Saturday, December 30, 2006

James Brown

Early life

Brown was born in the small town of Barnwell in Depression-era South Carolina as James Joseph Brown, Jr. As an adult, Brown would legally change his name to remove the "Jr." designation.[2] 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 skills in Augusta-area halls, or committing petty crimes. At the age of sixteen, he was convicted of armed robbery and sent to a juvenile detention center upstate in Toccoa from 1948.

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 brief stints as a boxer and baseball pitcher (a career move ended by a leg injury) Brown turned his energy toward music.

Beginnings of the Famous Flames

Brown and Bobby Byrd's sister Sarah performed in a gospel group called "The Gospel Starlighters" from 1955. 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). It 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. 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.

Many of Brown's early recordings were fairly straightforward gospel-inspired R&B compositions, heavily inspired by the work of contemporary musicians such as Little Richard and Ray Charles. Yet the songs were already marked by a rhythmic acuity and vocal attack that would later become even more pronounced, contributing to the developing style that would eventually be called "funk". Brown, in fact, called Little Richard his idol, and credited Little Richard's saxophone-studded mid-1950s road band The Upsetters as the first to put the funk in the rock and roll beat. [3]

Little Richard continued to play a role in Brown's rise to the top. In 1957, when Little Richard bolted from pop music to become a preacher, Brown honored Richard's remaining tour dates in his place. Consequently, former members of Little Richard's backup band became Famous Flames. A year later, the group released "Try Me," which would become Brown's first No. 1 hit.[4]

Brown's arrangements and instrumentation, initially standardized, began to give way to more improvisational and rhythm-heavy tracks such as 1961's #5 R&B hit "Night Train", arguably the first single to showcase the beginnings of what today is considered the "James Brown sound". Except for declamatory ad-libs by Brown, "Night Train" is completely instrumental, featuring prominent horn charts 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 were not nationally successful until his self-financed live show was captured on the LP Live at the Apollo in 1962, released without the consent of his label King Records.

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 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 vocals had taken on an even more intensely rhythmic feel. However, Brown violated his contract with King again by recording "Out of Sight" for Smash Records; the ensuing legal battle resulted in a one year ban on the release of his vocal recordings.[5]

The mid-1960s was the period of Brown's greatest popular success. Two of his signature tunes, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" and "I Got You (I Feel Good)," both from 1965, were Brown's first Top 10 pop hits as well as major #1 R&B hits, remaining the top-selling single in black venues for over a month apiece. "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" won the Grammy for Best Rhythm & Blues Recording in 1966 (an award last given in 1968). His national profile was further boosted that year by appearances in the films Ski Party and the concert film The T.A.M.I. Show, in which he upstaged The Rolling Stones. In his concert repertoire and on record, Brown mingled his innovative rhythmic essays with ballads such as "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" (1965), and even Broadway show tunes.

Brown continued to develop the new funk idiom. "Cold Sweat" (1967), a song with only one chord change, was considered a departure even compared to Brown's other recent innovations. Critics have since come to see it as a high-water mark in the dance music of the 1960s; it is sometimes called the first "true" funk recording.

Brown would often make creative adjustments to his songs for greater appeal. He sped up the released version of "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" to make it even more intense and commercial. He also began spinning off new compositions from the grooves of earlier ones by continual revision of their arrangements. For example, the hit "There Was a Time" emerged out of the chord progression and rhythm arrangements of the 1967 song "Let Yourself Go."[6]

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; guitarist Jimmy Nolen provided percussive, deceptively simple riffs for each song; Maceo Parker's prominent saxophone solos provided a focal point for many performances. Other members of Brown's band included stalwart singer and sideman Bobby Byrd; drummers John "Jabo" Starks, Clyde Stubblefield, and Melvin Parker (Maceo's brother); saxophonist St. Clair Pinckney; trombonist Fred Wesley; guitarist Alphonso "Country" Kellum; and bassist Bernard Odum.

As the 1960s came to a close, Brown refined his funk 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 Brown's "singing" increasingly took the form of a kind of rhythmic declamation that only intermittently featured traces of pitch or melody. His 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 music in the coming decades. Supporting his vocals were instrumental arrangements that featured a more refined and developed version of Brown's mid-1960s style. The horn section, guitars, bass, and drums all meshed together in strong rhythms based around various repeating riffs, usually with at least one musical "break".

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-prepubescent 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" has itself been counted as the most sampled individual piece of music. [7]

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). However, while this change gained him an even greater position in the black community, it lost him much of his white audience who could no longer relate to his lyrics.

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 Feel Like Being Like a) Sex Machine". Although it would go through several lineup changes (the first in 1971), The JB's remain 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.

In 1974, Brown performed in Zaire as part of the build up to the The Rumble in the Jungle fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman.

