Fans and admirers refer to him, commonly and without hyperbole, as "the Godfather of Soul," "Soul Brother Number One" and "the hardest working man in show business." Michel Jackson cited him as "my greatest inspiration." And the critic Robert Christgau, writing in Rolling Stone, called him "the greatest musician of the rock era, no contest."
With some 800 songs in his repertoire, James Brown has influenced contemporary artists from virtually every popular music genre — rock, soul, jazz, R&B. His polyrhythmic funk vamps virtually reshaped dance music, and his impact on hip-hop, in particular, was huge; in the music's early years, Brown was by far the most sampled artist. Though he would be dogged by legal troubles and controversy in later life, he was a principled artist, adamant refusing to conform to anyone's vision. He was also an inimitable showman, and the only thing more fun than listening to James Brown was seeing him live.
Brown was born into poverty in rural Barnwell, South Carolina, around the time of the Depression (some records give his birth date as 1928; he claims it was May 3, 1933), and grew up in Augusta, Georgia. As a child, he picked cotton, shined shoes, danced for pennies on Augusta's streets, and stole. Convicted of armed robbery at 16, he spent three years in a juvenile detention institution. While incarcerated, Brown made the acquaintance of Bobby Byrd, who performed with his family gospel group at the institution. Byrd's family eventually helped obtain Brown's release by taking the youngster in and getting him a job. Brown tried semi-professional sports, first as a boxer, then as a baseball pitcher, but a leg injury ruined his chances of going pro.
In the meantime, Byrd and Brown had put together a gospel group, which performed under a succession of different names at the Mount Zion Baptist Church, in Toccoa, Georgia, and at auditoriums in the area. Byrd and Brown sang duets, with three or four other members singing background vocals and harmonies. After seeing a rock & roll show featuring Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, Fats Domino, and others, Brown and Byrd left gospel music behind, transforming the group (Johnny Terry, Sylvester Keels, and Floyd Scott) into the Flames. Each Flame sang, danced, and played an instrument or two — Brown's were piano and drums. Byrd also played keyboards and shared vocals; he would remain Brown's sideman off and on during the next three-plus decades.
From a base in Macon, Georgia, the Flames had been touring the South for two years when Ralph Bass, head of Federal Records, signed them in 1956. Their first single, "Please, Please, Please," a big hit in Georgia and adjacent states, eventually sold a million copies. Subsequent releases in the same gospel-influenced yet distinctly rougher R&B style made Brown a regional star until "Try Me" became a national hit in 1958, charting Number One in R&B, Number 48 in pop.
By this time, Brown had become the de facto leader of the group, now called the Famous Flames. Guided by Universal Attractions director Ben Bart, Brown created the James Brown Revue, complete with opening acts, his own emcee, and a stage band, the James Brown Band. The show was precisely choreographed, with Brown pumping his hips, twisting on one foot, and doing splits as the troupe executed their own intricate steps. Night after night, he would feign collapse and be helped from the stage, only to stop, throw off the cape, and start all over again. Despite its predictability, the gimmick never lost its power to bring fans to their feet. Sweating off a purported seven pounds a night, and breaking box-office records in every major black venue in America, Brown earned the nickname "Mr. Dynamite" and title "The Hardest Working Man in Show Business."
As Brown's band became one of the tightest in the field, Brown wanted to showcase them on his recordings. Federal, however, refused to let Brown use them in the studio, so he arranged for the band to record for another company as Nat Kendrick and the Swans. The resulting instrumental hit, "Mashed Potatoes," persuaded Federal's parent company, King, to take over Brown's contract and to sign up the James Brown Band both for Brown's sessions and as a separate act. From then on, Brown concentrated on pared-down, jump-and-shout dance music ("Think," "Night Train"). If a new song made the concert crowd dance, he would record it that night, often in one take.
