|James Joseph Brown, Jr.|
James Brown in concert (2005)
|Born||May 3, 1933 (disputed)|
Barnwell, South Carolina, United States
|Died||December 25, 2006|
Atlanta, Georgia United States
|Occupation||singer, songwriter, dancer, bandleader, record producer|
James Joseph Brown, Jr. (May 3, 1933 – December 25, 2006), was an American musician and entertainer, widely recognized as one of the most influential figures in twentieth-century popular music.
As a prolific singer, songwriter, bandleader, and record producer, Brown was a seminal figure in the evolution of gospel and rhythm and blues into soul and eventually, funk. His music would prove to have a profound influence on wide variety of modern musical genres, including reggae, disco, dance music, electronic music, afrobeat, and particularly hip hop.
In 1953, Brown began his professional music career and skyrocketed to fame in the late 1960s on the strength of his thrilling live performances and a string of smash hits. In spite of various personal problems and setbacks, he continued to score hit records up through the 1980s. In the 1960s and 1970s, Brown was also a significant presence in American political affairs, noted especially for his activism on behalf of African-Americans and the poor.
Brown was recognized by a plethora of (mostly self-bestowed) titles, including Soul Brother Number One, Mr. Dynamite, the Hardest-Working Man in Show Business, and the best-known, the Godfather of Soul. He was renowned for his shouting vocals, feverish dancing and his music's strong rhythmic focus.
Brown was born in the small town of Barnwell, South Carolina in Depression-era South Carolina as James Joseph Brown, Jr. As an adult, Brown would legally change his name to remove the "Jr." designation. Brown's family eventually moved to nearby Augusta, Georgia. During his childhood, Brown helped support his family by picking cotton in the nearby fields and shining shoes downtown. In his spare time, Brown was often either honing his musical skills in Augusta-area halls, or committing petty crimes. At the age of 16, he was convicted of armed robbery and sent to a juvenile detention center upstate, in Toccoa, Georgia from 1948.
While in prison, Brown later made the acquaintance of Bobby Byrd, whose family helped Brown secure an early release after serving only three years of his sentence, under the condition that he not return to Augusta or Richmond County and that he would try to get a job. After brief stints as a boxer and baseball pitcher (a career move ended by leg injury), Brown turned his energy toward music.
The early years: James and the Famous Flames
Brown and Bobby Byrd's sister Sarah performed in a gospel group called The Gospel Starlighters from 1955. Eventually, Brown joined Bobby Byrd's group, The Avons, and Byrd turned the group's sound towards secular rhythm and blues. Now called The Famous Flames, Brown and Byrd's band toured the Southern "Chitlin' Circuit" (the nickname for the traditional urban theater circuit), and eventually signed a deal with the Cincinnati, Ohio-based label, King Records, presided over by Syd Nathan.
The group's first recording and single, credited to "James Brown with the Famous Flames," was "Please, Please, Please," in 1956. It was a #5 R&B hit and a million-selling single. However, their subsequent records failed to live up to the success of "Please, Please, Please." After nine failed singles, King was ready to drop Brown and the Flames. Nearly all of the group's releases were written or co-written by Brown, who assumed primary control of the band from Byrd and eventually began billing himself as a solo act with The Famous Flames as his backing group.
Many of Brown's early recordings were fairly straightforward gospel-inspired R&B compositions, heavily influenced by the work of contemporary musicians such as Little Richard and Ray Charles. Brown, in fact, called Little Richard his idol, and credited Little Richard's saxophone-studded mid-1950s road band The Upsetters as the first to put the funk in the rock and roll beat.
Little Richard continued to play a role in Brown's rise to the top. In 1957, when Little Richard bolted from pop music to become a preacher, Brown honored Richard's remaining tour dates. Consequently, former members of Little Richard's backing band became Famous Flames. A year later, the group released "Try Me," which would become Brown's first No. 1 R&B hit.
Brown's arrangements and instrumentation, initially standardized, began to give way to more musical improvisation and rhythm-heavy tracks, such as 1961's #5 R&B hit "Night Train," arguably the first single to clearly showcase the beginnings of what today is considered the "James Brown sound." Except for declamatory ad-libs by Brown, "Night Train" is completely instrumental, featuring prominent horn charts and a fast, highly accented rhythm track.
The mid 1960s: entering the national spotlight
While Brown's early singles were major hits in the southern United States and regularly became R&B top ten hits, he and the Flames were not nationally successful until his self-financed live show was captured on the LP Live at the Apollo in 1962, released without the consent of his label, King Records.
Brown followed this success with a string of singles that, along with the work of Allen Toussaint in New Orleans, essentially defined funk music. 1964's "Out of Sight" was, even more than "Night Train" had been, a harbinger of the new James Brown sound. Its arrangement was raw and un-ornamented, with the horns and the drums taking center stage in the mix, and Brown performing his vocals with an even more intensely rhythmic feel. However, Brown violated his contract with King again by recording "Out of Sight" for Smash Records; the ensuing legal battle resulted in a one year ban on the release of his vocal recordings.
