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James Jose Brown, Sr. (May 5, 1933 – December 25, 2006) was an American singer and songwriter. Eventually referred to as "The Godfather of Soul", Brown started singing in gospel groups and worked his way up. He has been recognized as one of the most iconic figures in the 20th century popular music and was renowned for his vocals and feverish dancing. He was also called "the hardest-working man in show business"
A prolific singer, songwriter, dancer and bandleader, Brown was a pivotal force in the music industry, leaving his mark on numerous artists."Even as his own career declined during the height of the golden age of hip hop, Brown's work found new life in the form of digital sampling; he would go on to become the most sampled artist in the history of the genre. Brown's music also influenced the rhythms of African popular music, such as afrobeat, jůjú and mbalax, and provided a template for go-go music.
Brown began his professional music career in 1956 and rose to fame during the late 1950s and early 1960s on the strength of his thrilling live performances and string of smash hits. In spite of various personal problems and setbacks he continued to score hits in every decade through the 1980s. In addition to his acclaim in music, Brown was also a presence in American political affairs during the 1960s and 1970s.
Brown was recognized by numerous titles, including Soul Brother Number One, Sex Machine, Mr. Dynamite, The Hardest Working Man in Show Business, The King of Funk, Minister of The New New Super Heavy Funk, Mr. Please Please Please Please Hemself, I Feel Good, and foremost The Godfather of Soul. In the song "Sweet Soul Music" by Arthur Conley, he is also described as the King of Soul.
James Brown was born to Susie Brown and Joseph ("Joe") James Gardner (who changed his surname to Brown after Mattie Brown who raised him). Although Brown was to be named after his father, his name was mistakenly reversed on his birth certificate, and instead became James Joseph Brown, Jr. As a young child, Brown was called Junior. When he later lived with his aunt and cousin, he was called Little Junior since his cousin's nickname was also Junior. James Brown is African American with Native American, specifically Apache, descent through his father, and Asian ancestry.
Brown and his family lived in extreme poverty. When Brown was two years old, his parents separated after his mother left his father for another man. After his mother abandoned the family, Brown continued to live with his father and his live-in girlfriends until he was six years old. After that time, Brown and his father moved to Augusta, Georgia.
His father sent him to live with an aunt, who ran a house of prostitution. Even though Brown lived with relatives, he spent long stretches of time on his own, hanging out on the streets and hustling to get by. Brown managed to stay in school until he dropped out in the seventh grade.
During his childhood, Brown earned money shining shoes, sweeping out stores, selling and trading in old stamps, washing cars and dishes and singing in talent contests. Brown also performed buck dances for change to entertain troops from Camp Gordon at the start of World War II as their convoys traveled over a canal bridge near his aunt's house. Between earning money from these adventures, Brown taught himself to play a harmonica given to him by his father. He learned to play some guitar from Tampa Red (who was "dating" one of the girls from his aunt's house), in addition to learning to play piano and drums from others. Brown was inspired to become an entertainer after watching Louis Jordan, a popular jazz and R&B performer during the 1940s, and His Tympany Five in a short film performing "Caldonia".
As an adult, Brown legally changed his name to remove the "Jr." designation. In his spare time, Brown spent time practicing his various skills in Augusta-area stalls and committing petty crimes. At the age of sixteen, he was convicted of armed robbery and sent to a juvenile detention center upstate in Toccoa in 1949.
While Brown was in reform school, he became acquainted with Bobby Byrd, who first saw Brown perform in prison. Byrd watched and admired Brown's ability to sing and perform. Byrd's family helped Brown secure an early release after serving three years of his sentence. The authorities agreed to release Brown on the condition that he would get a job and not return to Augusta or Richmond County. After stints as a boxer and baseball pitcher in semi-professional baseball (a career move ended by a leg injury), Brown turned his energy toward music.
