As fans celebrate the late James Brown's 80th birthday May 3, it's a suitable occasion to remember the final time that the King of Soul went gold.
That was when a horse-drawn carriage bore Brown's body in a procession through the streets of Harlem on December 28, 2006, before a memorial service at the Apollo Theatre that drew thousands of fans to line up and file past his body. Some of them might have been angling to get a look at the casket as much as at Brown himself.
Brown was decked out in a casket called the Promethean, which is plated in 14-carat gold, with a body of solid bronze, lined with blue velvet. Retail value: $22,000-30,000, making it one of the world's most expensive coffins, if not the most pricey, at the time.
Michael Jackson spent five hours in the funeral home when the body was returned to Augusta, Georgia, studying the lifeless visage of Brown and, no doubt, the coffin as well. Little wonder, then, that as Jackson had followed in Brown's nimble footsteps in life, he followed in them in death, too--also being carried to his memorial service in a gold casket when he died two and a half years later.
Just as Brown was revered as "the hardest-working man in show business," his casket might have been the Hardest-Working Coffin in Show Business.
The casket made a round trip in a van from Georgia to New York, so that Brown could be eulogized at three separate funerals or memorial services. Not only that, the coffin also bore his body above ground in cold storage for more than two months, while his family debated where Brown should be buried. After all that, the Promethean had certainly proved its precious mettle.
Brown's family made a last-minute decision to switch to the gold casket on the night before the Apollo memorial. The Reverend Al Sharpton told them he had the money to cover it--as R.J. Smith recalled in his Brown biography--but getting it uptown from Georgia in a hurry was another matter. "The 500-pound box was too heavy for the Learjet Sharpton had ready to fly to New York," wrote Smith. "Sharpton called Donald Trump, but his jet was being repaired...Delta's last flight out of Atlanta had left for the evening."
So Sharpton got in a van with the funeral home's director and two other people, and made an overnight drive to New York. Along the way, he called a NYC funeral home to arrange not only a horse-drawn carriage, but a hearse to carry the coffin to the carriage, so that no one would have to see Brown arriving in "a drafty old van." Said Sharpton, "It wouldn't be the first time James Brown kept me up all night. But more important, he stayed up all night with me. I know he would have been happy that we brought him to Harlem, we brought him to the Apollo one more time. One era had a Bach, another era had a Beethoven. We had a Brown."
The resulting celebration--which had fans trailing the carriage down the street to the strains of "I'm Black and I'm Proud"--led to one of the more memorable and fan-packed farewells ever seen in pop music history. But the Promethean's glittery work was not done. After the last fans were allowed to file past the casket at the Apollo, the funeral director loaded up the van again and drove straight back to Georgia, arriving at 11:30 the following morning, just in time to give Brown's corpse a change of clothes for a private, friends-and-family service at the Carpentersville Baptist Church in South Carolina.
Then there was another change of clothes before Brown was delivered to an Augusta arena that had recently been redubbed the James Brown Arena for a third service, attended by 8,500 fans as well as willing-to-travel celebrities like Michael Jackson and Bootsy Collins.
Jackson was the only one to spend five hours in the funeral home beforehand with his late idol. "He stood there, I guess, an hour or so just looking," Charles Reid, the director of the C.A. Reid Funeral Home in Augusta, later told the New York Daily News. "He leaned over and kissed him on the forehead" and eventually took hold of a lock of Brown's hair and "just kind of twisted it around." Later, the King of Pop began asking technical questions about how the King of Soul was being laid to rest--like "the types of fluids that you use. He wanted to know how long the preparation would last," Reid told the Daily News. And: "Were we going to change his outfits? He wanted to know had his hair been done, how that was done...Most people shy away when it comes to death. They would be trying to head the opposite way. It was amazing to me he would talk about it the way he was. It's just out of the ordinary."
Finally, Jackson asked to visit the casket room. "He asked who requested the gold-plated casket. I said, 'Well, it's the family's decision.' He asked if that's something Mr. Brown wanted. I said, 'Entertainers, they always say solid gold.'"
Perhaps it was just coincidence that Jackson was eulogized in a similar if not identical gold coffin, but most likely, it was one more example of hero worship or emulation on the younger entertainer's part.
Jackson also followed in Brown's trail in spending a lot of time in that gold casket before actually being to rest. But it wasn't as long for MJ as JB, who remained in refrigerated quarters from late December until some time in February 2007. His body spent the first 20 days following his final memorial service in a climate-controlled room before it was driven back to the funeral home, where the director periodically opened the casket and checked on the body's condition.
Eventually, Brown was reportedly returned to his 60-acre Beech Island property, where family members had plans to make his mausoleum a Graceland-like attraction, although that's never come to fruition.
Even recently, the state of Brown estate has still been in flux. The will was heavily contested at the time of his death, since it had been drawn up before his final marriage to Tomi Rae Hynie, which was contested when it turned out that Hynie had still been legally wed to someone else at the time.
In February 2013, the South Carolina Supreme Court overturned a settlement that had been brokered in 2009, which split the estate between a charitable trust, his widow, and his children--saying that Brown had explicitly declared he wanted most of his millions to go to charity. A lower court will reconsider the matter.
Meanwhile, as the arguments over his estate continue among his heirs, Brown proved with his gold casket that you can take some of it with you--at least about 25 grand's worth.