A towering figure in the history of 20th century popular music, James Brown was the key architect in the development of soul and funk, which were personified by such propulsive hits as "I Feel Good," "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," "It's a Man's Man's Man's World," "Cold Sweat," "Super Bad" and other iconic songs. Brown's music also wielded considerable influence over a vast array of other music forms, most notably rap and hip-hop, which built its foundation upon Brown's jazz-driven drum pattern. His vocal support for civil rights and black empowerment in the 1960s and early 1970s also elevated him from performer to spokesman for a generation of young African-Americans. Tax problems, substance abuse issues and the rise of more commercial forms of R&B toppled Brown's empire in the mid-1970s, and he would spend much of the next two decades in alternating states of comeback and disgrace before his death in 2006. However, changing tastes and legal problems could never erase the incredible legacy of his body of work, which at the height of his powers, was among the most exhilarating music ever recorded, and preserved Brown's status as, among other titles, "The Hardest Working Man in Show Business" and "Soul Brother No. 1."
Born in Barnwell, SC on May 3, 1933, James Joseph Brown, Jr., was raised in dire poverty in nearby Elko by his parents, Joseph Gardner and Susie Brown. His early life was marked by utter turmoil; his mother abandoned the family to live with another man when Brown was two, leaving the boy with his father until the age of six, when he was sent to live with an aunt who operated a brothel. Brown dropped out of school in the seventh grade and supported himself through a variety of odd jobs. Along the way, he picked up guitar lessons from blues legend Tampa Red and piano and drum from others, but the defining moment of his life came when he saw R&B performer Louis Jordan sing his signature tune, "Caledonia," in a short film. In 1945, Brown launched his own vocal group, the Cremora Trio, which played high schools and Army bases around Augusta, GA. However, his arrest on armed robbery charges in 1949 later put an end to his musical aspirations for the next three years.
While serving out his sentence at a juvenile detention center, Brown met Bobby Byrd, who had come to the facility as part of an exhibition baseball team. Byrd, who sang R&B with a Georgia-based act called the Avons, befriended Brown and used his family's influence as prominent members of their local church to help secure him an early release in 1952. Brown tried his hand at boxing and semi-professional baseball, but an injury forced him to consider other career options. He was then invited by Byrd to join the Avons as their drummer, but Brown's combustive energy and persuasive presence soon convinced Byrd to make him the group's lead vocalist. After changing their name to the Famous Flames, Brown and the group secured a recording contract with Federal Records in 1956, where they cut their first single, "Please, Please, Please," an emphatic blues number co-written by Brown and reportedly inspired by a napkin he carried with him on which Little Richard had written the title words.
Initial reaction to the song was emphatically negative; Syd Nathan, head of Federal's parent company, King Records, threatened to fire Federal chief Ralph Bass upon hearing Brown's wailing vocals. Even the band themselves felt that the single lacked potential, but after Nathan released the record in early 1956 - reportedly to prove to Bass that it was a flop - the song peaked at No. 6 on the R&B charts. Unfortunately, none of its follow-ups, including "No No No" and "Just Won't Do Right," would repeat its success, and by the following year, most of the Famous Flames' lineup, including Byrd, had departed over their management's decision to rename the group "James Brown and the Famous Flames." After culling new members from another vocal group, Brown self-financed their 1958 single, "Try Me." The heartfelt ballad became his first No. 1 R&B hit, prompting Brown to pull together a tight backing unit of musicians while bringing back Byrd and Johnny Terry to join Bobby Bennett and Lloyd Stallworth as the best-known and most successful Famous Flames lineup.
By 1960, Brown had begun to display the forward thinking as a songwriter that would mint him as a leading figure in black music throughout the next two decades. Subsequent Famous Flames singles like "I'll Go Crazy" (1960) and a cover of the 5 Royales' "Think" featured complex, churning rhythm lines that drew from jazz and Latin music, while his 1962 take on the jazz staple "Night Train" showed his aptitude for constructing irresistible dance tunes. The group had also developed a strong following on the concert circuit with their frenetic live show, anchored by Brown's keening vocals and explosive dancing, which received a stellar showcase with Live at the Apollo (1962), a No. 2 LP on the pop album charts. Brown further increased his profile among pop listeners with a show-stopping performance at a 1964 concert in Santa Monica, CA, where he easily upstaged a host of top rock-n-roll acts including the Rolling Stones, Beach Boys and Chuck Berry. Captured as part of the concert film "The T.A.M.I Show" (1964), it minted Brown as a star in both the pop and R&B fields, a position he would solidify with his next few singles. "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" (1965) not only marked his first entry into the Billboard 100's Top 10, but also netted his first Grammy. More importantly, it underscored a new direction for his music, which favored precise horns, a scratchy guitar line placed up front in the mix, and a propulsive rhythm section. These elements would form the building blocks of both soul and funk, which Brown would help to pioneer in the years to come.