The mid-1960s was the period of Brown's greatest popular success. Two of his signature tunes, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" and "I Got You (I Feel Good)," both from 1965, were Brown's first top 10 pop hits as well as major #1 R&B hits, remaining the top-selling single in urban outlets for over a month apiece. His national profile was further boosted that year by appearances in the films Ski Party and the concert film The T.A.M.I. Show, in which he upstaged The Rolling Stones. In his concert repertoire and on record, Brown mingled his innovative rhythmic essays with ballads such as "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" (1965), and even Broadway show tunes.
Brown continued to develop the new funk idiom. "Cold Sweat" (1967), a song with only one chord change, was considered a departure even compared to Brown's other recent innovations. Critics have since come to see it as a high-water mark in the dance music of the 1960s; it is sometimes called the first "true" funk recording.
Brown would often make creative adjustments to his songs for greater appeal. He sped up the released version of "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" to make it even more intense and commercial. He also began spinning off new compositions from the grooves of earlier ones by continual revision of their arrangements. For example, the hit "There Was a Time" emerged out of the chord progression and rhythm arrangements of the 1967 song "Let Yourself Go."
The late 1960s: Refining the James Brown Sound
Brown 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.
As the 1960s came to a close, Brown refined his funk style even further with "I Got the Feelin'" and "Licking Stick-Licking Stick" (both recorded in 1968), and "Funky Drummer" (1969). By this time Brown's "singing" increasingly took the form of a kind of rhythmic declamation that only intermittently featured traces of pitch or melody. His vocals, not quite sung but not quite spoken, would be a major influence on the technique of rapping, which would come to maturity along with hip hop music in the coming decades. Supporting his vocals were instrumental arrangements that featured a more refined, tighter version of Brown's mid-1960s style. The horn section, guitars, bass, and drums all meshed together in strong rhythms based around various repeating riffs, usually with at least one musical "break."
Brown's recordings influenced musicians across the industry, most notably Sly and the Family Stone, Charles Wright & the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band, Booker T. & the M.G.'s, and soul shouters like Edwin Starr, Temptations David Ruffin and Dennis Edwards, and a then-prepubescent Michael Jackson, who took Brown's brand of shouting and dancing into the pop mainstream as the lead singer of Motown's The Jackson 5. Those same tracks would later be resurrected by countless hip-hop musicians from the 1970s on. In fact, James Brown is considered the world's most sampled recording artist, with "Funky Drummer" often cited as one of the most sampled pieces of music of all time.
The subject matter of Brown's songs was also developing. Socio-political commentary on the black person's position in society and lyrics praising motivation and ambition filled songs like "Say It Loud - I'm Black and I'm Proud" (1968) and "I Don't Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing (Open Up the Door I'll Get It Myself)" (1970). However, while this change gained him an even greater position in the black community, his popularity with white audiences began to wane.
The 1970s: The JB's
By 1970, most of the members of James Brown's classic 1960s band had quit his act for other opportunities. He and Bobby Byrd employed a new band that included future funk greats such as bassist Bootsy Collins, Collins' guitarist brother Phelps "Catfish" Collins, and trombonist/musical director Fred Wesley. This new backing band was dubbed "The JB's," and made their debut on Brown's 1970 single "Get Up (I Feel Like Being Like a) Sex Machine." Although it would go through several lineup changes (the first in 1971), The JB's remain Brown's most familiar backing band.
As Brown's musical empire grew (he bought radio stations in the late 1960s, including Augusta's WRDW, where he had shined shoes as a boy), his desire for financial and artistic independence grew as well. In 1971, he began recording for Polydor Records; among his first Polydor releases was the #1 R&B hit "Hot Pants (She Got To Use What She Got To Get What She Wants)." Many of his sidemen and supporting players, such as Fred Wesley & the JB's, Bobby Byrd, Lyn Collins, Myra Barnes, and Hank Ballard, released records on Brown's subsidiary label, People, which was created as part of Brown's Polydor contract. These recordings are as much a part of Brown's legacy as those released under his own name, and most are noted examples of what might be termed James Brown's "house" style. The early 1970s marked the first real awareness, outside the African-American community, of Brown's achievements. Miles Davis and other jazz musicians began to cite Brown as a major influence on their styles, and Brown provided the score for the 1973 blaxploitation film Black Caesar.
In 1974, Brown performed in Zaire as part of the build up to "Rumble in the Jungle" fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman.
