60s Music

History of James Brown

The Inventor of Funk and The Godfather of Soul

James Brown
James Brown performing live in Hamburg, Germany, February 1973. (Source: Wikipedia)

James Brown is one of the most influential artists, leading him to be called as the “Godfather Of Soul”. Not only that, he had also invented “funk” and led to the evolution of hip-hop music. Brown has risen from poverty to become one of the celebrated, if sometimes infamous (because of his recurrent troubles with the law) musical figures of the latter side of the 20th century.

With the R&B/doo-wop band the Famous Flames, Brown achieved national attention through the hits “Please, Please, Please” and “Try Me” in the mid- and late 1950s. Brown eventually built a reputation as a zealously industrious man and an energetic live performer, leading him to earn another nickname as “The Hardest-Working Man In Showbusiness”. He was also a notorious perfectionist, demanding precision from his backing musician and singers. Possessing a fantastic and captivating showmanship, Brown was also a great dancer.

Brown achieved more hits that include a flurry of R&B Top 10 hits especially during the early 1960s. But some of his hits – “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag”, “I Got You (I Feel Good)” and “It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World” – solidified his superstar status. He also used his fame to devote to a lot of causes he was passionate about, including education for the black people, racial equality and nonviolence.

 

The story of R&B/soul/and funk singer James Brown is certainly interesting and inspirational as he literally worked his way up to where he would become – a successful singer-songwriter.

James Joe Brown Jr. was born on May 3, 1933 in a small wooden shack in Barnwell, South Carolina. He was born into abject poverty, and when he was very young, his parents separated. Brown was then left in the care of his aunt, who managed a brothel, and later moved to his other aunt. It was the Great Depression, and Brown struggled to survive by working at several odd jobs he could find to save pennies.

Aside from extreme poverty and hardships, racial discrimination also plagued the young boy. To escape the harsh reality, he turned to religion where he sang in a local church choir. There Brown found that he really had talent in singing, and continued to develop his innate talents.

As he was growing up, Brown’s teenage life was marred by crime. When he was 16, Brown was arrested for car theft and was sentenced to three years behind bars. While serving his time, Brown continued his singing there and established a gospel choir with his inmates. It was in prison where Brown encountered another aspiring singer by the name of Bobby Byrd. The two quickly struck up a friendship and eventually, a professional partnership during much of Brown’s would-be career.

Following his release from prison in 1953, he first actively engaged in sports such as boxing and baseball. Then Byrd invited him to be a part of his own group, The Gospel Starlighters. Brown’s dominating presence was the effect of his immense talent and terrific showmanship.

By the time the group moved to Georgia, the group had been already renamed The Flames. During the 1950s the Flames was signed to Federal/King label and cut a single titled “Please, Please, Please” which became a big R&B smash. The Flames had become James Brown and the Famous Flames. Because of Brown’s immense talent and exceptional showmanship, he dominated the group in no time, becoming their star frontman.

Because of the success of “Please, Please, Please,” the Flames immediately did some touring, mostly serving as opening acts to big R&B artists such as Ray Charles and B.B. King. However, the band wasn’t able to follow up the success of their first single, and soon broke up. James went to New York and assembled a group of musicians whom he also called The Flames – together they recorded and released “Try Me” which hit #1 on the R&B singles chart as well as broke into the pop chart in 1958. The success of the single jump-started Brown’s own singing career.

 

During much of the 1960s Brown scored a healthy number of hits both on the R&B and pop charts: “I” Go Crazy” (at #15), “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag” (his first Top 10 pop hit at #8, as well as #1 on the R&B singles chart), “I Got You” (#3 on the pop singles chart and #1 on the R&B singles chart), “It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World” (at #8 pop, #1 R&B), “Cold Sweat” (at #7 pop, #1 R&B) “I Got The Feelin’” (#6 pop, #1 R&B), “Say It Loud I’m Black and I’m Proud” (#10 pop, #1 R&B), “Give It Up Or Turn It A Loose” (#15 pop, #1 R&B), and “Mother Popcorn” (#11 pop, #1 R&B), as well as few minor pop hits and major R&B smashes.

 

“Cold Sweat” may be referred to as the first song that introduced the “funk” genre – with heavy percussions, drum solos, and characteristically scratchy guitar work.

James Brown was a very industrious person who worked six days a week. This earned him the moniker “The Hardest-Working Man In Show Business.” He was also notorious for being a disciplinarian and perfectionist who fired his musicians if they missed a note, or unceremoniously asked them to improvise on the spot while they were on tour – often he pushed discipline and perfection to the extreme.

Brown was also known as a dynamic performer, being a terrific dancer who strove to do all kinds of dance fads like the camel walk and the mashed potato, and even attempted to create his own steps.

Besides being a consummate artist, Brown was also devoting his time and energies to social causes such as racial equality and education for the young blacks. He also believed in nonviolent protests in the midst of several riots that had been happening across the country.

During the 1970s and the 1980s, Brown’s career dipped due to the rise of disco and his own financial and personal struggles, although he went on working non-stop. He had churned out a few hits during that decade such as “Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine,” “Super Bad,” “Hot Pants,” “Get On The Good Foot” and “Living In America,” the last of which put Brown back on the map and even won him a Grammy for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance in 1985. Continuing his career resurgence of sorts, Brown also appeared in films such as Rocky IV, The Blues Brothers and Doctor Detroit.

During the late 1980s he fell into a crisis where he struggled with drug abuse and depression. He was arrested for carrying an unlicensed handgun, assaulting a police officer and finally leading the police into a high-speed car chase. Brown spent 15 months in jail for his offenses, and upon his release he was rehabilitated and back to his normal self again. He went back to touring and recording, although his schedule was decidedly cut back.

Brown died on Christmas Day, 2006, of congestive heart failure from complications brought on by pneumonia. He was 73 years old. Several stars attended his funeral, including the late “King Of Pop” Michael Jackson who had been influenced by Brown’s music.

James Brown had certainly lived his life the way he wanted it to be – from the extreme poverty he once endured, Brown rose to become a star on his own right through hard work and natural talent. He is still considered one of the most innovative artists, and a seminal influence on other singers that ranged from blues rocker Mick Jagger to “King Of Pop” Michael Jackson. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in its year of inception, 1986.

Whatever titles may be bestowed on him – The Godfather of Soul, The Hardest-Working Man In Show Business, Mr. Dynamite and many others – there is only one James Brown and it looks like no one can equal him and his inestimable contributions to the music industry. His legacy still lives on.

James Brown’s Wikipedia entry

 

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