Within two years, Brown had rocketed past the blues-driven sound of No.1 hits like "I Got You (I Feel Good)" and settled into a new groove that expanded upon the rhythmic attack of "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." Traditional song structure was supplanted by a complex interplay between stinging electric guitar and crisp horns and anchored by a rhythm section driven by a supple bass line and nimble drum patterns. Brown's vocals also underwent a significant transformation, adopting an emphatic half-spoken, half-sung cadence punctuated by his trademark grunts and piercing screams. Drawing equally from New Orleans second line music, jazz, and African rhythms, the new music was funk, and Brown was its unqualified master. Singles like "Cold Sweat," a No. 1 R&B hit in 1967, "Give It Up or Turnit a Loose" (1969) and the iconic "Funky Drummer" (1969), which would form the backbone of countless hip-hop tracks in the decades to come, were a vibrant part of the soundtrack for young black Americans during the late 1960s, and Brown responded to his growing status as a cultural leader with empowering material like "Say It Loud - I'm Black and I'm Proud" (1968). As a result, he was soon courted by mainstream political figures, including then-Vice President Hubert Humphrey, and served as a calming presence to black communities in the wake of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination in 1968.
Brown's music also had a tremendous influence on black music of the period, inspiring new acts like Sly and the Family Stone, George Clinton's Parliament-Funkadelic, while also spurring established groups like the Temptations, the Jackson Five and even jazz performers like Miles Davis to adopt a funkier, streetwise sound. Brown's munificence towards the black community in the late '60s and '70s did not always extend to the members of his own band. The Famous Flames had left Brown's side over monetary disputes, though Bobby Byrd would remain with Brown for another decade, serving largely as his emcee. A crack team of sidemen, including saxophonists Alfred "Pee Wee" Ellis, Maceo Parker and St. Clair Pinckney, drummers John "Jabo" Starks and Clyde Stubblefield - the man behind the drum kit on "Funky Drummer" - and trombonist Fred Wesley replaced them. Brown was a demanding taskmaster, frequently fining players for missed notes, and by 1969, most of the new group had also departed over money issues. The following year, Brown recruited a powerful new lineup, which included guitarist Phelps "Catfish" Collins and his brother William, a teenaged bass prodigy who went by the nickname Bootsy. By the end of the year, Parker, Pinckney and Wesley had returned to the fold, and the group, dubbed The J.B.s, backed Brown on some of his most incendiary singles of the 1970s, including "Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine" and the ferocious "The Payback" (1973).
Brown also launched his own label, People Records, as part of his new contract with Polydor. The imprint featured solo efforts by an array of performers in Brown's orbit, including Byrd, the J.B.'s, singers Lyn Collins and Vicki Anderson, and even his former R&B chart rival, Hank Ballard of the Midnighters. Brown produced nearly all of the music on the People label, which included such funk classics as Byrd's "I Know You Got Soul" (1971) and Collins" Think (About It)" (1972). But at the height of his artistic success, Brown's idiosyncratic personality began to wear away at many of the gains he had achieved with his career. His support of Richard Nixon's re-election campaign in 1972 resulted in a widespread boycott of his music, forcing him to perform outside of the United States for much of the next two years. His core group of players, including the Collins brothers, Parker and Wesley, had finally tired of his domineering behavior and fled to Parliament-Funkadelic, which was regularly surpassing Brown on the charts. R&B music as a whole abandoned his hard-edged funk in favor of disco's smoother, more commercial flow. By 1981, he had departed Polydor and languished in reduced circumstances for the better part of the decade while dodging the IRS's pursuit of more than $4.5 million in unpaid taxes. However, Brown's back catalog of hits remained a vital source for the rising hip-hop movement, which built many of its essential tracks on samples from his songs.
Rap's entry into mainstream culture in the late '80s spurred renewed interest in Brown's music, which culminated in an unexpected comeback with "Living in America" (1986). The rollicking single, which Brown performed in the 1985 movie "Rocky IV," was his first Top 40 single since 1974, and earned him a Grammy for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance shortly before his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that same year. Two years later, he scored two additional Top 10 R&B hits with "Static" and the title track from his 1988 album I'm Real. But the resurgence in popularity proved short-lived; Brown was arrested twice in 1988, first for allegedly assaulting his third wife, Adrienne Rodriguez, while under the influence of PCP, and later, for leading Georgia police on a high-speed chase near the state border. Brown was sentenced to six years in prison for the latter offense, but was released after serving only three years. Upon his release, Brown resumed his recording and touring schedule, scoring minor hits on the Billboard 100 between 1991 and 1993. His final years, however, were largely marked by legal entanglements regarding the validity of his marriage to singer Toni Rae Hynie, who was allegedly already married to another man at the time of their 2001 nuptials, and the paternity of their son, James Brown II. In 2005, Brown was sued by a former employee who alleged that he had forcibly raped her at gunpoint in 1988, but the case was soon dismissed.
On Dec. 23, 2006, Brown was admitted to a hospital in Atlanta for observation and treatment following a lengthy illness. Initially, his representative stated that the condition was of no concern, and that scheduled upcoming performances, including an appearance on CNN for a New Year's Eve special, would take place as planned. However, Brown's health soon worsened, and on Christmas Day, he died from congestive heart failure resulting from complications from pneumonia. A trio of public and private memorial services, rife with the sort of pomp and circumstance that marked Brown's stage performances, preceded a lengthy battle between his heirs about the location of his final resting place. He was finally buried in a crypt at the home of one of his daughters in March 2007.
By Paul Gaita