James Brown, the “Godfather of Soul,” was a prolific singer, songwriter and bandleader, as well as one of the most iconic figures in funk and soul music.
Born in Barnwell, South Carolina, on May 3, 1933, into extreme poverty, James Brown worked his way to the top of the funk and R&B music earning the moniker "The Godfather of Soul." His unique vocal and musical style influenced many artists. Brown was also known for his turbulent personal life, as well as his social activism, both in his songwriting ("America is My Home," "Black and Proud") and advocating the benefits of education to schoolchildren.
Early Life in Georgia
The "Godfather of Soul," James Brown, was born James Joe Brown Jr. on May 3, 1933, in a one-room shack in the woods of Barnwell, South Carolina, a few miles east of the Georgia border. His parents split when he was very young, and at the age of 4, Brown was sent to Augusta, Georgia, to live with his Aunt Honey, the madam of a brothel. Growing up in abject poverty during the Great Depression, a young Brown worked whatever odd jobs he could find, for literally pennies. He danced for the soldiers at nearby Fort Gordon, picked cotton, washed cars and shined shoes.
Brown later recalled his impoverished childhood: "I started shining shoes at 3 cents, then went up to 5 cents, then 6 cents. I never did get up to a dime. I was 9 years old before I got a pair of underwear from a real store; all my clothes were made from sacks and things like that. But I knew I had to make it. I had the determination to go on, and my determination was to be somebody."
Dismissed from school at the age of 12 for "insufficient clothing," Brown turned to working his various odd jobs full-time. As an escape from the harsh reality of growing up black in the rural South during the Great Depression, Brown turned to religion and to music. He sang in the church choir, where he developed his powerful and uniquely emotive voice.
However, as a teenager Brown also turned to crime. At the age of 16, he was arrested for stealing a car and sentenced to three years in prison. While incarcerated, Brown organized and led a prison gospel choir. It was in jail that Brown met Bobby Byrd, an aspiring R&B singer and pianist, forming a friendship and musical partnership that proved one of the most fruitful in music history.
Always a gifted athlete, upon his release from prison in 1953 Brown turned his attention to sports and devoted the next two years primarily to boxing and playing semiprofessional baseball. Then, in 1955, Bobby Byrd invited Brown to join his R&B vocal group, The Gospel Starlighters. Brown accepted, and with his overbearing talent and showmanship, he quickly came to dominate the group. Renamed the Famous Flames, they moved to Macon, Georgia, where they performed at local nightclubs.
In 1956, the Famous Flames recorded a demo tape of the song "Please, Please, Please" and played it for Ralph Bass, a talent scout for King Records. Bass was thoroughly impressed by the song, and especially by Brown's passionate and soulful crooning. He offered the group a record contract, and within months "Please, Please, Please" had reached No. 6 on the R&B charts.
The Flames immediately hit the road, touring the Southeast while opening for such legendary musicians as B.B. King and Ray Charles. But the band didn't have a repeat hit to match the success of "Please, Please, Please," and by the end of 1957, the Flames had returned home.
Needing a creative spark and in danger of losing his record deal, in 1958, Brown moved to New York, where, working with different musicians whom he also called the Flames, he recorded "Try Me." The song reached No. 1 on the R&B charts, cracked the Hot 100 Singles chart and kick-started Brown's music career. He soon followed with a string of hits that included "Lost Someone," "Night Train" and "Prisoner of Love," his first song to crack the Top 10 on the pop charts, peaking at No. 2.
In addition to writing and recording music, Brown toured relentlessly. He performed five or six nights a week throughout the 1950s and '60s, a schedule that earned him the title "The Hardest-Working Man in Show Business." Brown was a flashy showman, incredible dancer, and soulful singer, and his concerts were hypnotizing displays of exuberance and passion that left audiences in raptures. His saxophonist, Pee Wee Ellis, once said, "When you heard James Brown was coming to town, you stopped what you were doing and started saving your money."
