James Brown - Biography
He was known by many names over the course of his life and career, no single one of which completely conveyed his singularity. At the reformatory in Toccoa, Georgia, to which he was sentenced for stealing a coat from a car, his talent for gospel singing earned him the handle “Music Box.” After he recorded his first R&B hit at the age of 22, he was billed as “Mr. Please Please Please.” Other professional sobriquets followed: “Mr. Dynamite,” “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business,” “Soul Brother No. 1,” “The Godfather of Soul,” “Minister of the New New Super Heavy Funk,” “The Original Disco Man,” and more. The members of his great band and the employees of his diverse companies referred to him as “Mr. Brown.” To fans, he was often just “J.B.”
In the end, the world knew him, rightfully, as an exclamation, as he was introduced every night for nearly 40 years by his MC Danny Ray: “Jaaaaaammmmes Brown!!!”
As a hitmaker, James Brown was without compare among black entertainers in the 20th century. He placed 118 singles, 17 of them No. 1 hits, on the American R&B charts between 1956 and the end of the millennium. Like the propulsive, polyrhythmic music of his band the J.B.’s, his sound was ever-changing. He originally styled himself as a high-intensity, pleading vocalist in the doo-wop mold. During the ‘60s, he was the most impassioned of the first generation of gospel-influenced soul singers. With the single “Out of Sight” in 1964, he introduced a fresh rhythmic matrix to the soul idiom, and began to lay the foundation for the funk that came after.
As Philip Gourevitch wrote memorably in The New Yorker, “It has become nearly impossible to say, ‘This is where James Brown’s influence ends and the rest of music begins.’” Beyond his obvious impact on his R&B, soul, and funk contemporaries, few of whom remained untouched by his influence, the pull of his style can be heard in musicians ranging from jazz trumpeter Miles Davis to Nigerian bandleader Fela Anikupalo Kuti. The entire genre of rap owes its heart to the screams, shrieks, squealing horns, and volcanic rhythms of Brown’s records – he remains the most sampled of all recorded performers.
An electrifying dancer and showman and a martinet-like bandleader onstage, Brown was a complex, volatile, and often contradictory individual offstage. A seventh-grade dropout, he became one of the richest black men in America. At the same time he risked his life to entertain African-American troops stationed in Vietnam, he attracted the scorn of political militants and black power activists by currying the favor of white politicians like Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon. A proud and outspoken advocate of continuing education, black economic power, and abstinence from drugs, he succumbed in later years to bouts of domestic violence and the abuse of angel dust. A vastly successful businessman who flew around the country in a Lear jet and owned radio stations and a chain of soul food restaurants, he saw his empire crumble after felony charges following a two-state 1988 police chase landed him in prison for nearly three years.
Singular, in every way.
He was born May 3, 1933, in rural Barnwell, South Carolina. His parents separated when he was four, and he moved with his father to Augusta, Georgia. With his father away frequently at work, he was raised in a brothel run by his aunt. He grew up in abject poverty, shining shoes and working odd jobs, scavenging food, and dancing on the streets for change as a child. He often went to school barefoot in the winter, and got his first store-bought underwear at the age of nine. He understood early that entertaining was his way up and out. Even as a youngster he was musical, and he sang and danced at talent shows at a local theater, where he often collected first prize.
As a teenage dropout, he focused on music, singing in a gospel group and an R&B band, the Cremona Trio; he became proficient on both piano and drums. He unfortunately also became proficient at petty crime, and at 15 he was sentenced to eight to 15 years for stealing a coat out of a car. He sang in the youth work camp’s gospel group.
Paroled in 1952, Brown tried his hand sporadically at boxing (he gave it up) and baseball (he was forced to quit after an injury) before starting a group with another ex-Toccoa inmate, Bobby Byrd. Their vocal unit The Gospel Starlighters mutated into the R&B band The Flames; they favored the gospellized music of such contemporary acts as the Midnighters, the Dominoes, and most especially the “5” Royales, fronted by the guitarist-songwriter Lowman Pauling. It was nominally Byrd’s group, but Brown swiftly installed himself as the star attraction; his performing skills were already such that he filled in dates for Little Richard in the Southeast.
