Gone But Not Forgotten: James Brown
May 3, 1933 - December 25, 2006
Remembering singer, songwriter, musician, band leader and recording artist James Joseph Brown (May 3, 1933 – December 25, 2006). He was the originator of funk music and a major figure of 20th century popular music and dance, and nicknamed "The Godfather of Soul".
James Brown was born in Barnwell, South Carolina, in a one room shack to a very poor family. His parents sent him to live with his aunt, who ran a brothel in Augusta, Georgia, around the age of 4, when they split up. He worked odd jobs for whatever money he could find growing up during the Great Depression - including dancing for soldiers, singing in talent shows, shining shoes, washing cars, picking cotton, boxing - whatever brought home a few cents.
When he was thrown out of school in sixth grade for not having proper clothing, Brown began working full-time at age 12. Brown started singing in the church choir but was also tempted by crime. At age 16, Brown was arrested for stealing a car and served three years in prison. While in jail, he led the gospel choir in and met Bobby Byrd, with whom he would continue to work most of the rest of his life. After serving his prison sentence, James Brown spent some time playing semi professional baseball and boxing. In 1955, Brown was invited by Bobby Byrd to join his R&B group called the Gospel Starlighters. Brown brought his showmanship to the group and they renamed themselves the Famous Flames and moved to Macon, Georgia. The Famous Flames recorded a demo in 1956 and played it for a King Records talent scout, who offered them a record contract for the song, "Please, Please, Please" - it hit #6 on the R&B charts and sold over a million copies.
The Famous Flames spent some time touring and opening for Ray Charles, BB King and other headlining acts. In 1958, Brown moved to NYC and recorded "Try Me" with some new musicians also called The Flames. "Try Me" hit #1 on the R&B charts. Brown followed up that success with more hits, including "Night Train" and "Prisoner of Love" which hit #2 on the Pop charts. During this time Brown was touring and performing 5 or 6 nights a week - which earned him the title, "The Hardest Working Man in Show Business." Brown had all the dance moves perfected and ready to go, from the "camel walk" to "the mashed potato" to the "popcorn" plus his own signature moves he practiced or made up on the spot.
In October 1962, James Brown recorded Live at the Apollo in Harlem, which hit #2 on the pop charts and sold over a million copies. With that success, Brown was able to start his own record label and start recruiting artists such as Tammy Montgomery - who we know as Tammi Terrell.
The mid-60s were a very fertile time for James Brown creatively with some of his biggest hits and most enduring songs being released, including "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," which netted Brown his first Grammy Award, "I Got You (I Feel Good)," and "It's a Man's Man's World". "Cold Sweat" was considered to be the first true funk song, released in 1967 and Brown's follow-ups, such as "Mother Popcorn" were said to plant the seed for hip-hop. Around this time Brown also became more political and community-minded. He recorded "Don't be a Dropout" to ask the community to focus on their education more. After Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated Brown gave a televised live concert in Boston to help prevent rioting. He recorded "Say It Loud: I'm Black and I'm Proud" in 1968 which still inspires many.
The 1970s were harder for Brown with some financial troubles, where most of his band walked out on him. But Brown persevered with Bobby Byrd at his side and still had a few hits left in him, including "Sex Machine," "The Payback" and "Get Up Offa That Thing." Brown's new band included Bootsy Collins and his brother Catfish, unfortunately Brown fired Bootsy after he used LSD and the Collins brothers went on to join Parliament-Funkadelic. Brown and Byrd turned to some production work as well and put out "I Know You Got Soul" for Bobby Byrd and "Think" by Lyn Collins as well as many other great tunes. Brown made an appearance in the 1980 movie, The Blues Brothers, which led to spots in Doctor Detroit and Rocky IV as well. Eddie Murphy had fun parodying James Brown in Saturday Night Live. Brown collaborated with Afrika Baambaataa for the song "Unity" and released and "Living in America" in 1985 on the Rocky IV movie as a huge hit.
The mid to late 1980s we saw a more troubled and depressed James Brown, addicted to drugs and getting into trouble with the law. Brown spent another 15 months in jail from 1990-1991.
After his prison time James Brown went back to what he loved best, performing. A movie about his life was released in 1992, James Brown: The Man, The Message, The Music. He continued making music and appearances on TV. Unfortunately he spent a few more stints in jail, including once for shooting a gun and leading police on a car chase in 1998, and multiple times for domestic abuse.
Brown was married four times and has multiple children - five sons and four daughters that he acknowledged during his life, plus at least eight grandchildren. He has influenced many artists from Mick Jagger, Michael Jackson and more. He has received countless awards and honors, such as the BET Lifetime Achievement Award and the Grammy Awards Lifetime Achievement Award. Brown has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and the Georgia Music Hall of Fame. He died of congestive heart failure as a result of pneumonia on December 25, 2006 at the age of 73.