Funk's Founding Father: James Brown, 1933-2006

Born in utter poverty, James Brown became the ultimate self-made man, whose work ethic was topped only by his rhythmic innovations and musical genius

James Brown
David Corio/Redferns
James Brown performing in London, England in 1985.
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On Christmas morning, James Brown breathed his last in an Atlanta hospital. For a man whose trademark soul scream – black, American and proud – upended a half century of popular music, the end was uncharacteristically quiet. Congestive heart failure and pneumonia conspired to still the self-proclaimed (and undisputed) Hardest Working Man in Show Business. A week earlier, he had been especially reflective when speaking to those close to him, almost as if he were taking stock. And when on December 24th, his worried dentist, suspecting pneumonia, sent him to Emory Crawford Long Hospital in Atlanta, JB – a man with incredible tolerance for pain and little patience for doctors – did not argue. In recent years, he had battled prostate cancer to remission. He tussled daily with diabetes. His legs, scarred by decades of dropping to his knees onstage, pained him greatly. At seventy-three, though he had gigs lined up through August 2007 on his Seven Decades of Funk Tour, it seems James Brown was ready.

"I do think he knew he was going, yes." This from his unofficial son, protégé, spiritual adviser and longtime aide-de-camp, the Rev. Al Sharpton, who was calling the day after Christmas from Atlanta, where he had just accompanied three of James Brown's children to view the body. He said that Charles Bobbit, Brown's personal manager of forty years, had been with him in the hospital when, at 1:30 A.M., he complained of a raging fire in his chest. The boss told Bobbit quite calmly that he would be leaving that night. "Three long sighs," reports Sharpton, "he lay back on the pillow and was gone."

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Resuscitation was attempted, to no avail. The deeply Christian Mr. Brown would argue anytime, with anyone – except the Almighty. His stage exits of legend – the famous triple-collapse, sequined-cape resurrections – belied a country boy's deeper conviction: "Mortality ain't no big deal," he had assured me more than once. Mr. Bobbit covered the body with a hospital blanket.

James Brown leaves a cultural wake as wide as his dear friend Elvis did. It took three services and as many wardrobe changes to send him to Jesus. The Augusta, Georgia, public funeral, broadcast live on CNN from the recently renamed James Brown Arena, took the form of a soul revue: tremulous thanks from Michael Jackson and dance moves by MC Hammer, along with a cape for the open casket. His singular life, begun in unspeakable Jim Crow-era poverty, careened through phases of great fame, wealth, disgrace and redemption. He saw it this way: "My story is a Horatio Alger story. It's an American story, it's the kind that America can be proud of, but yet if you tell it in detail, if you tell all the things I fought to make it, it's like the Satchel Paige story."

Spike Lee will direct the biopic, slated to begin shooting next year. But can any of us hope to get it right? "He was a very secretive man," acknowledges Sharpton. "The closer you were to him, the less he told you."

I knew the Godfather of Soul for over two decades, long enough for him to insist I call him James and well enough to understand that he preferred the hard-won honorific Mr. Brown. The first time I met him on his home turf in Augusta, he drew a line with his shoe in the red dirt outside his office and challenged, "Unless you do puzzles, you cannot hope to understand James Brown."

You would need a bloodhound – or a hand-held GPS – to find the precise spot where James Joseph Brown Jr. entered the world on May 3rd, 1933. His father, Joe Brown, told me that it was a while before he could leave work in the turpentine camps and walk out of the piney woods where his wife Susan Brown gave birth to their only child in a shack where "the windas never seen a glass," in Barnwell, South Carolina, to register the blessed event. Joe was twenty, with fewer prospects than a box turtle on a four-lane highway. Having begun his working life at age eleven, struggling to control a four-mule team grading South Carolina roads, he went where the work was: farming, tapping sticky rivers of pine resin. It barely kept them eating, and offered no nourishment for a family life.

Pain was a JB staple from his earliest memory. In conversation and in song, he waxed from his earliest memory about its effects. Peer into his childhood and you hear its conflicted echoes in "I'll Go Crazy": "If you leave me, I'll go crazy," begs the forsaken singer. Then the superbad independent punches back: "You gotta live – for yourself, for yourself and nobody else!"

