James Brown musician
James Joseph Brown (born May 3, 1933, in Barnwell, South Carolina) is an African American entertainer, having worked as a singer, songwriter, and record producer during his career. Brown, recognized as one of the most influential figures in 20th century music, was a prime influence in the evolution of gospel and rhythm and blues into soul and funk, a genre he is associated with as its primary founder. His quick ascent to iconic status can be attributed to his rejection of traditional music formulas, and becoming a symbol of self-motivation and achievement in the face of racism against African Americans.
Beginning his professional music career in 1953, Brown scored hits from the 1950s to the 1980s. In spite of various personal problems and setbacks, he has significantly influenced music and culture as a singer, dancer and bandleader since the 1960s. He has also left his mark on musicians across many outside genres, including rock, jazz, reggae, disco, dance and electronic music, and, most notably, hip-hop music.
Recognized by a plethora of (mostly self-bestowed) titles, including "Soul Brother Number One", "Mr. Dynamite", "the Hardest-Working Man in Show Business", "the Minister of the New Super-Heavy Funk", "Universal James", and the most familiar, "the Godfather of Soul", James Brown is noted for his improvisional music style, shouting vocals, and energetic live performances.
Born in the small town of Barnwell in Depression-era South Carolina, 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 variously spent time either practicing his performing skills in Augusta-area dance halls, or committing petty crimes. At the age of 16, he was convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to a juvenile detention center upstate in Toccoa, Georgia.
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 a brief stint as a boxer, then as a baseball pitcher (a career move ended by leg injury) Brown turned his energy toward music.
The beginnings of the Famous Flames
Brown and Bobby Byrd's sister Sarah performed in a gospel group called "The Gospel Starlighters" during the early and mid 1950s. 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", and eventually signed a deal with the Cincinnati, Ohio-based 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" (1956), which failed to crack the U.S. pop top 100, but 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 until the 1958 single "Try Me" became a #1 R&B hit, and a #50 pop hit. 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 backup.
These early recordings, also including "I'll Go Crazy" (1959) and "Bewildered" (1960), were fairly straightforward gospel-inspired R&B compositions, heavily inspired by the work of contemporary musicians such as Little Richard and Ray Charles. Yet, these songs were marked by a rhythmic acuity and vocal attack that would later become even more pronounced, leading to the style called "funk". In addition, the initially standardized arrangements and instrumentation began to give way to more improvisational and rhythm-heavy tracks, such as that of 1961's #5 R&B hit "Night Train", the first single to showcase the beginnings of what today is considered the "James Brown sound". "Night Train" completely eschews singing of any sort, and excepting ad-libs by Brown, is completely instrumental, featuring prominent horn instrumentation and a fast, highly accented rhythm track.
Papa gets a brand new bag
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 was not nationally successful until his self-financed live show was captured and released on record as Live at the Apollo in 1963. 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 so than "Night Train" had been, a harbinger of the new James Brown sound. Its arrangement was raw and unornamented, the horns and the drums took center stage in the mix, and Brown's singing had taken on an even more rhythmic feel.
"Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" and "I Got You (I Feel Good)," both from 1965, were major #1 R&B hits, remaining the top-selling single in black venues for over a month apiece, and becoming Brown's first pop Top 10 hits. Both of these songs today are considered the most important of his works from this second stage of his career, and are also two of his signature tunes.
Brown would often make creative adjustments to his songs for greater appeal. For instance Brown sped up the released version of "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" to make it even more intense and commercial. "Cold Sweat" (1967) was considered a departure lyrically, and even harder hitting. Critics have come to see this recording as a high mark in the music of the 1960s. Mixed in with his more famous rhythmic essays of the era were ballads such as "It's a Man's, Man's, Man's World" (1965), and even Broadway show tunes.