Brown's career spanned decades, and profoundly influenced the development of many different musical genres. Brown moves on a continuum of blues and gospel-based forms and styles to a profoundly Africanised approach to music making. Brown performed in concerts, first making his rounds across the "chitlin' circuit", and then across the country and later around the world, along with appearing in shows on television and in movies. Although he contributed much to the music world through his hitmaking, Brown holds the record as the artist who charted the most singles on the Billboard Hot 100 without ever hitting number one on that chart.
1955: The Famous Flames
The group's first recording was the single "Please, Please, Please" (1956). The single was a #6 R&B hit, selling over a million copies. Nine subsequent singles released by The Flames failed to live up to the success of their debut, and the group was in danger of being dropped by Federal Records.
Brown's early recordings were fairly straightforward gospel-inspired
R&B compositions, heavily influenced by the work of contemporary
musicians such as Ray Charles,
Little Willie John, Clyde
McPhatter and Little Richard. Little
Richard's relations with Brown were particularly significant in Brown's
development as a musician and showman. Brown once called Richard his
idol, and credited Richard's saxophone-studded mid-1950s road band, The
Upsetters, with being the first to put the funk in the rock and roll
beat. When Richard left pop music in 1957 to become a preacher, Brown
filled out Richard's remaining tour dates in his place. Several former
members of Little Richard's backup band joined Brown's group after
Richard's exit from the pop music scene.
In 1959, Brown and The Famous Flames moved from the Federal Records subsidiary to King Records, the parent label. Brown began to have recurring conflicts with King Records president Syd Nathan over repertoire and other matters. In one notable instance, Brown recorded the 1960 Top Ten R&B hit "(Do the) Mashed Potatoes" on Dade Records, owned by Henry Stone, under the pseudonym "Nat Kendrick & The Swans" because Nathan refused to allow him to record it for King.
Early and mid-1960s
Brown followed the success of Live at the Apollo with a string of singles that, along with the work of Allen Toussaint in New Orleans, essentially defined the foundation of Funk music. Driven by the success of Live at the Apollo and the failure of King Records to expand record promotion beyond the "black" market, James Brown and fellow Famous Flame Bobby Byrd formed a production company, Fair Deal, to promote sales of Brown's record releases to white audiences. In this arrangement, Smash Records, a subsidiary of Mercury Records, was used as a vehicle to distribute Brown's music. Smash released his 1964 hit "Out of Sight", which reached #24 on the pop charts and pointed the way to his later funk hits. Its release also triggered a legal battle between Smash and King that resulted in a one year ban on the release of Brown's vocal recordings.
During the mid-1960s, two of Brown's signature tunes "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" and "I Got You (I Feel Good)", both from 1965, were his first Top 10 pop hits, as well as major #1 R&B hits, with each remaining the top-selling singles in black venues for over a month. In 1966, Brown's "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" won the Grammy for Best Rhythm & Blues Recording (an award last given in 1968). Brown's national profile was boosted further that year by appearances in the movie Ski Party and the concert film The T.A.M.I. Show, in which he and The Famous Flames (Bobby Byrd, Bobby Bennett and "Baby Lloyd" Stallworth) upstaged The Rolling Stones. In his concert repertoire and on record, Brown mingled his innovative rhythmic essays with Broadway show tunes and ballads, such as his hit "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" (1966).
Changes in Brown's style that started with "Cold Sweat" also established the musical foundation for Brown's later hits, such as "I Got the Feelin'" (1968) and "Mother Popcorn" (1969). By this time Brown's vocals frequently took the form of a kind of rhythmic declamation, not quite sung but not quite spoken, that only intermittently featured traces of pitch or melody. This would become a major influence on the techniques of rapping, which would come to maturity along with hip hop music in the coming decades.
In November 1967, James Brown purchased radio station WGYW in Knoxville, Tennessee for a reported $75,000, according to the January 20, 1968 Record World magazine. The call letters were changed to WJBE reflecting his initials. WJBE began on January 15, 1968 and broadcast a Rhythm & Blues format. The station slogan was "WJBE 1430 Raw Soul". At the time it was mentioned "Brown has also branched out into real estate and music publishing in recent months".
