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Last Updated: Saturday, 30 December 2006, 14:17 GMT
Feeling good with James and Gerald
By Patrick Jackson
BBC News

In the week James Brown and Gerald Ford both died, BBC News looks at how the soul singer and the Accidental President each struck a chord with Americans.

James Brown in concert in 1974
James Brown - seen here in 1974 - was still touring in 2006

Perhaps the unlikeliest description of Gerald Ford came from the tongue of James Brown himself on a record from 1974, the year Mr Ford took charge in the White House.

"Country, do you know just what I meant?" he sang. "We just changed, we got a brand new funky president."

Mr Ford's presidential museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan, may boast a display on the 1970s complete with a twirling disco ball, but "funky" is not a word cropping up often in obituaries of Mr Ford.

Bill Clinton described his fellow ex-president as a "down-to-earth person" throughout his political career, and it is hard to imagine Mr Ford belting out I Feel Good.

Yet he appealed to Americans in other ways, and along with the formal nationwide mourning befitting a US president, flowers and candles have piled up outside his museum.

They both came from humble beginnings and they took the world stage
Deke Copenhaver
mayor of Augusta, Georgia

In Augusta, Georgia, flags are flying at half-mast mostly for James Brown, who grew up there, but they are also marking the president who briefly outlived him, Mayor Deke Copenhaver says.

"The passing of James Brown has sort of eclipsed the passing of Gerald Ford here but he was a popular president throughout the United States," Mr Copenhaver told the BBC News website.

If it took death to bring Gerald Ford and James Brown together in the public view, their lives also had a common thread - they were both versions of the American Dream.

Success stories

Mr Ford's parents separated just weeks after his birth and he grew up in Grand Rapids with his mother and her new husband, paint salesman Gerald Ford, whose name he was given.

President Gerald Ford flanked by Donald Rumsfeld (left) and Dick Cheney in 1975
Ford in 1975 with two aides - Donald Rumsfeld (L) and Dick Cheney

His official biography records that he did part-time jobs as a schoolboy to earn spending money, and he partially paid his own way through college.

A successful footballer, he only entered Yale University by first working there as a sports coach, then getting accepted as a law student.

The law, combined with service on a US aircraft carrier during World War II, completed his credentials for a career in politics.

James Brown kept his birth name - but not much else.

Born in a backwoods shack in South Carolina, he was abandoned to the care of friends and relatives at the age of four, and was boarding at a brothel in Augusta by the age of seven.

As a child he is said to have picked cotton, and danced and polished shoes for money, and he ended up in reform school for breaking into cars.

There he met gospel singer Bobby Byrd, and James Brown's career in music began when they teamed up after their release.

"One of the great things about America, I think, is that there is opportunity for everybody to succeed and both Mr Brown and Mr Ford exemplified that," says Deke Copenhaver.

"They both came from humble beginnings and they took the world stage."

Feel-good factor

Even death could not keep James Brown off the stage: he was laid out in his coffin for the public to view at New York's Apollo Theater, where he first found stardom.

Gerald Ford falls down the steps of Air Force One in Salzburg, 1975
Ford stumbles on the steps of Air Force One in Salzburg, 1975

But in Augusta, he is remembered by many as a community figure, says the city's mayor.

"Sometimes we here forget how much he meant to the world and how the world put him on a pedestal because he was so accessible," Mr Copenhaver says.

"He was a man of the people and he mixed with locals regularly. It was not an unusual occurrence to run into him on any given day. He was a huge advocate for the city."

For his fellow musicians and his fans, James Brown was the man who created the infectious, feel-good music of funk but what was Gerald Ford's "thang"?

Both Jimmy Carter, who narrowly defeated Mr Ford in 1976, and George W Bush have talked about him as a "healing" leader.

He will be remembered as the president who oversaw the withdrawal from Vietnam and who offered an amnesty to the war's draft-dodgers and deserters.

More controversial was his attempt to "heal" the Watergate trauma by pardoning Richard Nixon.

Mr Ford's modest character also endeared him to many Americans, and this man who took office without running for election was "accidental" in more ways than one, The Associated Press notes in a compilation of his misadventures.

He was seen variously stumbling on the stairs of the presidential plane Air Force One, tumbling down a ski slope, banging his head on a helicopter doorway and driving golf shots towards spectators or other players.

While his great gaffe was to assert during an election debate with Mr Carter that Eastern Europe was not under Soviet domination, he once told an audience: "If Lincoln were alive today, he'd roll over in his grave."

Homer's buddy

If an opinion poll this year is anything to go by, most Americans now know more about The Simpsons than they do the First Amendment.

James Brown features on the cartoon as the ultimate party-raiser, giving a concert in the Bart's Inner Child episode.

Gerald Ford turns up at the end of Two Bad Neighbors, where Homer Simpson has just beaten George Bush Senior in a neighbourly feud.

"Say, Homer, do you like football?" Mr Ford asks.

"Do you like nachos?... Well, why don't you come over and watch the game, and we'll have nachos? And then, some beer."

The episode ends with Homer "oohing", then both he and Mr Ford tripping up and shouting "D'oh" together.

Perhaps for Homer Simpson, at least, Mr Ford really was the "funky president".

Obituary: James Brown
25 Dec 06 |  Entertainment
James Brown: Life in pictures
25 Dec 06 |  In Pictures
James Brown: Your memories
25 Dec 06 |  Have Your Say
Obituary: Gerald Ford
27 Dec 06 |  Americas
Gerald Ford: Life in pictures
27 Dec 06 |  In Pictures
Gerald Ford: Your tributes
27 Dec 06 |  Have Your Say


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