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.
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."
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