"I come up hard," is the way he put it. More than fifty years after he found himself hungry and all but abandoned in the woods at age four, he remembered the worst of times. Susan Brown left. Though he would never discuss her early exit, he recalled, "When my mother and my father broke up, my father had met people who were going to take care of James." They didn't; when Joe found him playing in the dirt hungry and alone one night and James admitted it happened often, he walked the child into town for good. "Eleven miles!" the Godfather recalled, leaping to his feet to mime the woozy feeling of walking in his sleep, waking only when the grassy edge of the road made him correct his course. He couldn't walk the next day, and Joe soaked his swollen legs in milk.

The trek landed him in dusty, Depression-era Augusta, in the care of his aunt Handsome "Honey" Stevenson, a brothel keeper. There, owing to his precocious dancing and vocalizing, folks called him a godsend child. At six, James could draw a crowd by beating on the busted pump organ his dad scavenged at Eubank's furniture store. Never able to give his son a family, Joe at least gave James his own survivor's work ethic. James shined shoes, racked pool balls, delivered groceries and worked alongside his father in a gas station, washing and greasing cars. At twelve, he was buck dancing for passing World War II troop trains to help make Honey's rent, five dollars a month.

In the seventh grade, his teacher, Miss Garvin, nicknamed him Robin Hood. It was an open secret that he stole pants and shoes to clothe his more desperate classmates. One day, nearly forty years after he had rooted for spoiled canned goods on a warehouse loading dock, James parked his shag-carpeted Dodge van at the abandoned site to show it to me. His son Larry was along, and he looked stricken at the rusted oil drums. "Daddy, you ate garbage?"

As the young James was made to understand it, there was no such thing as petty crime if committed by a black teen in postwar Georgia. So in 1949, an evening's misadventure breaking into cars conferred a prison sentence for almost as many years as he had been alive. He was shipped to a hot, murderously noisy rural facility, where his fellow inmates called him Music Box. Redemption came with the gospel quartet he formed there. "We sang like angels," he said. "We sang at other prisons. We were just kids and these big tough cats – even the guards sometimes – they would cry. We cried when we sang, it was so pretty."

It was sweet enough for early release after three and a half years. He joined the Avons, a group led by local singer Bobby Byrd, and they soon became the Flames. Drummer-harmonizer Brown shot to frontman on the strength of his pleading vocals.

The Famous Flames' 1956 debut single, the raw-as-chicken-guts "Please Please Please," stunned Syd Nathan, owner of the group's first label, Cincinnati-based King Records, by selling a million copies. Nathan hated the thing, two minutes and forty-three seconds of one word, tortured, panted and wailed.

Nathan and Brown often disagreed, but the artist insisted he had no regrets. "Mr. Nathan was the first one willing to take a chance on me," JB recalled. "We had differences. Mr. Nathan never did believe I could play keyboards. Had it in my contract I couldn't play and sing on the same record. And he was dead wrong on that." But early on, the country boy understood he needed Nathan's shrewd business tactics: "I knew how to pick up change when people threw at my feet. I knew what to charge for a shoeshine. But what do you ask for a song? What's a one-nighter worth?"

Though for a while an appellate court sided with Nathan in forbidding Brown to sing and play on the same record, the ambitious Mr. Brown kept stubbornly, successfully pushing his rhythmic agenda by adopting Nathan's business credo: "You charge! If you run backwards, you get shot in the ass." JB tore up the R&B charts with a still unmatched 114 single-artist hits. Six of his seven singles to hit Billboard's Top Ten were released between 1965 and 1968. It was never a cakewalk. Though "Please" hit the same year that Elvis howled "Hound Dog," it would be nine years before Brown breached the crossover barrier with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." And – perhaps a measure of his uncompromising and exacting craft – James Brown died without ever having had a Number One record on the pop charts.