His 1970s Polydor recordings were a summation of all the innovation of the last twenty years, and while some critics maintain that he declined artistically during this period, compositions like "The Payback" (1973); "Papa Don't Take No Mess" and "Stoned to the Bone" (1974); "Funky President (People It's Bad)" (1975); and "Get Up Offa That Thing" (1976) are still considered among his best.
Into the late-1970s and 1980s
By the mid-1970s, Brown's star-status was on the wane, and key musicians such as Bootsy Collins had begun to depart to form their own groups. The disco movement, which Brown anticipated, and some say originated, found relatively little room for Brown; his 1976 albums Get Up Offa That Thing and Bodyheat were his first flirtations with "disco-fied" rhythms incorporated into his funky repertoire. While 1977's Mutha's Nature and 1978's Jam 1980's generated no charted hits, 1979's The Original Disco Man LP is a notable late addition to his oeuvre. It contained the song "It's Too Funky in Here," which was his last top R&B hit of the decade.
Brown experienced something of a resurgence in the 1980s, effectively crossing over to a broader, more mainstream audience. He made cameo appearances in the feature films The Blues Brothers, Doctor Detroit, and Rocky IV, as well as being a guest star in the Miami Vice episode "Missing Hours" in 1988. He also released Gravity, a modestly popular crossover album, and the hit 1985 single "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," and worked with the group Full Force on a #5 R&B hit single, 1988's "Static," from the hip-hop influenced album I'm Real. The drum break to his 1969 song "Give It Up Or Turnit A Loose" became so popular at hip hop dance parties (especially for break dancing) in the late 1970s and early 1980s that hip hop founding father Kurtis Blow calls the song "the national anthem of hip hop."
Later years and death
In spite of his return to the limelight, by the late 1980s, Brown met with a series of legal and financial setbacks. In 1988, he was arrested following a high-speed car chase down Interstate 20 in Augusta. He was imprisoned for threatening pedestrians with firearms and abuse of the illegal drug called PCP, as well as for the repercussions of his flight. Although he was sentenced to six years in prison, he was eventually released in 1991 after having only served three.
During the 1990s and 2000s, Brown was repeatedly arrested for illegal drug possession and domestic abuse. However, he continued to perform regularly and even record, and made appearances in television shows and films such as Blues Brothers 2000. Nearly all his earlier LPs were re-released on CD, often with additional tracks and commentary by experts on Brown's music. In 2003 he participated in the PBS American Masters television documentary James Brown: Soul Survivor, directed by Jeremy Marre. In December 2004 Brown was diagnosed with prostate cancer, which was successfully treated with surgery. In 2006, Brown continued his "Seven Decades Of Funk World Tour," to be his last, performing all over the world. His latest shows were still greeted with positive reviews.
Brown was admitted to the Emory Crawford Long Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia on December 24 2006 after a dentist visit where he was found to have severe pneumonia. Brown died the next day on December 25, 2006, Christmas Day, at age 73. The cause of death was heart failure, according to his agent. James was quoted saying "I'm going away tonight" sometime before he passed away. He then took three long, quiet breaths, and closed his eyes. Brown's body rested on the stage of legendary Apollo Theater in Harlem. A private ceremony was held in Brown's hometown of Augusta, Georgia and another public ceremony was officiated by Rev. Al Sharpton, a day later at the James Brown Arena there.
Brown was married four times—to Velma Warren (1953–1969, divorced), Deidre "Deedee" Jenkins (1970–1981, divorced), Adrienne Lois Rodriguez (1984–1996, until her death) and Tomi Rae Hynie (2001–2006, until his death). From these and other relationships, James Brown had five sons—Teddy Brown, Terry Brown, Larry Brown, Daryl Brown (a member of Brown's backing band) and James Joseph Brown II, in addition to three daughters—Dr. Yamma Noyola Brown Lumar, Deanna Brown Thomas and Venisha Brown. Brown also had eight grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Brown's eldest son, Teddy, died in a car crash in 1973.
Brown's personal life was marked by several brushes with the law, often stemming from marital conflicts and illegal drugs. At the age of 16, was arrested for theft and served three years in prison. Adrienne Rodriegues, his third wife, had him arrested four times on charges of assault between the mid-1980s and mid-1990s. Brown also served three years of a six-year jail sentence after he led police on a car chase across the Georgia-South Carolina border in 1988, an incident disputed by Brown himself and subsequently investigated by the FBI for civil rights violations. He was convicted of carrying an unlicensed pistol and assaulting a police officer, along with various drug-related and driving offenses.
On July 3, 2000, the police were summoned to Brown's residence after he was accused of charging an electric company repairman with a steak knife when the repairman visited Brown's house to investigate a complaint about having no lights at the residence. In 2003, Brown was pardoned for past crimes that he was convicted of committing in South Carolina.