Brown's recordings influenced musicians across the industry, most notably Sly and his Family Stone, Charles Wright & the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band, Booker T. & the M.G.'s and soul shouters like King Curtis, Edwin Starr, Temptations David Ruffin, and Dennis Edwards. A then-prepubescent Michael Jackson took Brown's shouts and dancing into the pop mainstream as the lead singer of Motown's The Jackson 5. Those same tracks were later resurrected by countless hip-hop musicians from the 1970s onward. As a result, James Brown remains to this day the world's most sampled recording artist, with "Funky Drummer" itself becoming the most sampled individual piece of music.
Brown's band during this period employed musicians and arrangers who had come up through the jazz tradition. He was noted for his ability as a bandleader and songwriter to blend the simplicity and drive of R&B with the rhythmic complexity and precision of jazz. Trumpeter Lewis Hamlin and saxophonist/keyboardist Alfred "Pee Wee" Ellis (the successor to previous bandleader Nat Jones) led the band. Guitarist Jimmy Nolen provided percussive, deceptively simple riffs for each song, and Maceo Parker's prominent saxophone solos provided a focal point for many performances. Other members of Brown's band included stalwart singer and sideman Bobby Byrd, drummers John "Jabo" Starks, Clyde Stubblefield and Melvin Parker (Maceo's brother), saxophonist St. Clair Pinckney, trombonist Fred Wesley, guitarist Alphonso "Country" Kellum and bassist Bernard Odum.
During this period, Brown's music empire also expanded along with his influence on the music scene. As Brown's music empire grew, his desire for financial and artistic independence grew as well. Brown bought radio stations during the late 1960s, including radio station WRDW in Augusta, Georgia where he shined shoes as a boy. Brown also branched out to make several recordings with musicians outside his own band. He recorded Gettin' Down To It (1969) and Soul on Top (1970), two albums consisting mostly of romantic ballads and jazz standards, with the Dee Felice Trio and the Louie Bellson Orchestra respectively. He recorded a number of tracks with the Dapps, a white Cincinnati bar band, including the hit "I Can't Stand Myself (When You Touch Me)". He also released three albums of Christmas music with his own band.
1970s and the J.B.'s
In 1971, Brown began recording for Polydor Records which also took over distribution of Brown's King Records catalog. Many of his sidemen and supporting players, such as Fred Wesley & The J.B.'s, Bobby Byrd, Lyn Collins, Vicki Anderson and Hank Ballard, released records on the People label, an imprint founded by Brown that was purchased by Polydor as part of Brown's new contract. The recordings on the People label, almost all of which were produced by Brown himself, exemplified his "house style". Songs such as "I Know You Got Soul" by Bobby Byrd, "Think (About It)" by Lyn Collins and "Doing It to Death" by Fred Wesley & The J.B.'s are considered as much a part of Brown's recorded legacy as the recordings released under his own name.
In 1973, Brown provided the score for the blaxploitation film Black Caesar. In 1974, he toured Africa and performed in Zaire as part of the buildup to the Rumble in the Jungle fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. Admirers of Brown's music, including Miles Davis and other jazz musicians, began to cite Brown as a major influence on their own styles. However, Brown, like others who were influenced by his music, also "borrowed" from other musicians. His 1976 single "Hot" (I Need To Be Loved, Loved, Loved, Loved)" (R&B #31) borrowed the main riff from "Fame" by David Bowie, not the other way around as was often believed. The riff was provided to "Fame" co-writers John Lennon and Bowie by guitarist Carlos Alomar, who had briefly been a member of Brown's band in the late 1960s.
Brown's Polydor recordings during the 1970s exemplified his innovations from the previous twenty years. Compositions such as "The Payback" (1973), "Papa Don't Take No Mess", "Stoned to the Bone", and "Funky President (People It's Bad)" (1974), and "Get Up Offa That Thing" (1976) were among his most noted recordings during this time.