It was 1963's Live at the Apollo – recorded in Harlem's shrine of soul against his record company's wishes and at his own expense – that proved career-making. Busting out of the chitlin circuit to a national stage, the Hardest Working Man in Show Business was saleable enough to free himself from any outdated R&B orthodoxies that Nathan might insist on. Believing that "nobody can tell James Brown how to be James Brown," he bulled past Nathan, who told him that no one would want to buy an album full of already released songs. He bet $5,700 of his own money on his hunch that most of black and white teen America might prefer an eleven-minute, tease-and-please version of "Lost Someone" slathered with lubricious audience shrieks and swoon, to tepid Top Forty. Released in January 1963, it spent sixty-six weeks on the charts. Black radio stations played the sides like singles; white fraternity houses wore out multiple copies in quad bacchanals. And from then on, the lines around the Apollo wound for blocks when the self-ordained Minister of Super Heavy Funk was in town.

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Live, like so much of the Brown concert oeuvre, was no less than public self-immolation. It could sound like a killing floor, with vocals somewhere between the screech of the A-train and a plump fryer meeting its fate. JB re-enacted his own death-by-desire every time he took the stage and barked, "Hit me!" to his dangerously sharp band. Each performance cost him seven to ten pounds, some of it sweat straight through the soles of his pointy-toed boots. And if he took the stage like a prince, he left it like a shipwreck survivor: Blood seeped from punished knees; the inflated, sculpted hair drooped like licorice as Mr. Dynamite assured his poleaxed communicants, "Ah'm tahred . . . but Ah'm clean!"

In 1965, he released his landmark single, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." It begat a polyrhythmic revolution that tilted the axis of popular music. Yet his innovation seemed deceptively simple: Mr. Dynamite sharpened his penchant for showcasing the percussive aspects of all instruments – guitar, bass, horns – and had them whomp the goods down on the first and third beats, rather than the two/four cadence aimed at American Bandstand record raters.

The brand-new beat proved irresistible and led him to further experimentations – distilling the sound to its funk essence. The songs he churned out for the next decade seemed inexhaustible. He recorded anywhere, anytime, was so prolific that anyone working on JB compilations must excavate vaults of hidden treasures. Sixteen of the seventy-two tracks on JB's stupendous 1991 box set, Star Time, were newly discovered gems, including an original slower version of "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" with alto saxman Maceo Parker blowing a gorgeous baritone solo.

The Godfather's testy relations with his long-suffering band are the stuff of legend, what he called a battle of "beats, grooves and egos." At the end of a white-hot performance, if you complimented their work, he would snap back with a ten-point critique. As he explained one night: "I have a lot of problems with my musicians. A lot of times they thought they were doin' it themselves. So in order to teach Maceo and them somethin', I took [bassist] Bootsy [Collins] out front. And when Bootsy thought he had somethin' goin', I took musicians that couldn't hardly play at all and cut bigger records with them. Cut 'Hot Pants.' I wanted them to know it wasn't them doin' it."

Always, he insisted they "do it to death." Some of his most intriguing sounds came from reworking the same songs over on countless live albums or in permutations of his own hits. Tin-eared detractors heard it as merely recycled material. Perhaps the world didn't need a clutch of variations on his 1969 "Popcorn." But James Brown did. Among them: "Mother Popcorn, Part 1," "Popcorn 80's" and "It's a New Day So Let a Man Come In and Do the Popcorn." The fact is, JB worked his series and aural triptychs with the same urge for refinement that hauled Picasso through his blue period. Bulldogged into parsing his process, he told me: "When I solo on the organ, it's like somebody's guidin' my hands. I don't have to look for it. Writin', too. It's like the tablets were written for Moses. Yes, ma'am. And everything I do hasn't been finished yet. So I can go back and keep tryin' to finish it. All those songs I put together are about ten percent of what the songs should be."

The urge was, he said, "a monster vision thang," which is nothing short of the desire to make a fragmented world whole – and the most basic impulse for art.