Simultaneously, Brown was charting such raw, emotive R&B ballads as "Bewildered" (Number Eight R&B, Number 40 pop, 1961), "I Don't Mind" (Number Four R&B, Number 47 pop, 1961), and "Lost Someone" (Number Two R&B, Number 48 pop, 1961). In 1962, Brown wanted to cut a live album, but King label owner Syd Nathan refused to finance it, seeing no commercial potential in it. So Brown paid for it himself, and Live at the Apollo, recorded in Harlem in 1962 and patterned after Ray Charles' live In Person, sold a million copies, reached Number Two in 1963, and stayed on the pop chart for 14 months — unprecedented for a black music album. Frustrated by King's failure to reach into the white market, Brown and Bart formed Fair Deal Productions in 1963. "Out of Sight," which Fair Deal released through Smash Records, hit Number One R&B, Number 24 pop.
Brown's revised contract with King in 1965 gave him complete artistic control. He revamped his band under the leadership of Nat Jones, and with his "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," became a world-class force in popular music. Disposing of the conventional verse and chorus structure, eliminating even chord progressions, he distilled his sound to its essence: rhythm and, more specifically, "the One."
"Brand New Bag" topped the R&B chart, as did "I Got You (I Feel Good)" and "It's a Man's, Man's, Man's World." After Alfred "Pee Wee" Ellis replaced Jones as bandleader, Brown continued to score with "Cold Sweat," "I Got the Feelin'," "Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)," "Give It Up or Turn It A-Loose," and "Mother Popcorn" — which were all Top 20 (many of them Top 10) pop hits. Concurrently, he recorded instrumental albums (a total of 11 between 1961 and 1971) that never attained great commercial success but, featuring his organ and piano work, continued his rhythmic explorations (tracks from the best of these can be found on the 1993 anthology, Soul Pride).
The late Sixties found James Brown a cultural hero, "Soul Brother Number One." As a black man of wealth, independence, and influence, he was a symbol of self-determination and triumph over racism. He took that responsibility seriously. Songs such as "Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)," "Don't Be a Drop-Out," and "I Don't Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing (Open Up the Door I'll Get It Myself)" contained direct social messages. He sponsored programs for ghetto youth, spoke at high schools, invested in black businesses, performed for troops in Vietnam, and went on television after the April 4, 1968, assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. to plead for calm — a service for which he was ceremoniously thanked by Vice President Hubert Humphrey. In Boston, where he was scheduled to perform after rioting had broken out in several cities, city authorities feared violence. Brown's decision to televise the concert live locally was credited with helping to maintain the peace.
In late 1969 Brown faced the mutiny of his celebrated Sixties band, which included saxophonist Maceo Parker and trombonist Fred Wesley. Brown enlisted hot young instrumentalists who, with his nurturing, continued to develop the sound that would be called funk. The new band, dubbed the JBs, included brothers William "Bootsy" and Phelps "Catfish" Collins, whose distinctive bass and lead guitar playing, respectively, ushered in a new sound in soul music. The Collinses left after a year, later joining George Clinton's Parliament/Funkadelic organization. Key Sixties band members saxophonist St. Clair Pinckney and guitarist Jimmy Nolan, as well as Parker and Wesley, eventually returned, but the only consistent member was drummer John "Jabo" Starks, who originally joined in 1965.
The JBs were then led by Wesley, who with Brown began creating music that was even less formal than before; as the instrumental sections dug into funk grooves, Brown, dubbing himself "Minister of New New Super Heavy Funk," mixed sociopolitical messages and stream-of-consciousness phrasing with an undeniable beat.
Brown had been handling his own affairs since the death of his manager in the late Sixties, and in 1971 he signed with an international record company, Polydor, and sold it his entire back catalogue. His records — "Hot Pants" (Number 15, 1971), "Make It Funky" (Number 68, 1971), "Talking Loud and Saying Nothing" (Number 27, 1972), "Get on the Good Foot" (Number 18, 1972), "The Payback" (Number 26, 1974), "My Thang" (Number 29, 1974), and "Papa Don't Take No Mess" (Number 31, 1974) — continued to sell by the millions. Though R&B chart-toppers, they increasingly failed to crack the pop Top 20, on which softer rock, highly polished R&B ballads, and the first hints of disco dominated.
