James Brown was born on May 3, 1933 in Barnwell, South Carolina in the United States to Susie Behlings and Joseph James Gardner (Brown and Eliot 1). His parents had meant to name him after his father but the hospital officials made a mistake on his birth certificate and made James his first name instead of Joseph (Brown and Tucker 3).
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Growing up, however, James Brown was naturally called Junior-going with original intention of being named after his father. Brown’s family was plagued with extreme poverty and when he was only two, his mother found the living conditions unbearable and abandoned her family to move in with another man. Brown continued living with his father and from time to time one of his girlfriends would move in with them for a number of days and then leave.
In 1939, his father relocated to Georgia and left him under the care of one of his aunts who ran a brothel (Brown n.p. ). Even though Brown technically lived with his relatives, he spent a lot of time alone, in the streets and devising ways of survival. He continued with his schooling but he did not get to the eighth grade.
In these early days Brown became street-smart and made some money doing menial jobs like cleaning stores and washing vehicles. Aside from this, Brown gradually nurtured his singing and performing talents by singing in talent shows as well as taking part in buck dances to entertain troops as they crossed a canal bridge near his aunt’s house (Rhodes 170).
Brown also learnt to play the harmonica he had received as a present from his father as well as the piano from some of the men who frequented the brothel (Rhodes 17). This was probably the time when Brown developed most of his musical talents and he should have realized this at the time had he been given the opportunity.
By the age of sixteen, Brown was committed to perfecting his many skills and spent most of his time in the stalls within Augusta. He also could not resist the temptation for petty crimes associated with life in the streets and in 1949 he was arrested an charged with taking part in armed robbery. Since he was not legally an adult, he was sent to a juvenile detention facility in Toccoa. While in prison Brown made an acquaintance with Bobby Byrd .
Byrd was well impressed with Brown’s singing to the extent that he helped him secure an early break (Brown n.p.). Brown was released with instructions to get a job and not to ever show face in Augusta, failure to which he would be re-arrested. He momentarily became a boxer and even played some baseball before he was forced to bow out by a leg injury. His early retirement from active sports proved to be fate’s way of getting him to get back into music.
In 1953, Brown was married to Velma Warren and in 1955, James Brown and Sarah Byrd (Bobby Byrd’s sister) sang together in a group named the ‘Gospel Stralighters. This was a move that encouraged the 22 year old Brown to join Bobby’s vocal group called ‘The Avons’ which was later changed to ‘The flames’ and shifted from gospel to secular R & B. The group toured various places and eventually managed to secure a deal with the Ohio based Federal Records. Federal Records was affiliated to King Records.
The group became an immediate success with their first single Please, please, please released in 1956 entering the top ten hits at number six. The track sold over one million copies. Unfortunately, nine follow up tracks failed to live up to the success of the debut single and the group was facing imminent dismissal by King Records.
Brown’s early singles drifted towards the gospel side and he mainly drew his influence from the likes of Little Richard (White 231). Brown was even quoted acclaiming Little Richard as his main idol and even credited him for the uniqueness of rock and wall (White 231). Richard got saved in 1957 and abandoned pop music for preaching. This happened to be a positive turnaround to Brown’s career as he was called to fill in for Richard in the tour dates he had set to perform.
In 1958 Brown and his band were propelled to the top of the charts by the hit single Try Me and it remained to be the best of Brown’s best tracks for a period of two decades. In this year, the group was largely billed as James Brown and The famous flames (Much like Bob Marley and The Wailers). The Famous Flames was mainly regarded as vocal group as opposed to a supporting band.
In 1959, the group relocated to King Records which owned the Federal label (Schinder and Schwartz 136). This move brought Brown closer to the senior management of the recording label and as it was bound to happen, disagreements and constant conflicts ensued between him (Brown) and the company president Syd Nathan. In 1960 Brown was forced to record a track under a different label, Dade Records because Nathan had adamantly refused that he (Brown) records it under his label.
Even with Brown’s success in the south, he did not achieve much success nationally. In 1963 he decided to finance the recording of a Live Long Play record. The album was appropriately titled at the Apollo (Brown n.p.). Brown took charge of all the financing of the album and it was released under King Records even with the company president ‘Nathan’ heavily dismissing the venture as not commercially viable. Nathan was proved wrong with the album staying on the charts for 14 months. It peaked at number two.
In 1963, Brown recorded a remix of the ballad Prisoner of Love and also went ahead to found a record company called Try Me records. The label was a huge flop. After the album Live at Apollo, Brown recorded a number of chart topping records but was disappointed with Kings Records’ failure to promote his music beyond the black market. After long talks with Bobby Byrd, the two decided to form a production company called Fair Deal(Brown n.p.). The company was mainly founded to promote his music particularly to white listeners (Brown n.p.).
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In 1966, Papa’s got a brand new bag picked up a grammy for the best R&B single. This was a sign of bigger things to come for Brown. Brown’s 1967 hit Cold Sweat was hailed as the first genuine fuck song and this became the beginning of a new and unique style for his later hits.
By the end of 1967, Brown had bought a radio station WGYW in Tennessee and changed the call letters to WJBE and mainly operated on R&Bs. The radio station was reported to have cost him $75,000. The singles I got feeling done in 1968 and Mother popcorn of 1969 both featured a form of Brown’s vocalization that appeared more spoken than sung. This style was to heavily influence the birth of hip-hop music decades down the line (Rhodes 259 and Danielsen 176).
When Malcolm X was assassinated in the later 1960s, Brown released the single Say it Loud- I’m black and I’m proud (Rhodes 132). This single came after a period of immense pressure from fans for him actively participate in the civil rights movement (Rhodes 132). The track became the anthem for the movement. In this period, Brown’s band comprised musicians who mainly arose from a jazz background.