Thus, it is impossible to overstate James Brown's musical legacy. For nearly fifty-five years, he made the global soundtrack pop, crackle and ooze, from Astoria to Zaire, live from the bandstand, howling from tinny dashboard radios, still calling stubbornly, slyly from the sampled rhythm tracks of latter-day rappers. But what should never be lost in the translation to postmodern funk is the galvanizing live aspect of James Brown's theatrical, testifying soul: The man could dance. In the Sixties, a decade full of careers that caught fire in live moments – from Dylan turning electric at Newport to Hendrix at Woodstock – JB proved it all night, every night. You had to see him to believe him.

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In 1982, as he was readying Thriller, Michael Jackson told me he fell in thrall to the Godfather at age six while playing the Apollo with his brothers. Jackson was drawn instantly to that lodestar in tight, stovepipe pants: "The man gets out of himself. He's got a kind of freedom. I crave it. Every day." He asked whether I could help him get hold of a tape of the 1964 teen spectacular The T.A.M.I. Show, which contained the most mind-bending Brown footwork ever recorded. Brown told me it was the fastest he'd ever danced. Michael had heard that Elvis watched the footage over and over.

Just hours after the Godfather's death was announced, a grainy bit of T.A.M.I. footage showed up on YouTube. It shows him dancing to "Night Train," so lost in the hovercraft shuffles and spins that he forgets both the microphone and the goggle-eyed representatives of white teen America are there. Ever the canny showman, the Godfather named the dance trances that seized him: Popcorn! Mother Popcorn! New Breed Boogaloo! The crazes enslaved teen nations. But surely, it was as a dancer that James Brown was perfectly, unconditionally free.

Still, Mr. Brown would remind you, Jim Crow – the mythic minstrel whose very name defined segregation – was a dancer, too, but he bucked and jived for The Man. It was no accident that the first place we went on my inaugural tour of James Brown's Augusta was the ancient, overcrowded Fourth Street jail where he was held as a sixteen-year-old. He said it hadn't changed much since 1949. And certainly not by May 1970, when a black inmate, also sixteen, was beaten to death there, triggering the worst race riots in that city's history. A shaken Brown flew home from a date in Michigan at the behest of Georgia governor Lester "Pickax" Maddox. That canny old segregationist knew of JB's success cooling constituents in Boston and Washington, D.C., in the wake of the 1968 King assassination. And that boy was always coming up with his slogans: Don't be a dropout. Don't terrorize, organize. Don't burn, learn. To the native son's sorrow, things were too far gone when he got back: six more black deaths, fifty homes and businesses destroyed in the area he had inhabited as Niggertown.

JB caused a commotion during our visit, as inmates hollered greetings and pleas for help. The ruckus brought a fat guard in mirrored shades, who drawled "Now what y'all doin' rilin' these boys up?"

We beat a hasty retreat. As we drove off, JB explained: "You hearin' rage and frustration. And those are things I left behind. Where I been is not where I am, no thank you."

This did not mean he abandoned Niggertown. A quarter century before Magic Johnson dared build multiplexes in Crenshaw and Harlem, the Godfather believed in black enterprise. He owned radio stations, a fast-food chain and his own company, Top Notch. He lost nearly all of it in an IRS donnybrook. But what he lacked in business acumen, he made up for in tenacity. As he explained to hapless boxer Leon Spinks one night, "You got to keep what you get punched in the head for."

As an activist, James Brown never meant to overthrow the republic – just find room in it. He sang his bootstrap manifesto: "I Don't Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing (Open Up the Door I'll Get It Myself)." He was a patriot who could chopper to 'Nam to succor the brothers marooned there, then embrace Richard Nixon. His musical calls to social justice were not as eloquent as Martin Luther King Jr.'s speeches. But they were equally heartfelt.

Consider the genesis of his most famous 1968 anthem, the companion piece to Aretha Franklin's 1967 proclamation, "Respect." It was composed in a Los Angeles hotel a few hours before dawn. A disgusted Mr. Brown switched off the TV news after another report on black crime. He fretted and paced a bit, sent his grateful manager off to his rest, then summoned him twenty minutes later. The boss had scrawled some indelible lyrics on two napkins, commanded the incredulous Mr. Bobbit to find a studio in the middle of the night – along with musicians and thirty black children. And lo, it was done: The kids were corralled onto a bus in Watts. At the studio, they learned their chorus quickly: "Say it loud! I'm black and I'm proud!" Eight words sent out on megawatt black stations nationwide helped the movement reach critical mass.