In 1955, the group, redubbed The Famous Flames by Little Richard’s manager Cliff Brantley, cut a demo of their adaptation of an old Orioles number, a repetitive, high-intensity number they called “Please, Please, Please,” at a Macon, Georgia, radio station. It attracted the attention of the top R&B labels Duke Records and Chess Records, but Ralph Bass, a talent scout for King Records in Cincinnati, would not be denied the act. Driving through a fierce thunderstorm from Atlanta to Macon, he beat the competition to the act, signed them to King’s Federal subsidiary, and then witnessed a typically over-the-top performance by Brown and the group at a local club.
Bass was sold, but his boss, King president Syd Nathan, was not convinced. The blunt, profane label chief told his A&R man that “Please, Please, Please” was “a piece of shit.” Correctly believing that his hammer-headed boss would rise to a challenge, Bass suggested that Nathan test-release the single in Atlanta; Nathan countered that he would put it out nationally, just to prove Bass wrong.
“Please, Please, Please” shot to No. 5 on the national R&B chart and put James Brown on the map, but a follow-up proved elusive: For two years, the singer went without a hit (leading to the breakup of the original Famous Flames). He sustained himself with an increasingly dynamic live show that drew turn-away crowds in the South.
Finally, in September 1958, Brown cut another hoarsely supplicating ballad, “Try Me,” and it took him to No. 1 on the national R&B charts (and made a crossover dent, reaching No. 48 on the pop side). On the strength of this single, Brown made his debut at New York’s Apollo Theatre and, more importantly, secured a new manager, Ben Bart, who would guide him to superstardom.
Brown’s onstage dynamism and the sheer power of his pipes captured several top-10 hits for him in 1960-63, including a remake of The “5” Royales’ “Think” (No. 7, 1960), the wailing “I Don’t Mind” (No. 4, 1961), the travelogue-like remake of Jimmy Forrest’s “Night Train” (No. 5, 1962), and a wrenching re-reading of the pop chestnut “Prisoner of Love” (No. 6, 1963).
But it was an album that truly thrust James Brown into the consciousness of the American public at large. In 1962, he approached Syd Nathan with the idea of cutting a concert album that would show off his galvanizing live performances (which by now climaxed with a famous routine, originally improvised with towels, in which Brown’s shoulders were draped with a series of gaudy capes during a mock collapse in the show-closing “Please, Please, Please”) and his powerful band (which Brown was by then fining for every missed note and scuffed shoe).
The pugnacious Nathan – who had evidently learned nothing when a rejected Brown instrumental, “Do the Mashed Potatoes,” became a hit on another label (under the name of Brown’s drummer Nat Kendrick) – vetoed the idea. Brown’s first seven LPs had sold meagerly, commercial prospects for a live album were non-existent, and you can’t pull a single off it, so why bother? But Brown would not be deterred, and put up $6,000 of his own money to record a midnight show at the Apollo Theatre on Oct. 24, 1962.
Finally released by King, somewhat reluctantly, seven months later, the puissant Live at the Apollo (1963) proved Nathan wrong on more than one account. The album vaulted to No. 2 on the pop albums charts, and established Brown’s live rep for all time. Moreover, it didn’t need a single – it became a single: Radio stations like New York’s WWRL and Pittsburgh’s WANT carved out a block of time in the evening hours to play the much-requested LP in its entirety.
Not long after the success of Live at the Apollo, Brown jumped ship from King. Perhaps weary of Nathan’s incomprehension and intractability, he signed a deal with Chicago-based Mercury Records’ Smash subsidiary, though he was still under contract with the Ohio label.
King quickly sued Brown, but not before he issued the radical “Out of Sight.” The single – which soared to No. 5 on the R&B chart and No. 24 on the pop rolls – was a distinctive number that boiled the vocalist’s style down to its essence. Rhythm dominated the song, and it was something new: Here Brown’s band, then under the direction of alto saxophonist Nat Jones, began to play “on the one,” accenting the first and third beats of a bar instead of the second- and fourth-bar accents typical of R&B at the time. This was the beginning of the classic Brown groove.
Brown climaxed the year by mopping the floor with the visibly terrified members of The Rolling Stones, who followed him onstage, and several other top pop acts at an October concert at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, filmed in high-definition video and exhibited theatrically as The T.A.M.I. Show (1964).
