“James Brown has had more honorifics attached to his name than any other performer in music history. He has variously been tagged ‘Soul Brother Number One,’ ‘the Godfather of Soul,’ ‘the Hardest Working Man in Show Business,’ ‘Mr. Dynamite’ and even ‘the Original Disco Man’” (rockhall). “No one can question that James Brown earned them more than any other performer” (Unterberger). “He achieved a wide international following among fans of many races and cultures” (SHOF) and has had “total sales of more than 50 million records” (SHOF).
“As a singer, Brown’s style evolved over the years but never strayed from his roots in gospel and soul music” (SHOF). “What became known as soul music in the Sixties, funk music in the Seventies and rap music in the Eighties is directly attributable to James Brown” (rockhall). “What Elvis Presley was to rock and roll, James Brown became to R&B: a prolific and dominant phenom. Like Presley, he is a three-figure hitmaker, with 114 total entries on Billboard’s R&B singles charts and 94 that made the Hot 100 singles chart. Over the years, he amassed 800 songs in his repertoire while maintaining a grueling touring schedule. Recording for the King and Federal labels throughout the Fifties and Sixties, Brown distilled R&B to its essence on such classic albums as Live at the Apollo (patterned after Ray Charles’ In Person) and singles like Cold Sweat, Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag and I Got You (I Feel Good)” (rockhall).
“Interestingly, despite the fact that he is the writer of virtually every song he recorded, Brown is still principally known as a concert performer, singer and recording artist” (SHOF). “No other musician, pop or otherwise, put on a more exciting, exhilarating stage show: Brown’s performances were marvels of athletic stamina and split-second timing” (Unterberger). “Reportedly sweating off up to seven pounds a night, Brown was a captivating performer who’d incorporate a furious regimen of spins, drops and shtick (such as feigning a heart attack, complete with the ritual donning and doffing of capes and a fevered return to the stage) into his skintight rhythm & blues” (rockhall).
“Brown’s rags-to-riches-to-rags story has heroic and tragic dimensions of mythic resonance” (Unterberger). “He was born…in Barnwell, South Carolina, during the Great Depression” (rockhall) and “raised in poverty in Augusta, Georgia, 40 miles away” (rockhall). As a child, he picked cotton, danced for spare change and shined shoes. At 16, he was caught and convicted of stealing, and he landed in reform school for three years. While incarcerated, he met Bobby Byrd, leader of a gospel group that performed at the prison. After his release, Brown tried his hand at semipro boxing and baseball. A career-ending leg injury inspired him to pursue music fulltime. He joined Byrd in a group that sang gospel in and around Toccoa, Georgia. But then Byrd and Brown attended a rhythm & blues revue that included Hank Ballard and Fats Domino, whose performances lured them into the realm of secular music…They became a tightly knit ensemble that showcased their abundant talents as singers, dancers and multi-instrumentalists” (rockhall).
On “January 23, 1956, producer and talent scout Ralph Bass travels to Macon to sign James Brown to the King/Federal label, beating Leonard Chess (of Chess Records) to the punch” (rockhall). Soon after, “The Flames, as the Georgian group was known in the mid-‘50s” (Unterberger), “had a huge R&B hit right off the bat with the wrenching, churchy ballad Please, Please, Please. By that point, the Flames had become James Brown & the Famous Flames; the charisma, energy, and talent of Brown made him the natural star attraction” (Unterberger).
Building a Following:
“All of Brown’s singles over the next two years flopped, as he sought to establish his own style, recording material that was obviously derivative of heroes like Roy Brown, Hank Ballard, Little Richard, and Ray Charles. In retrospect, it can be seen that Brown was in the same position as dozens of other R&B one-shot: talented singers in need of better songs, or not fully on the road to a truly original sound. What made Brown succeed where hundreds of others failed was his superhuman determination, working the chitlin circuit to death, sharpening his band, and keeping an eye on new trends” (rockhall). “Brown and company toured relentlessly from the late ‘50s to the mid ‘70s, sometimes performing as many as 350 one-nighters in a single year” (SHOF).