Around 1975 Brown's popularity began to wane. Because of financial difficulties, Brown was forced to sell his three black radio stations and his jet. The Internal Revenue Service claimed he owed $4.5 million in back taxes; a manager said Brown was part of a payola scandal; Brown's son Teddy had died in a car crash in 1973; and his second marriage ended. Young record buyers favored heirs like the Ohio Players, Kool and the Gang, and the Parliafunkadelicment Thang (which now employed Wesley and Parker).
Brown was welcomed to Africa and Japan as a star, and at home he continued to work. When disco peaked in the late Seventies, he promoted himself as "The Original Disco Man," which he was. When "It's Too Funky in Here" reached Number 15, it was called a "comeback." With a cameo role in the 1980 movie The Blues Brothers, Brown introduced his soul-church preaching to a new generation. Returning to American stages that year, he drew much of his audience from the white punk-funk faction, for whom he was the essence of polyrhythmic minimalism. In 1980 he recorded "Rapp Payback (Where Iz Moses?)," an homage to his earlier singles "Brother Rapp" and "The Payback," which prefigured the enormous influence he would come to have on the incipient hip-hop scene. The single, a British dance hit (Number 39 U.K., 1981), helped activate a James Brown resurgence there. Finding himself label-less in the early Eighties, Brown recorded the album Bring It On! for his own Augusta Sound label.
In 1984 Brown joined with rapper Afrika Bambaataa on "Unity," released on New York rap label Tommy Boy. By this time, his music had been claimed as the virtual basis for hip-hop beats; among others, Kool Moe Dee and Eric B. & Rakim scored hits by sampling Brown's rhythms, and his 1969 recording "Funky Drummer" (featuring drummer Clyde Stubblefield) began appearing in myriad versions on rap and pop records. The rappers also borrowed poses from Brown's persona — street-savvy, self-contained, defiant. With Brown inducted as a charter member into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, his revival was bolstered by "Living in America," the theme song to Rocky IV. Recorded at the request of director Sylvester Stallone, the single (Number 4, 1986), included on the album Gravity (with guest stars Alison Moyet and Steve Winwood), won a Grammy in 1987 for Best R&B Performance. In 1989 Brown (with writer Bruce Tucker) published an autobiography, James Brown: The Godfather of Soul.
In 1988, however, Brown's career ground to a halt. When his fourth wife, Adrienne, reported beatings, Brown was charged with assault with intent to murder and aggravated assault and battery. He surrendered to Aiken County, South Carolina, authorities near his 60-acre home in May and was released on bond. Then followed a year of bizarre legal troubles during which Adrienne, after her own arrest for alleged possession of PCP, first announced that she would file for legal separation, then relented and also withdrew the assault charges. Adrienne was arrested again for PCP possession and for arson. In September, as rumors circulated about his own PCP abuse and problems with the IRS, Brown allegedly threatened a group of people with a shotgun and then engaged in an interstate car chase with police that ended in his receiving a six-year sentence in a work-release program.
Paroled in 1991 after serving two years of his sentence — during which he was visited by the Reverend Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, and Republican stalwart Lee Atwater but ignored by the music industry and most of his old friends — Brown returned to work with a pay-per-view television concert and a new album. With Star Time, a four-CD retrospective (later chosen by Rolling Stone as Reissue of the Year), the best of Brown's catalogue was freshly available, and the singer's stature was unassailable.
The late Nineties were difficult for Brown personally. His wife died in January 1996, two days after undergoing cosmetic surgery. Two years later, the singer, then in his 60s, was arrested for possession of drugs and firearms. He still made new music, however, releasing I'm Back in 1998, his first studio album in four years.
His final studio album was The Next Step in 2002. The following year he was the subject of a PBS American Masters documentary, James Brown: Soul Survivor. He continued performing well into the first decade of the 2000s, appearing at the second Bonnaroo festival in 2003, at the Edinburgh Live 8 concert in 2005, and setting out on his "Seven Decades Of Funk World Tour" in 2006.
On Christmas Day of that year, Brown died of congestive heart failure due to complications from pneumonia. He was eulogized around the world. His casket was pulled by horse-drawn carriage through the streets of Harlem, drawing a crowd of 10,000, and Michael Jackson paid tribute at a public service in Augusta.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Mark Kemp contributed to this story.
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