After King prevailed in court, Brown returned to the label in 1965 with a greatly improved contract and plenty to prove to his combative employer. (Brown instrumentals, many of them stupendous, continued to appear on Smash.) He blazed in with the one-two punch of the astonishing singles “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” and “I Got You (I Feel Good),” both No. 1 R&B smashes and top 10 pop entries. The J.B.’s, which now included guitarist Jimmy “Chank” Nolen and saxophonist Maceo Parker, Jr., stirred up bottom-heavy proto-funk that its leader rightly termed “that new breed thing.” “Brand New Bag” won Brown his first Grammy Award, for best R&B recording.
For nearly the next decade, James Brown ruled as the most revolutionary practitioner of soul and funk. He collected 14 No. 1 R&B hits between 1966 and 1974. His band became one of black music’s great juggernauts – tight, tense, rhythmically complex. Members came and went – sometimes with alacrity, as in 1970, when The J.B.’s quit en masse – but the signal contributions to Brown’s sound and attack of Nolen, Parker, drummers John “Jabo” Starks and Clyde Stubblefield, trombonist Fred Wesley, and alto saxophonist and musical director Pee Wee Ellis deserve special recognition. (As do the brief but inestimable contributions of bassist Bootsy Collins and his brother, guitarist Catfish Collins, who brought a special charge to the group in 1970-71.)
Brown’s string of R&B hits – many of them routinely crossing over to the pop side – continued in 1966-67. They included “Ain’t That a Groove” (No. 6, 1966), the string-laden ballad “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” (No. 1, 1966), the soulfully didactic “Don’t Be a Dropout” (No. 4, 1967), “Bring It Up” (No. 7, 1967), “Let Yourself Go” (No. 5, 1967), and the cataclysmic “Cold Sweat” (No. 1, 1967). (The near-miss No. 11 late-’67 single “Get It Together” is one of the Brown band’s most punishing expositions.) Pungent and exhortatory, they further defined a massive new pulse for soul music.
His epochal year was 1968. It kicked off with the convulsive dance single “There Was a Time” (heard in its entirety later that year on another definitive concert set, Live at the Apollo, Volume II). Several other startling 45s succeeded it: “I Can’t Stand Myself (When You Touch Me),” the No. 1 hit “I Got the Feelin’,” “Licking Stick-Licking Stick.” Probably the most significant of them all was “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud,” which reached No. 1 that fall. Coming just three months after “America Is My Home,” a flag-waving number that inspired the rancor of black nationalists and white radicals, it became an anthem of African-American solidarity.
Brown’s gravitas as a public figure was displayed in the wake of Rev. Martin Luther King’s assassination in Memphis on April 4, 1968. Brown had a show scheduled the following night at Boston Garden. Mayor Kevin White wanted the to cancel the concert, but black councilman Tom Atkins convinced the mayor that letting it go on and televising it on the local public television outlet WGBH would cool tensions in the city. Brown responded with a performance that burned like a magnesium flare. Boston remained calm. (The concert was issued on DVD in 2008 by Shout! Factory.)
Showered with kudos in the aftermath of the Boston show, Brown performed a two-week tour of Vietnam, laying off $100,000 in US bookings to entertain the troops. His vocal support of Hubert Humphrey, Lyndon Johnson’s vice president, in the 1968 presidential campaign did little to improve his stock with radical leftists, but “Say It Loud” secured his standing as “Soul Brother No. 1” with the less intransigent members of the black community. By the end of 1968, he was viewed by the public as the most important black entertainer in America.
The run of hammering hits continued in 1969-70, despite ongoing stability in Brown’ band lineups. His top chart records included “Give It Up Or Turn It A Loose” (No. 1, 1969), “Mother Popcorn” (No. 1, 1969), “Let a Man Come In and Do the Popcorn” (No. 2, 1969), “Brother Rapp” (No. 2, 1970), “Get Up (I Feel Like Being Like a Sex Machine” (No. 2, 1970), and “Super Bad” (No. 1, 1970). There were also some popular albums, including the now-perennial Yuletide collection A Soulful Christmas (1969) and the faux-live but potent two-LP set Sex Machine (1970). Brown also explored the jazzy side of his musical personality with The Louis Bellson Orchestra and arranger Oliver Nelson on the unusual LP Soul On Top (1969).