His band comprised trumpeter Lewis Hamlin, keyboard player Alfred Ellis, guitarists Jimmy Nolen and Alphonso Kellum, bassist Bernard Odum and saxophonist Maceo Parker (Lord 862). Other members of the band included singer Bobby Byrd, drummers John Starks, Clyde Stubblefield and Melvin Parker and trombonist Fred Wesley (Lord 862). Brown found it particularly easy to related with members of his band mainly because he was able to establish a unique blend between Rhythm and Blues and jazz.
As Brown’s influence flourished, he found himself wanting to develop more as an independent artist (Brown and Tucker 92). This drove him to record tracks with other musicians outside his band. For instance the 1969 he recorded an album featuring the Dee Felice Trio (Lazell 63). He also did various singles with The Dapps, a white band in cincinnati. In 1969, Brown divorced with his wife Velma and in 1970, he married Deidre Jenkins.
Brown ushered in the 1970s with a new band as most members from his 1960s band had decided to quit and join other groups. From The Famous Flames, only Bobby Byrd remained with Brown and together they contracted a new band named The J.B’s. Brown and his new band debuted with the 1971 track Get up Sex machine.
In this year, Brown joined Polydor Records and this company took over the distribution and marketing of his music (Danielsen 99). A number of his sidekicks including Bobby Byrd, Vicki Anderson and Fred Wesley made their own records under The People label; a foundation of Brown which was later bought by Polydor.
In 1974, Brown made his maiden tour to Africa and preformed in Zaire (Brown and Tucker 83). This tour came as part of the campaign to popularize the bout between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman (Brown and Tucker 83). The most notable of Brown’s recordings during the 1970s included singles such as The Payback (1973), Stoned to the bone (1974) and Get up offa that thing-1976 (Rhodes 157).
By 1977 Brown’s band was dismantling with key members from his band such as Fred Wesley leaving to join other bands. The entry of the disco style caught Brown back-footed and it overshadowed his funk style when it came to the dance floor. The track It’s too funky in here from the album The original disco Man was the last of his chart topping rhythm and blues hits. His contract with Polydor came to an end in 1981 and this marked a steady decline in his recordings. In 1981, Brown and Deidre Jenkins divorced.
The 1980s however were marked by a sudden turn of events with Brown’s music receiving a more mainstram audience. He even managed to secure roles in feature films such as Rocky IV and Doctor Detroit. In 1984, Brown re-married for a third time, this time to Adrienne Lois Rodriguez. In 1987 he picked up a Grammy for Best male rhythm and blues vocal performance. The Grammy was received for the song Living in America (Danielsen 231).
In 1988 Brown worked on I’m real-an album which was heavily influenced by the hip-hop wave (Gulla 227). The track Static from the album rose to number five of the billboard. Towards the end of the 1980s, Brown released the album Love overdue which featured the track Move on (Brown n.p. ).
This album came after James had done some brief time in prison following a high speed car chase by police in 1988. In 1991 Brown released a four-disk album Star Time which featured some of his chart topping hits in his four decades as a musician. In the same year, he made an appearance in MC Hammer’s video Too legit to quit. In 1993, he (Brown) released the album Universal James (Brown n.p. ) and in 1995, the chart-upsetting album Live at the Apollo was re-released (Brown n.p. ).
This release was followed a year later by the release of another track Hooked on Brown. In 1996, Brown’s wife Adrienne passed on and he later married Tomi Rae Hynie through a common law marriage. In 1998, Brown released the album I’m Back . This album featured the single Funk on ah roll. Brown put out his final album, The next step in the year 2002 which featured the single School is in (Brown n.p. ).
Brown’s made an appearance in the The final push concert in Edinburgh, Scotland in 2005. He then went ahead to successfully complete a world tour the following year. He passed on on December 23, 2006 after congestive heart failure arising from complications of pneumonia (BBC World n.p. ).
His doctor reported that the legendary musician had a severe noisy cough prior to his death. At his bed side were his agent Frank Copsidas and a friend Paul Sargent. The latter reported that Brown uttered the words, “I am going away tonight” before he fell into a deep sleep, never to wake again (BBC World n.p.). He had five sons four daughters from his marriages (BBC World n.p.). He lost his eldest son to a road accident in the 1970s.
By the time of his transition, Brown had been in the music industry for over forty years. During this period he saw and inspired the growth of various musical forms including hip-hop. He was among the very few of artistes from his time to successfully complete a world tour. Even with his controversy-riddled life, Brown was and is still regarded as one of the musicians whose work had the greatest influence on the evolution of music to its current diverse nature.
BBC World. “Soul star James Brown dies at 73.” BBC.co.uk. BBC, n.d. Web.
Brown, James. “Notable Black American Men”. Biography Resource Center database. (1998): n. pag. Web.
Brown, James and Bruce Tucker. James Brown: The Godfather of Soul. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2002. Print.
Brown, James and Marc Eliot. I feel good: a memoir of a life of soul. New York: New American Library, 2005. Print.
Danielsen, Anne. Presence and pleasure: the funk grooves of James Brown and Parliament. Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 2006. Print.
Gulla, Bob. Icons of R&B and Soul: Ray Charles ; Little Richard ; Fats Domino ; Ruth Brown ; LaVern Baker ; Sam Cooke ; Jackie Wilson ; Etta James ; Ike and Tina Turner ; The Isley Brothers ; James Brown. Connecticut: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2008. Print.
Lazell, Barry. Rock movers & shakers. United States: Billboard Publications, Inc., 1989. Print.
Lord, Tom. The jazz discography. Canada: Lord Music Reference, 1992. Print
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White, Charles. The Life and Times of Little Richard: The Authorized Biography. London: Omnibus Press. Print.