Late 1970s and 1980s
Brown's contract with Polydor expired in 1981, and his recording and touring schedule was somewhat reduced. Despite these events, Brown experienced something of a resurgence during the 1980s, effectively crossing over to a broader, more mainstream audience. He appeared in the feature films The Blues Brothers, Doctor Detroit and Rocky IV, as well as guest starring in the Miami Vice episode "Missing Hours" (1988). He also recorded Gravity, a modestly popular crossover album released on his new host label Scotti Bros., and the top 10 hit 1985 single "Living in America", which was featured prominently in the Rocky IV film and soundtrack. Brown performed the song in the film at Apollo Creed's final fight, shot in the Ziegfeld Room at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas and was credited as "The Godfather of Soul". In 1987, Brown won the Grammy for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance for "Living in America". Acknowledging his influence on modern hip-hop and R&B music, Brown collaborated with hip-hop artist Afrika Bambaataa on the single "Unity".
In 1988, Brown worked with the production team Full Force on the hip-hop influenced album I'm Real, which spawned a #5 R&B hit single, "Static". Meanwhile, the drum break from the second version of the original 1969 hit "Give It Up Or Turnit A Loose" (the recording included on the compilation album In the Jungle Groove) became so popular at hip hop dance parties (especially for breakdance) during the late 1970s and early 1980s that hip hop founding father Kurtis Blow called the song "the national anthem of hip hop".
1990s to the 2000s
Although Brown had various run-ins with the law, he continued to perform and record regularly, and he also made appearances in television shows and films, such as Blues Brothers 2000, and sporting events, such as his 2000 appearance at the World Championship Wrestling pay-per-view event SuperBrawl X. In Brown's appearance at the SuperBrawl X event, he danced alongside wrestler Ernest "The Cat" Miller, whose character was based on Brown, during his in ring skit with The Maestro. Brown was featured in Tony Scott's 2001 short film, Beat the Devil, alongside Clive Owen, Gary Oldman, Danny Trejo and Marilyn Manson. Brown also made a cameo appearance in the 2002 Jackie Chan film The Tuxedo, in which Chan was required to finish Brown's act after Brown was accidentally knocked out by Chan. In 2002, Brown appeared in Undercover Brother, playing the role as himself.
Brown appeared at Edinburgh 50,000 - The Final Push, the final Live 8 concert on July 6, 2005, where he performed a duet with British pop star Will Young on "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag". He also performed a duet with another British pop star, Joss Stone, a week earlier on the United Kingdom chat show Friday Night with Jonathan Ross. Before his death, Brown was scheduled to perform a duet with singer Annie Lennox on the song "Vengeance" for her new album Venus, scheduled for release in early 2007. In 2006, Brown continued his "Seven Decades Of Funk World Tour", his last concert tour where he performed all over the world. His last shows were greeted with positive reviews, and one of his final concert appearances at the Irish Oxegen festival in Punchestown in 2006 was performed for a record crowd of 80,000 people. Brown's last televised appearance was at his induction into the UK Music Hall of Fame in November 2006, before his death the following month.
James Brown Revue
For many years, Brown's touring show was one of the most extravagant productions in American popular music. At the time of Brown's death, his band included three guitarists, two bass guitar players, two drummers, three horns and a percussionist. The bands that he maintained during the late 1960s and 1970s were of comparable size, and the bands also included a three-piece amplified string section that played during ballads. Brown employed between 40 and 50 people for the James Brown Revue, and members of the revue traveled with him in a bus to cities and towns all over the country, performing upwards of 330 shows a year with almost all of the shows as one-nighters.
So now ladies and gentlemen it is star time, are you ready for star
time? Thank you and thank you very kindly. It is indeed a great pleasure
to present to you at this particular time, national and internationally
known as the hardest working man in show business, the man that sings
"I'll Go Crazy" ... "Try Me" ... "You've Got the Power" ... "Think" ...
