeated in the 1976, largely because of the perception his pardon of Nixon had on the electorate. Ford retreated home to Michigan and both men limped into the 1980's, their legacies flaming out.
Surprisingly, Brown found himself without a record label for a time in the 80's, but like a true survivor he was able to rebuild some of his star power with hits such as "Unity" and "Living in America." But a conviction and a six year prison sentence (he was paroled after two years) again derailed The Godfather of Soul. There was some talk of Gerald Ford becoming Ronald Reagan's running mate during the 1980 presidential election, but nothing ever came of it and Ford slipped away into relative obscurity, giving speeches and occasionally representing the US at overseas functions.
It seemed as though both men's past achievements would be buried under the weight of their later failings, but both men's records have been vindicated by history. Ford's decision to pardon Nixon, widely criticized at the time, was seen in a new light after the years had past and he was honored by former critic Edward Kennedy with a "Profile in Courage" award. And Brown, long seen as inferior to such soul legends as Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, and Aretha Franklin, enjoyed a critical revival, as his early work was reevaluated and seen for the influential body that it was. The long journeys these two men--one white, one black, born twenty years apart and hundreds of miles away--undertook came to a victorious end in the final week of 2006, as the legacy each man worked so hard to fashion took its final and proper place in history's pages.

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