Brown “was on the verge of being dropped from King in late 1958 when his perseverance finally paid off, as Try Me became a number one R&B (and small pop) hit” (Unterberger) “and the first of 17 chart-topping R&B singles by Brown over the next two decades” (rockhall).
“Brown’s style of R&B got harder as the ‘60s began; he added more complex, Latin- and jazz-influenced rhythms on hits like Good Good Lovin’, I’ll Go Crazy, Think, and Night Train, alternating these with torturous ballads that featured some of the most frayed screaming to be heard outside of the church” (Unterberger).
Live at the Apollo:
“Black audiences already knew that Brown had the most exciting live act around, but he truly started to become a phenomenon with the release of Live at the Apollo” (Unterberger). “Against the objections of Syd Nathan, who felt that no one would be interested in a live album of previously released material, James Brown records his performance at New York’s Apollo Theater” (rockhall) on October 24, 1962. “Capturing a James Brown concert in all its whirling-dervish energy and calculated spontaneity, the album reached number two on the album charts, an unprecedented feat for a hardcore R&B LP” (Unterberger). “It is the most successful album issued by Syd Nathan’s King Records” (rockhall).
Out of Sight – The Birth of Funk:
“Live at the Apollo was recorded and released against the wishes of the King label. It was this kind of artistic standoff that led Brown to seek better opportunities elsewhere. In 1964, he ignored his King contract to record Out of Sight for Smash, igniting a lengthy legal battle that prevented him from issuing vocal recordings for about a year. When he finally resumed recording for King in 1965, he had a new contract that granted him far more artistic control over his releases” (Unterberger).
Top 10 on the Pop Charts:
“Brown's new era had truly begun, however, with ‘Out of Sight,’ which topped the R&B charts and made the pop Top 40. For some time, Brown had been moving toward more elemental lyrics that threw in as many chants and screams as they did words, and more intricate beats and horn charts that took some of their cues from the ensemble work of jazz outfits. ‘Out of Sight’ wasn’t called funk when it came out, but it had most of the essential ingredients. These were amplified and perfected on 1965’s Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag, a monster that finally broke Brown to the white audience, reaching the Top Ten. The even more adventurous follow-up, I Got You (I Feel Good), did even better, making number three” (Unterberger).
“These hits kicked off Brown’s period of greatest commercial success and public visibility. From 1965 to the end of the decade, he was rarely off the R&B charts, often on the pop listings, and all over the concert circuit and national television, even meeting with Vice President Hubert Humphrey and other important politicians as a representative of the black community” (Unterberger). “Brown had attained the status of a musical and cultural revolutionary, owing to his message of black pride and self-sufficiency” (rockhall). “Brown became an advocate for various causes and associated himself with government figures involved in justice for minorities and the poor. A major figure in black causes, he was actually called upon to help quell the racial rioting of the late ‘60s in such cities as Detroit and Newark, among others. Brown also found time to visit and perform for American troops in Vietnam” (SHOF). “In the late Sixties and early Seventies, such message songs as Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud reverberated throughout the black community, within which he was regarded as a leader and role model” (rockhall).
From One Band to the Next:
“His music became even bolder and funkier, as melody was dispensed with almost altogether in favor of chunky rhythms and magnetic interplay between his vocals, horns, drums, and scratching electric guitar (heard to best advantage on hits like Cold Sweat, I Got the Feelin’, and There Was a Time). The lyrics were not so much words as chanted, stream-of-consciousness slogans, often aligning themselves with black pride as well as good old-fashioned (or new-fashioned) sex. Much of the credit for the sound he devised belonged to (and has now been belatedly attributed to) his top-notch supporting musicians such as saxophonists Maceo Parker, St. Clair Pinckney, and Pee Wee Ellis; guitarist Jimmy Nolen; backup singer and longtime loyal associate Bobby Byrd; and drummer Clyde Stubblefield” (Unterberger).