"If You Want Me" ... "I Don't Mind" ... "Bewildered" ...the million
dollar seller, "Lost Someone" ... the very latest release, "Night Train"
... let's everybody "Shout and Shimmy" ... Mr. Dynamite, the amazing Mr.
Please Please himself, the star of the show, James Brown and The Famous
Concert repertoire and format
A James Brown concert typically included a performance by a featured vocalist, such as Vicki Anderson or Marva Whitney, and an instrumental feature for the band, which sometimes served as the opening act for the show. Although Brown released many live albums, Say It Live & Loud: Live in Dallas 08.26.68, released by Polydor in 1998, was one of only a few audio recordings that captured a performance of the James Brown Revue from beginning to end.
Brown performs a version of the cape routine over the closing credits of the film Blues Brothers 2000.
As band leader
You gotta be on time. You gotta have your uniform. Your stuff's got
to be intact. You gotta have the bow tie. You got to have it. You can't
come up without the bow tie. You cannot come up without a cummerbund ...
[The] patent leather shoes we were wearing at the time gotta be greased.
You just gotta have this stuff. This is what [Brown expected] ...
[Brown] bought the costumes. He bought the shoes. And if for some reason
[the band member decided] to leave the group, [Brown told the person to]
please leave my uniforms ....
Civil unrest and self-empowerment
In 1968 after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Brown released 'Say it - I'm black and I'm Proud' following pressure from fans to take a stance on the civil rights movement, an issue he had avoided up until this point. It became an anthem of the civil rights movement. Brown later said of it in his 1986 autobiography “The song is obsolete now... But it was necessary to teach pride then, and I think the song did a lot of good for a lot of people... People called "Black and Proud" militant and angry - maybe because of the line about dying on your feet instead of living on your knees. But really, if you listen to it, it sounds like a children's song. That's why I had children in it, so children who heard it could grow up feeling pride... The song cost me a lot of my crossover audience. The racial makeup at my concerts was mostly black after that. I don't regret it, though, even if it was misunderstood.”
He performed in front of a televised audience in Boston the day after Dr. King's death. Brown is often given credit for preventing rioting with the performance. However, it was Mayor Kevin White who strongly restrained the Boston Police from cracking down on minor violence and protests after the assassination, and Boston religious and community leaders who worked to keep tempers from flaring. Also, White arranged to have the performance broadcast multiple times on Boston's public television station, WGBH, thus keeping many potential rioters off the streets, watching the concert for free. Brown demanded $60,000 for "gate" fees (money he thought would be lost from ticket sales on account of the concert being broadcast for free), and then threatened to go public about the secret arrangement when the city balked at paying up after the concert, news of which would have been a political death-blow to White, and possibly sparked riots on its own. White successfully lobbied the behind-the-scenes power-brokering group known as "The Vault" to come up with money for Brown's gate fee and other social programs; The Vault contributed $100,000 to such programs, and Brown received $15,000 from them via the city. White persuaded management at the Boston Garden to give up their share of receipts to make up the difference. The story is documented in the PBS film "The Night James Brown Saved Boston".
Afterwards, President Johnson urged Brown to visit Washington, D.C. to greet inner-city residents there performing at a benefit concert there and expressed the notion that violence "wasn't the way to go". Many in the black community felt that Brown was speaking out to them more than some major leaders in the country, a sentiment that was strengthened with the release of his groundbreaking landmark single, "Say It Loud - I'm Black and I'm Proud".
Brown continued performing benefit concerts for various civil rights organizations including Jesse Jackson's PUSH and The Black Panther Party's Breakfast program throughout the early-1970s. Brown also continued to release socially conscious singles such as "I Don't Want Nobody To Give Me Nothing (Open Up the Door, I'll Get It Myself)" (1969), "Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved" (1971), "Talking Loud and Saying Nothing" (1972), "King Heroin" (1974), "Funky President (People It's Bad)" (1974) and "Reality" (1975). The week before his death, Brown took time to give Christmas presents to an orphanage in Atlanta.