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-1970s, 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 1980s generated no charted hits, 1979's The Original Disco Man LP is a notable late addition to his oeuvre. It contained the song "It's Too Funky in Here," which was his last top R&B hit of the decade. Ironically, the song was not produced by Brown himself but rather by producer Brad Shapiro.

Brown experienced something of a resurgence in the 1980s, effectively crossing over to a broader, more mainstream audience. He made cameo appearances in the feature films The Blues Brothers, Doctor Detroit, and Rocky IV, as well as being a guest star in the Miami Vice episode "Missing Hours" in 1988. He also released Gravity, a modestly popular crossover album, and the hit 1985 single "Living in America". "Living in America" won the Grammy for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance in 1987. 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 with the group Full Force on a #5 R&B hit single, 1988's "Static," from the hip-hop influenced album I'm Real. The drum break to his 1969 song "Give It Up Or Turnit A Loose" became so popular at hip hop dance parties (especially for breakdance) in the late 1970s and early 1980s that hip hop founding father Kurtis Blow calls the song "the national anthem of hip hop."[8]

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. A new album called Love Overdue was released that same year, with the new single "Move On".

During the 1990s and 2000s, Brown was repeatedly arrested for drug possession and domestic abuse. However, he continued to perform regularly and even record, and made appearances in television shows and films such as Blues Brothers 2000. The 1991 four-CD box set Star Time spanned his four-decade career. Nearly all his earlier LPs were re-released on CD, often with additional tracks and commentary by experts on Brown's music. In 1993, James Brown released a new album called Universal James, which spawned the singles "Can't Get Any Harder", "How Long" and "Georgia-Lina". In 1995, the live album Live At The Apollo 1995 was released, featuring a new track recorded in the studio called "Respect Me". It was released as a single that same year. A megamix called "Hooked on Brown" was released as a single in 1996. And in 1998, James Brown released a new studio album, I'm Back, featuring the single "Funk On Ah Roll". In 2002, James Brown released the album The Next Step, which features the single "Killing is Out, School is In." In 2003 he participated in the PBS American Masters television documentary James Brown: Soul Survivor, directed by Jeremy Marre.

In December 2004 Brown was diagnosed with prostate cancer, which was successfully treated with surgery. He appeared at Edinburgh 50,000 - The Final Push, the final Live 8 concert, on July 6, 2005, where he did a duet with British pop star Will Young on "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag." He also did a duet with another British pop star, Joss Stone, a week earlier on the UK chat show Friday Night with Jonathan Ross. Before his death, he was scheduled to perform a duet with singer Annie Lennox on the song "Vengeance" on her new album Venus, scheduled for release in early 2007.

In 2006, Brown continued his "Seven Decades Of Funk World Tour", to be his last, performing all over the world. His latest shows were still greeted with positive reviews. One of his final concert performances was at the Irish Oxegen festival in Punchestown in 2006 to a record crowd of 80,000.


Brown was admitted to the Emory Crawford Long Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia on December 24, 2006 after a dentist visit where he was found to have severe pneumonia.[9] Brown died the next day on December 25, 2006, Christmas Day, at around 1:45 a.m. (06:45 UTC) aged 73. [10] The cause of death was heart failure, according to his agent. [1] James was quoted saying "I'm going away tonight" sometime before he passed away. He then took three long, quiet breaths, and closed his eyes.[1] Brown's body rested on the stage of legendary Apollo Theater in Harlem, the site of his debut. A private ceremony was held in Brown's hometown of Augusta, Georgia and another public ceremony was officiated by Rev. Al Sharpton, a day later at the James Brown Arena there.


Despite his prowess as a musical performer, Brown never learned to read music. Like Duke Ellington, he developed his repertoire in close association with the members of his band, who were predominantly jazz-trained musicians with a working knowledge of music theory. As his former bandleader Fred Wesley recalled,

it would have been impossible for James Brown to put his show together without the assistance of someone like Pee Wee [Ellis], who understood chord changes, time signatures, scales, notes, and basic music theory. Simple things like knowing the key would be a big problem for James . . . The whole James Brown Show depended on having someone with musical knowledge remember the show, the individual parts, and the individual songs, then relay these verbally or in print to the other musicians. Brown could not do it himself. He spoke in grunts, groans, and la-di-das, and he needed musicians to translate that language into music and actual songs in order to create an actual show.[11]

Personal life

Brown was married four times. He and his last wife, Tommie Raye Hynie (also cited as Tomi Rae Hynie), were married in 2001, but whether either marriage was legal is disputed. Tommie's prior 'husband' was a polygamist and thus her 3-day marriage to him should have never counted (i.e., since he cannot legally marry someone when he is already married). Based on this reasoning, the 2001 marriage is legal and she would be Mr Brown's wife. They had one child together, but according to Brown's attorney, the two never remarried. Brown also had two children by his first wife, Velma Warren, and three more by his second, Deidre Jenkins. His eldest son Teddy died in a car crash in 1973.