When Brown’s five-year contract with King Records expired in 1971, he signed a new pact with Polydor Records, the US arm of the like-named German label. With Syd Nathan dead for three years and an international market on the horizon, Polydor looked like the right choice to broaden the singer’s market around the world. He took his People imprint with him from King to Polydor; besides releasing such Brown hits as “Hot Pants” and “Escape-ism” in 1971, People issued singles by such James Brown Revue members as Bobby Byrd and Lynn Collins.
At Polydor, Brown laid down a heavyweight brand of “new new super heavy funk,” as he termed it, heard on such punchy No. 1 hits as 1971’s “Make It Funky,” 1972’s “Talking Loud and Saying Nothing” (essentially a duet with Byrd), and 1973’s “Get On the Good Foot.” He also edged into socially conscious territory with the condemnatory “King Heroin.” In 1974 – the year he headlined a music festival in Zaire in tandem with the Muhammad Ali-George Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle” -- he scored back-to-back-to-back No. 1 singles, “The Payback,” “My Thang,” and “Papa Don’ Take No Mess.” On LP, he released the movie soundtracks Black Caesar (1973) and Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off (1974) and the sprawling, super-heated studio sets The Payback (1974), Hell (1974), and Reality (1975).
After the 1976 top-five single “Get Up Offa That Thing,” Brown would be absent from the R&B top 10 for nearly a decade. With 20 years as a recording star under his belt, Brown was increasingly being pushed down and off the charts by the soul, funk, and disco acts who borrowed liberally from his book and his moves. Deepening acrimony between Brown and his label didn’t help his situation; in 1980, he parted ways with Polydor after a very public demand for release from his contract.
For five years, he made sporadic appearances on the R&B rolls with singles for Henry Stone’s Miami-based disco label T.K. Records, his own Augusta Sound imprint, and (with rap star Afrika Bambaataa, on “Unity”) New York rap label Tommy Boy. While he made a memorable 1980 appearance along with other R&B and blues legends in the John Belushi/Dan Aykroyd movie vehicle The Blues Brothers, and continued to tour indefatiguably, he was viewed in some quarters as an antique.
He made a final trip into the pop top five in 1985, when “Living in America,” a number from Sylvester Stallone’s boxing epic Rocky IV, arrived at No. 5 (and No. 10 on the R&B chart), becoming his biggest pop hit in 21 years. The song brought him a 1986 Grammy Award for best R&B vocal performance; the same year, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at its inaugural ceremony. These high-water marks were succeeded by a pair of albums for LA’s Scotti Brothers Records, Gravity (1986) and I’m Real (1988).
Brown’s life and career hit the skids in the fall of 1988. On. Sept. 24 – in the wake of regular news reports of domestic disputes and drug arrests – Brown burst into an insurance seminar in a building next door to his Augusta office, waving a shotgun and complaining that people were using his restroom without permission. The police were called, and as many as 14 cruisers pursued Brown’s truck on a stop-and-go chase between Georgia and South Carolina. He was finally taken into custody after officers peppered the singer’s vehicle with 18 rounds. Declining a guilty plea to lesser charges, he was sentenced to concurrent jail terms of six years after drug and assault convictions.
Few in the music industry were vocal in his defense, and he served two-and-a-half years. Released on Feb. 27, 1991, he celebrated his freedom with an all-star concert at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles that was taped for a pay-TV broadcast. Attempting to pick up where he left off with some of the youngbloods of international soul-funk and dance music, Brown recorded the album Universal James (1992) with Jazzie B and Will Mowatt of England’s Soul II Soul and C+C Music Factory.
But it was the mining of James Brown’s legacy that kept him in the public eye. In 1991, his King and Polydor catalog was plumbed for the carefully programmed and annotated four-CD boxed set Star Time, which brought Brown his third Grammy (for his contribution to the liner notes). The label, now part of the multi-national PolyGram, repackaged his classic albums and collected his hits and obscurities in a continuous flow of reissues that alerted the rap generation to the music of the man who began it all. In 1992, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Recording Academy.
He passed the end of his career quietly, if peripatetically, performing around the world until the very end and releasing an occasional record that failed to graze the charts. But neither the record industry nor his country had forgotten his contributions: In 1993 he received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Rhythm & Blues Foundation’s Pioneer Awards, and in 2003 he was saluted at the Kennedy Center Honors.
He died at the age of 73 on Christmas Day 2006 after a bout of pneumonia.