Everywhere he went, he represented the constituency as a sharp-dressed man. No one understood his concept of male beauty better than JB's childhood friend Leon Austin, who explained that Mr. Brown knew he wasn't pretty in the accepted sense. In Augusta, there existed a stratification of "high complexion" versus "low." "A darker person would be named as ugly," Leon explained. His friend was dark. "So," concluded Leon, "he made the ugly man somebody."

For Soul Brother Number One, the toughest sacrifice was deflating his chemically cooked hair. The interim Afro was pure torture: "It was like givin' up somethin' for Lent," he said. "I wanted people to know that one of the most prized things I let go of was my hair. It was a real attraction to my business. But I would cut it off for the movement."

As his interviewer and hopeless fan, I knew James Brown for about a quarter of a century – much of it sleep-deprived. Hanging with JB was a life-altering, if challenging, adventure. He would call when he hit Manhattan, stop his limo across from my apartment and pop out to hold up traffic until I was aboard. You never knew who was going to be inside: Muhammad Ali. JB's father, Joe Brown. Leon Spinks. A comely Bride of Funkenstein. A new wife. And nearly always, "Rev," as he called Sharpton.

The star had taken Sharpton under his wing when the preacher was a fatherless teenager. Few failed to notice the timing: It was shortly after the 1973 auto-crash death of his own nineteen-year-old son, Teddy. Born in Toccoa, Georgia, where his father struggled to feed him by singing gospel in churches, Teddy was JB's oldest child and greatest hope. He was going to college.

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In all the times I saw them together, Brown and Sharpton were gleeful, affectionate co-conspirators, shoring up each other's agenda on endless antic road trips. Running with Mr. Brown could induce the same orgy of emotion as his shows: laughter, tears, disbelief – and moments of genuine terror. Nights on the town were funky. And fraught. It was excruciating squirming with members of the Brown entourage in a pricey and very white hotel dining room as a disdainful waiter tried to humiliate JB with blather about the petits champignons in the veal Marengo. But it was divine when our leader sent the waist-coated roach scuttling, defeated, with a polite but firm response: "I don't eat toadstools."

If you were in his mental Rolodex you were perpetually on call: At 3 A.M., the phone would ring, and the singular rasp would ask: "Aw, you sleepin'? It's James. Lissen. I been thinking . . ." The incessant verbal sparring, on everything from racism to "blackroeconomics," could be maddening and exhilarating. Often I hollered myself hoarse over the roar of Mr. Brown's heavy-duty hair dryers; the man spent more time in rollers than Edna Turnblad in Hairspray. Sometimes we couldn't talk at all. In the latter years, the Godfather's repeated falls from grace were heartbreaking; PCP-fueled rampages, domestic violence, car chases, the televised mug shots, more jail time and the awkward post-prison explanations and denials.

If I ever came within a light-year of understanding James Brown, it was in deepest "Georgia-lina," as he called his sanctuary: Augusta, and Beech Island, South Carolina, across the Savannah River, where he made his home. Despite the mantle of urban cool, despite a brief New York residency in the Sixties, with the white-carpeted castle in Queens and the black lawn Santas, he insisted, "I am country. I stayed country. Couldn't do nothing about it, if you want to know the truth. And entertainers like me, from the South, you meet up on the road and you could tell if a guy was missing something. I used to talk about being homesick with Otis Redding."

Of all the material goods he won and lost – the private jet, the fleet of cars, the suitcases bulging with cash, the 500 suits, the 300 pairs of shoes – the thing James Brown clung to most tenaciously was his home and the ability to walk the streets around it with uncompromised ease.

"Now Elvis, he got so far away from it, he couldn't do that. He told me he'd ride around Memphis, around the streets he come up in, all alone at night. Ride around on his motorcycle when he was sure the rest of the world was asleep, just kind of haunting them places he hung around as a kid. He was a country boy. But the way they had him livin', they never turned off the air condition'. Took away all that good air. You get sick from that."