During the 1990s and 2000s, Brown was repeatedly arrested for drug possession and domestic violence. Adrienne Rodriguez, his third wife, had him arrested four times between the mid-1980s and mid-1990s on charges of assault. In January 2004, Brown was arrested in South Carolina on a domestic violence charge involving Tomi Rae Hynie. Later that year in June 2004, Brown pleaded no contest to the domestic violence incident, but served no jail time, instead forfeiting his bond ($1,087) as punishment.
James Brown is a towering figure in American music. In the mid-1960s he refined his soulful R&B sound by emphasizing the rhythmic elements of his music above those of melody and harmony, creating a new paradigm for popular music. As the critic Robert Palmer put it:
"The rhythmic elements became the song… Brown and his musicians began to treat every instrument and voice in the group as if it were a drum. The horns played single-note bursts that were often sprung against the downbeats. The bass lines were broken into choppy two- or three-note patterns… Brown's rhythm guitarist choked his guitar strings against the instrument's neck so hard that his playing began to sound like a jagged tin can being scraped with a pocket knife."
In this way James Brown's music, heavy on syncopation and groove, was one of the foundations of funk music, but also marks him as one of the key forefathers of hip hop and modern dance music genres. In a very direct example of his influence, early hip hop artists, who relied upon the practice of 'sampling,' (taking a snippet of another song and looping it as a backing to rap over) used samples from Brown's songs extensively. In fact, Brown is often cited and generally accepted as the most sampled artist of all time (though the claim is hard to quantify).
Despite his prowess as a musical performer, Brown never learned to read music. He developed his repertoire in close association with the members of his band, who were predominantly jazz-trained musicians with a working knowledge of music theory. As his former bandleader Fred Wesley recalled:
It would have been impossible for James Brown to put his show together without the assistance of someone like Pee Wee (Ellis), who understood chord changes, time signatures, scales, notes, and basic music theory. Simple things like knowing the key would be a big problem for James…. The whole James Brown Show depended on having someone with musical knowledge remember the show, the individual parts, and the individual songs, then relay these verbally or in print to the other musicians. Brown could not do it himself. He spoke in grunts, groans, and la-di-das, and he needed musicians to translate that language into music and actual songs in order to create an actual show.
James Brown was able to sell millions of records over the course of his long and distinguished career, and yet never recorded a single that reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart (the main pop singles chart). In fact, Brown holds the record for the artist who has charted the most singles on the Billboard Hot 100 without ever hitting number one on that chart.
James Brown has received numerous prestigious music industry awards and honors. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at its inaugural induction dinner in New York on January 23, 1986. On February 25, 1992 he was given a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 34th annual Grammy Awards. Exactly a year later, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 4th annual Rhythm & Blues Foundation Pioneer Awards. On November 14, 2006, Brown was inducted to the UK Music Hall of Fame. Brown was a recipient of Kennedy Center Honors in 2003.
- James Brown, 2005. I Feel Good: A Memoir of a Life of Soul. (NAL Hardcover. ISBN 0451213939).
- "Little Richard."  Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Retrieved October 28, 2006.
- "James Brown. Induction Year: 1986."  Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Retrieved October 28, 2006
- Richie Unterberger, "James Brown Biography"  allmusic.com. accessdate 2006-11-22
- Nelson George, The Death of Rhythm & Blues. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1988), 101.
- Kurtis Blow Presents: The History Of Rap, Vol. 1  rhino.com. Retrieved October 17, 2008.
- CNN Entertainment. December 24, 2006, Agent: James Brown hospitalized with pneumonia CNN. Retrieved October 17, 2008.
- "Godfather Of Soul" dies at 73 Depot Hill Media. December 25 2006.
- James Brown Biography, CNN News. Retrieved October 17, 2008.
- "Being James Brown" by Jonathan Lethem, Jun 12, 2006, Rolling Stone
- Fred Wesley, Jr. Hit Me, Fred: Recollections of a Sideman. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002), 97.
- Joel Whitburn. Top Pop Singles 1955-1999. (Menomonee Falls, WI: Record Research, 2000), 900.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Brown, James and Marc Eliot. I feel good: a memoir of a life of soul. NY: New American Library, 2005. ISBN 0451213939
- Brown, James; and Bruce Tucher. James Brown, the godfather of soul. NY: Macmillan, 1986. ISBN 0025174304
- Fandel, Jennifer. James Brown. Chicago, IL: Raintree, 2004. ISBN 0739870270
- George, Nelson. The Death of Rhythm & Blues. New York: Pantheon Books, 1988.
- Wesley, Fred, Jr. Hit Me, Fred: Recollections of a Sideman. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002.
- Whitburn, Joel. Top Pop Singles 1955-1999. Menomonee Falls, WI: Record Research, 2000.
All links retrieved March 15, 2018.
- BBC Obituary: James Brown
- James Brown at IMDB
- Photo archive of James Brown by rock photographer Chris Walter.
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