Brown's personal life was marked by several brushes with the law. At the age of 16, was arrested for theft and served 3 years in prison. Adrienne Rodriegues, his third wife, had him arrested four times on charges of assault between the mid-1980s and mid-1990s. Brown also served 2 years of a 6 year jail sentence after he led police on a car chase across the Georgia-South Carolina border in 1988. He was convicted of carrying an unlicensed pistol and assaulting a police officer, along with various drug-related and driving offenses.

At the end of his life James Brown lived in a riverfront home in Beech Island, South Carolina, directly across the Savannah River from Augusta, Georgia.


When James Brown styled himself Soul Brother Number One, for once, this was no idle show-business exaggeration. His influence on popular music was, quite simply, enormous.

He transformed gospel music into rhythm and blues, and soul music into his own creation - funk - with its driving rhythms and insistent beat.

His performances remain unsurpassed for their urgency of expression and raw physicality, influencing later white rockers like Mick Jagger and Iggy Pop.

Born James Joe Brown Junior in 1933 in a one-room shack in the backwoods of South Carolina, by the age of seven he was boarding at a brothel in Augusta, Georgia.

Delighted and outraged audiences

He helped to pay the rent by shining shoes and tap-dancing in the streets.

Nine years later he was harshly punished for trying to steal a car. Sent to prison for between eight and 16 years, he eventually served only three years and a day.

On his release, he joined a gospel group. While pursuing a promising but ultimately abortive career as a semi-professional boxer, he rose to become the leader of the James Brown Revue.

Audiences were delighted and outraged by the group's tight R&B sound, fronted by the charismatic Brown, whose stage antics caused him to shed up to seven pounds a night.

In 1956, Brown wrote the song Please, Please, Please. It sold one million copies and propelled the singer to stardom.

Other hits followed as Brown worked up to 350 nights a year, earning himself another reputation, as the hardest-working man in show-business.

Mold-breaking show

Though the financial returns were scant - Brown and his band members earned a derisory $150 each for Please Please Please - he refused to compromise on the quality of his performances.

His reason was simple: "When you're on stage, the people who paid money to get in are the boss, even if it cost them only a quarter. You're working for them."

He treated his band like an army, imposing fines for lateness, scruffy costumes and poor playing. By the early 1960s his growing reputation saw him play to packed crowds at the Mecca of black music, Harlem's Apollo Theater.

In 1961, realizing that the essence of his music could only be captured live, Brown personally financed the recording of an album at the theater.

The result, the mold-breaking James Brown Show Live at the Apollo, was a sensation. Establishing his reputation throughout the United States, it remains one of the most critically-acclaimed live albums ever recorded.

His status was enhanced by a succession of worldwide hits like Papa's Got a Brand New Bag, I Got You (I Feel Good) and Get Up (I Feel Like Being a Sex Machine).

Presidential thanks

Artistically, James Brown was breaking new ground with a whole new musical form, funk.

Songs like Cold Sweat, where the brass section and guitars drove the rhythm, exemplified the stylistic change which Brown wrought.

Success brought great wealth. James Brown owned radio stations, fast food restaurants and a private jet.

He embraced "black capitalism" even before the phrase was coined, urging his fellow country people to live the American Dream.

He gave back, too, sponsoring food stamps for the poor and giving money and land to those in need, especially in Africa.

Some radicals, though, criticized him for his patriotism and he received death threats after playing to US troops in Vietnam.

Such was James Brown's influence that when Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, the order went out to broadcast Brown's show in Boston live across the United States.

Punctuated by his pleas for calm, the show helped to stem the tide of anger and Brown earned the personal thanks of President Lyndon Johnson.

Living in America

The 1970s were bad times for James Brown. His son Teddy died in a car accident, he himself was beset by tax problems and disco music threatened to eclipse his career.

Sheer hard work on the club circuit brought him back from the brink. A cameo role as a singing preacher in the cult 1980 film The Blues Brothers brought his music to another generation.

His song Living in America, a paean to the American Dream, was chosen as the theme music to Rocky IV and James Brown was among the first group of inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

But James Brown's capacity for self-destruction was a constant danger. In 1988 an incident with a shotgun led to a high-speed police chase and he spent two-and-a-half years in jail.

His release coincided with a huge upswell in rap and hip-hop music, both of which borrowed freely from Brown's work. His role as a pivotal musical innovator was recognized as never before.

Even with his faults, James Brown was an important role model to a whole generation of African Americans.

Triumphing over poverty and racism, his outlook is best summed up by the title of one of his greatest hits - Say it Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud.
Story from BBC NEWS:

Published: 2006/12/25 08:19:55 GMT


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