He was inconsolable when Elvis died, stared down at the bloated face in the coffin and through tears asked the King, "How you let it go?" In the darker days, after disco had Latin Hustled him off the charts and the personal demons got top billing, JB would admit that he let a lot go himself: wives, a viable family life, fortunes and, for some spells, his freedom and good name. But he was resolute about the real estate: "I have the one thing which means somethin' in this world, which God gives to no man. Yet man sells it. I have land. For my kids. They need a place where they can pick up dirt and let it go through their fingers and say, 'It's mine.' As far as man's law, that dirt belongs to them, and I feel good about it."

This, he admitted, he learned from his father, who, after one of his son's declines, got his boy back in the dirt to knuckle chickweed out of the lawn since they could no longer afford a gardener. Black yardmen and their families grew up on the land, Joe Brown reminded him, "but didn't have no address." Holding title to some red clay was more comfort than all the royal appellations he could invent.

One day, on the cusp of yet another "comeback," James pulled up his suit pants and insisted I inspect his knees, which looked worse than those of a retired linebacker, scarred, swollen and discolored. He complained that the public expected James Brown to stay on his knees as long as possible: "They made my daddy crawl. Crawl under cars, behind mules. Crawl all kinds of ways. Four years ago they made me go down on my knees – my comeback, they called it – to prove I could still do it. That at his age James Brown can still get 'down.'"

It seems that James Brown bore up better under the burdens of racism than those of success. Like his pal Elvis, Soul Brother Number One was a musical and social subversive who outdistanced his culture-shaking innovations. Both men were fated to watch as successive generations cashed in on and devalued their myths. Saleable Elvis kitsch has been clogging the infomercial arteries for decades. But it was rough when Brown's classic "I Got You (I Feel Good)" became a laxative commercial.

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Still, the latter-day Godfather always found a way to feel the love. He and Muhammad Ali engaged in occasional ad hoc road tests of pandemic R-E-S-P-E-C-T. When in Manhattan together, most likely in the company of Rev, they argued good-naturedly over who could stop traffic for the most blocks.

"Yo, Rev. Get us a car." A beat, a wink. "Get a sunroof, Rev – pleeeease!"

The summoned limo purred to some congested intersection in either Harlem or midtown and discharged one of the competitors. As startled but adoring cops scurried to restore order, Brown and Ali would roll off to repeat the exercise in other nabe. Sharpton recalls those wild rides all too well: "Two role models of black American manhood. Acting like little kids. They knew they were loved. But they had to feel it in the street – again and again."

In the aftermath of one such outing, I was still white-knuckling the jump seat as an energized Mr. Dynamite sang this triumphant coda: "I need no shackles to remind me . . . I'm just a prisoner of love!"

It fell to Rev to arrange for his hero's last liveried ride. As we spoke, a white hearse waited for the gilded steel coffin to be loaded for the long drive north and a farewell appearance at the Apollo. "Mr. Brown deserves those lines one more time," said Sharpton. When, in 1988, JB "took some mess" and landed in a South Carolina prison full of hard-eyed boys with fades and no clue "who was the dude in the processed pageboy," it was the dutiful Rev who drove biweekly from New York to give those boys the Word (in the form of some classic cassettes) – and to give the Godfather his beauty supplies. As the morticians fussed with a final fly set of threads – blue sequins – Sharpton went silent on the line. "For the first time in my life," he admitted, "I'm at a loss for words."

That was never a problem for Mr. James Brown. And so we look to him for the best last words: "I do not ever stay angry, no. Because I believe in God's justice. I believe there will be justice, or I could not go on. Could not keep runnin' the way I do. And if some record company, if some DJ don't want to know me, don't want to recognize me in all that stuff you hear in the Top Ten today, well, all right. Because God knows James Brown good as I do. In the year 3000, people say, 'Who was James Brown?' Now I bet you got an idea who James Brown is. But it ain't the same answer as His and mine."

This is a story from the January 25th, 2007 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1018: January 25, 2007
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