James Brown Biography

James Joseph Brown Jnr., 3 May 1928, Barnwell, South Carolina, USA, d. 25 December 2006, Atlanta, Georgia, USA. (NB: Brown always claimed he was born in 1933 in Macon, Georgia.) ‘The Hardest Working Man In Showbusiness’, ‘The Godfather Of Soul’, ‘The Minister Of The New New Super Heavy Funk’ - such sobriquets only hint at the protracted James Brown legend. Convicted of theft at the age of 16, he was imprisoned at the Alto Reform School, but secured an early release on the approbation of local singer Bobby Byrd. Brown later joined his group, the Gospel Starlighters, who evolved into the Flames after embracing R&B. In 1955 they recorded a demo of ‘Please Please Please’ at WIBB, a Macon, Georgia radio station. Local airplay was such that talent scout Ralph Bass signed the group to the King/Federal company. A re-recorded version of the song was issued in March 1956. Credited to ‘James Brown And The Famous Flames’, it eventually climbed to number 5 in the US R&B list.

Further releases fared poorly until 1958, when ‘Try Me’ rose to number 1 in the same chart. Once again Brown found it difficult to maintain this level of success, but ‘I’ll Go Crazy’ and ‘Think’ (both 1960) put his progress on a surer footing. From thereon, until 1977, almost every ‘official’ single charted. However, it was an album, Live At The Apollo (1963), that assuredly established the singer. Raw, alive and uninhibited, this shattering collection confirmed Brown as the voice of black America - every track on the album is a breathtaking event. More than 40 years on, with all the advances in recording technology, this album stands as one of the greatest live productions of all time.

Brown’s singles continued to enthral: energetic songs such as ‘Night Train’ and ‘Shout And Shimmy’ contrasted with such slower sermons as ‘I Don’t Mind’ and ‘Bewildered’, but it was the orchestrated weepie, ‘Prisoner Of Love’ (1963), that gave Brown his first US Top 20 pop single. Such eminence allowed Brown a new manoeuvrability. Dissatisfied with King Records, he ignored contractual niceties and signed with Smash Records. By the time his former outlet had secured an injunction, ‘Out Of Sight’ had become another national hit. More importantly, however, the single marked the beginning of a leaner, tighter sound that would ultimately discard accepted western notions of harmony and structure. This innovative mid-60s period is captured on film in his electrifying performance on The TAMI Show.

Throughout the 60s, Brown proclaimed an artistic freedom with increasingly unconventional songs, including ‘Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag’, ‘I Got You (I Feel Good)’, ‘It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World’ (with a beautifully orchestrated string section) and ‘Money Won’t Change You’. In 1967 Alfred Ellis replaced Nat Jones as Brown’s musical director and ‘Cold Sweat’ introduced further radical refinements to the group’s presentation. With Clyde Stubblefield on drums, ‘Say It Loud - I’m Black And I’m Proud’ (1968), ‘Mother Popcorn’ (1969), and ‘Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine’ (1970) were each stripped down to a nagging, rhythmic riff, over which the singer soared, sometimes screaming, sometimes pleading, but always with an assertive urgency.

In 1971 Brown moved to Polydor Records and unveiled a new backing band, the JB’s. Led by Fred Wesley, it featured such seasoned players as Maceo Parker and St. Clair Pinckney, as well as a new generation of musicians. Elsewhere, former bass player Bootsy Collins defected with other ex-members to George Clinton’s Funkadelic. Such changes, coupled with Sly Stone’s challenge, simply reinforced Brown’s determination. He continued to enjoy substantial hits; in 1974 he had three successive number 1 R&B singles in ‘The Payback’, ‘My Thang’ and ‘Papa Don’t Take No Mess (Part 1)’, and Brown also scored two movie soundtracks, Black Caesar and Slaughter’s Big Rip Off. However, as the decade progressed, his work became less compulsive, suffering a drop in popularity with the advent of disco.

A cameo role in the movie The Blues Brothers marked time, and in 1980 Brown left the Polydor Records label. Subsequent releases on such smaller labels as TK, Augusta Sound and Backstreet were only marginally successful. However, Brown returned with a vengeance in 1986 (the year he was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame) with ‘Living In America’, the theme song from the Rocky IV soundtrack. An international hit single, it was followed by two R&B Top 10 entries, ‘How Do You Stop’ (1987) and ‘I’m Real’ (1988), the latter of which inspired a compulsive album of the same name. The Brown resurrection was abruptly curtailed that same year when the singer was arrested after a high-speed car chase. Charged with numerous offences, including illegal possession of drugs and firearms, aggravated assault and failure to stop for the police, he was sentenced to six and a half years’ imprisonment at the State Park Correctional Centre. He was released in February 1991, having reportedly written new material while incarcerated.

During the 90s Brown continued to have further problems with the law and a continuing battle to quit drugs; in 1995 he was forced to cope with a tragic medical accident when his ex-wife Adrienne died during surgery for ‘liposuction’. In January 1998 there were new fears for his own health, and he was treated in hospital for addiction to painkillers. Shortly afterwards he was arrested and charged for possession of marijuana and unlawful use of a firearm. Brown, resilient as ever, continued touring and recording into the new millennium, although by now his act was largely a pale pastiche of his glory years. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer in December 2004, but recovered successfully to appear at the Edinburgh Live 8 concert in July 2005. He continued performing all over the world throughout 2006 as part of his Seven Decades Of Funk World Tour. On 24 December, Brown was admitted to hospital suffering from severe pneumonia that was diagnosed following a routine visit to the dentist. He died on Christmas Day of heart failure.

Brown will be remembered as one of the most influential artists of the twentieth-century, a status that only increased with time and the advent of new musical genres such as hip-hop and dance. New urban-based styles are indebted to the raw funk espoused by ‘The Godfather of Soul’, while Stubblefield’s rhythmic patterns, particularly those on 1970’s ‘Funky Drummer’, have been heavily sampled, as have Brown’s notorious whoops, screams, interjections and vocal improvisations. Artists as disparate as Public Enemy, George Michael, Sinéad O’Connor and Candy Flip have featured beats taken from Brown’s impressive catalogue. Despite notorious personal problems throughout his life, Brown is remembered as one of the most dynamic performers in American music and a massive influence on most forms of black music - soul, hip-hop, funk, R&B and disco.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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