“Brown was both a brilliant bandleader and a stern taskmaster, the latter leading his band to walk out on him in late 1969. Amazingly, he turned the crisis to his advantage by recruiting a young Cincinnati outfit called the Pacemakers featuring guitarist Catfish Collins and bassist Bootsy Collins. Although they only stayed with him for about a year, they were crucial to Brown’s evolution into even harder funk, emphasizing the rhythm and the bottom even more. The Collins brothers, for their part, put their apprenticeship to good use, helping define '70s funk as members of the Parliament-Funkadelic axis” (Unterberger).
Back to Soul – But Out of Ideas:
In 1971, “James Brown signs with Polydor Records, for which he’ll record extensively throughout the decade” (rockhall). “In the early ‘70s, many of the most important members of Brown’s late-‘60s band returned to the fold, to be billed as the J.B.’s (they also made records on their own). Brown continued to score heavily on the R&B charts throughout the first half of the ‘70s, the music becoming more and more elemental and beat-driven. At the same time, he was retreating from the white audience he had cultivated during the mid- to late ‘60s; records like Make It Funky, Hot Pants, Get on the Good Foot, and The Payback were huge soul sellers, but only modest pop ones. Critics charged, with some justification, that the Godfather was starting to repeat and recycle himself too many times. It must be remembered, though, that these songs were made for the singles radio jukebox market and not meant to be played one after the other on CD compilations (as they are today)” (Unterberger).
As far as albums went, 1974’s The Payback, becomes “the only gold-certified (500,000 copies sold) album of his career” (rockhall).
Whether it be albums or singles, “by the mid-‘70s, Brown was beginning to burn out artistically. He seemed shorn of new ideas, was being out-gunned on the charts by disco, and was running into problems with the IRS and his financial empire. There were sporadic hits, and he could always count on enthusiastic live audiences” (Unterberger). Having “watched his sales figures slip in the disco era, [Brown even] attempts to move in on that market with [1979’s] The Original Disco Man, which only reaches #152 in the album chart” (rockhall). “By the ‘80s, he didn’t have a label” (Unterberger).
The Forefather of Rap:
In 1980, “James Brown contributes an unforgettable cameo as a manic preacher in the John Belushi/Dan Aykroyd film The Blues Brothers” (rockhall). That “and his recognition as a forefather of rap helped trigger a resurgence” (rockhall). “His records were more heavily sampled by rap and hip-hop acts than those of any other artist, and he achieved renewed street credibility” (rockhall) when “he collaborated with Afrika Bambaataa on the critical smash single Unity [in 1984] and reentered the Top Ten in 1986 with Living in America” (Unterberger). That same year, “Brown was among the first group of performers inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame” (rockhall).
“In 1988, Brown's personal life came crashing down in a well-publicized incident in which he was accused by his wife of assault and battery. After a year skirting hazy legal and personal troubles, he led the police on an interstate car chase after allegedly threatening people with a handgun. The episode ended in a six-year prison sentence that many felt was excessive; he was paroled after serving two years” (Unterberger).
The Last Era:
“Brown picked up the pieces in the Nineties and carried on” (rockhall). He “continued to perform and release new material…While none of these recordings could be considered as important as his earlier work and did little to increase his popularity, his classic catalog became more popular in the American mainstream during this time than it had been since the ‘70s, and not just among young rappers and samplers. One of the main reasons for this was a proper presentation of his recorded legacy. For a long time, his cumbersome, byzantine discography was mostly out of print, with pieces available only on skimpy greatest-hits collections. A series of exceptionally well-packaged reissues on PolyGram changed that situation; the Star Time box set is the best overview, with other superb compilations devoted to specific phases of his lengthy career, from ‘50s R&B to ‘70s funk” (Unterberger).
“In 2004, Brown was diagnosed with prostate cancer but successfully fought the disease. By 2006, it was in remission and Brown, then 73, began a global tour dubbed the Seven Decades of Funk World Tour. Late in the year while at a routine dentist appointment, the singer was diagnosed with pneumonia. He was admitted to the hospital for treatment but died of heart failure a few days later, in the early morning hours of Christmas Day” (Unterberger).
“Rock critics, who had always ranked Brown considerably below Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin in the soul canon, began to reevaluate his output, particularly the material from his funk years, sometimes anointing him not just ‘Soul Brother Number One,’ but the most important black musician of the rock era” (Unterberger).