Brown fastidiously mastered and performed whatever dances were popular at the time—"the camel walk," "the mashed potato," "the popcorn" —and often improvised his own after announcing that he was about to "do the James Brown." A shrewd and ruthless bandleader and businessman, Brown scheduled his tours to hit "money towns" on the weekends, and demanded perfection from his backup singers and musicians. He infamously fined musicians for missing notes, and during performances he called out musicians to improvise on the spot. As one of Brown's musicians said, with considerable understatement, "You had to think quick to keep up."
On a single night—October 24, 1962—Brown recorded a live concert album at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. Initially opposed by King Records because it featured no new songs, Live at the Apollo proved Brown's greatest commercial success yet, peaking at No. 2 on the pop albums chart and firmly establishing his crossover appeal.
Brown went on to record many of his most popular and enduring singles during the mid-1960s, including "I Got You (I Feel Good)," "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" and "It's a Man's Man's Man's World." With its unique rhythmic quality, achieved by reducing each instrument to an essentially percussive role, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" is considered the first song of a new genre, funk, an offshoot of soul and a precursor of hip-hop.
In the mid-1960s, James Brown also began devoting more and more energy to social causes. In 1966, he recorded "Don't Be a Dropout," an eloquent and impassioned plea to the black community to place more focus on education. A staunch believer in exclusively nonviolent protest, Brown once declared to H. Rap Brown of the Black Panthers, "I'm not going to tell anybody to pick up a gun."
On April 5, 1968, the day after Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, with riots raging across the country, Brown gave a rare televised live concert in Boston in an attempt to prevent rioting there. His effort succeeded; young Bostonians stayed home to watch the concert on TV and the city largely avoided violence. A few months later he wrote and recorded "Say It Loud: I'm Black and I'm Proud," a protest anthem that has unified and inspired generations.
Troubles & Redemption
Throughout the 1970s, Brown continued to perform ceaselessly and recorded several more hits, most notably "Sex Machine" and "Get Up Offa That Thing." Although his career fell off during the late 1970s due to financial troubles and the rise of disco, Brown made an inspired comeback with a multifaceted performance in the classic 1980 film The Blues Brothers. His 1985 song "Living in America," featured prominently in Rocky IV, was his biggest hit in decades.
However, after becoming one of the first musicians inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986—the year of its inception—in the late 1980s, Brown slowly slid into a mire of drug addiction and depression. The culmination of his personal troubles came in 1988, when he entered an insurance seminar high on PCP and bearing a shotgun before leading police on a half-hour, high-speed car chase from Augusta, Georgia, into South Carolina. The police had to shoot out Brown's tires to end the chase. The incident led to Brown spending 15 months in jail before being released on parole in 1991.
Re-emerging from prison rehabbed, Brown returned to touring, once again delivering inspired and energetic concerts, albeit on a schedule much reduced from his heyday. He had another run-in with the law in 1998 after he discharged a rifle and led the police in another car chase. After the incident, he was sentenced to a 90-day drug rehabilitation program.
Brown married four times over the course of his life and had six children. His wives' names were Velma Warren (1953-1969), Deidre Jenkins (1970-1981), Adrienne Rodriguez (1984-1996) and Tomi Rae Hynie (2002-2004). In 2004, Brown was arrested again on charges of domestic violence against Hynie, although he said in a statement: "I would never hurt my wife. I love her very much."
Death and Legacy
James Brown passed away on December 25, 2006, after a weeklong battle with pneumonia. He was 73 years old.
James Brown is unquestionably one of the most influential musical pioneers of the last half-century. The Godfather of Soul, the inventor of funk, the grandfather of hip-hop—Brown is cited as a seminal influence by artists ranging from Mick Jagger to Michael Jackson to Afrika Bambaataa to Jay-Z. Perfectly aware of his role in American cultural history, Brown wrote in his memoir, "Others may have followed in my wake, but I was the one who turned racist minstrelsy into black soul—and by doing so, became a cultural force." And although he wrote widely and was widely written about, Brown always maintained that there was only one way to truly understand him: "As I always said, if people wanted to know who James Brown is, all they have to do is listen to my music."