The late 1960s: "Ain't It Funky Now"
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, with guitarist Jimmy Nolen provided deceptively simple riffs for each song heavily tied to the dominating rhythm, and Maceo Parker's prominent saxophone solos. Other members of Brown's band included stalwart singer and sideman Bobby Byrd, drummers John "Jabo" Starks, Clyde Stubblefield, Maceo Parker's brother Melvin; saxophonist St. Clair Pinckney, trombonist Fred Wesley, and guitarist Alphonso Kellum.
As the 1960s came to a close, Brown refined his style even further with "I Got the Feelin'" and "Licking Stick-Licking Stick" (both recorded in 1968), and "Funky Drummer" (recorded in 1969). By this time, the vocals that graced his songs were no longer sung traditionally, but instead delivered in a rhythmic pattern that only periodically featured melodical embellishment. Brown's 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 culture and hip hop music during the following decade. Supporting his vocals were instrumental arrangements which featured a more refined and developed version of Brown's mid-1960s style. The horn section, guitars, bass, and drums all locked in strong rhythms based around various repeating riffs, usually at least one prominent breaks.
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 Edwin Starr , Temptations David Ruffin and Dennis Edwards, and a then-preadolescent Michael Jackson, who took Brown's shouts 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 remains the world's most sampled recording artist, and "Funky Drummer" is itself the most sampled individual piece of music.
The content of Brown's songs was now developing along with their delivery. 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).
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 Fell Like Being a) Sex Machine". Although it would go through several lineup changes (the first in 1971), The JB's remain remembered as 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.
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-70s, 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 nonetheless a notable late addition to his oeuvre, containing 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 1980's, effectively crossing over to a broader, more mainstream audience. Brown made a cameo appearances in the feature films The Blues Brothers and Rocky IV. 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 the R&B/hip-hop group Full Force on a #5 R&B hit single, 1988's "Static (Don't Start None Won't Be None)".
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 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.
Brown has been married four times. He and his current wife Tommie Raye Hynie, have been married since 2002 and have one child together; he also has two children by his first wife, Deidre Jenkins, and three more by his second, Velma Warren. Adrienne Rodriegues, Brown's wife through most of the 1980s and 1990s, had him arrested four times on charges of assault, and also had problems with drug abuse.
During the 1990s and 2000s, arrests for drug possession or domestic abuse became frequent occurrences for Brown. However, he has continued to occasionally perform and even record, and often makes appearances in television shows and in films such as Blues Brothers 2000. He lives in a riverfront home in Beech Island, South Carolina, directly across the Savannah River from Augusta. On November 11, 1993, Augusta mayor Charles Delaney held a ceremony during which Augusta's 9th Street was renamed "James Brown Boulevard" in the entertainer's honor.
The 1991 four-CD retrospective Star Time spans his four-decade career; nearly all his earlier LPs have been re-released on CD, often with additional tracks and enlightened commentary by experts familiar with Brown's music.
- Brown was a recipient of Kennedy Center Honors for 2003, and a scheduled 2004 unveiling of a statue of Brown in Augusta was delayed because of James Brown's ongoing legal problems.
- James Brown had an appearance in the Jackie Chan movie The Tuxedo, in which he is flipped and knocked unconscious, forcing Chan to do his routine.
- In December 2004 Brown was diagnosed with prostate cancer, which was successfully treated with surgery.
- Weird Al Yankovic made a parody of Living in America, entitled "Living with a Hernia".
- Brown holds the record for the artist who has charted the most number of singles on the Billboard Hot 100 without ever hitting number one on that chart.
For a full listing of albums and singles, see James Brown discography.
Top ten singles
James Brown was not an album-oriented recording artist, and it is difficult to identify the most critical albums of his career. However, the following four albums all appear on the List of Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
- Download sample of "Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag"
- James Brown - Godfather of Soul, Brown's official site.
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- DMoz, listing of James Brown sites.
- James Brown at the SoundtrackINFO project*Interview with James Brown - June 2, 2004 - The Guardian Newspaper (UK)