The Godfather of Soul
“Disco is James Brown, hip-hop is James Brown, rap is James Brown; you know what I'm saying? You hear all the rappers. 90% of their music is me.” James Brown
James Brown was an American singer, songwriter and entertainer commonly referred to as “The Godfather of Soul.” He also earned the nicknames “The Godfather of Funk,” “The Minister of the New New Super Heavy Funk,” “Soul Brother Number One” and “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business.” Starting his professional career in 1956, Brown first gained fame with the R&B hit single “Please, Please, Please,” which he recorded with the R&B vocal group the Famous Flames. He continued to produce many R&B hits with the group until they disbanded in 1968. Among the singles were “Try Me,” “Think,” “I Don't Mind,” “Shout and Shimmy,” “Bewildered,” “Oh Baby, Don't You Weep” and “I'll Go Crazy.” He also recorded the No. 1 R&B hit singles “I Got You (I Feel Good)” (1965), “Cold Sweat” (1967), “I Got the Feelin'” (1968), “Say It Loud - I'm Black and I'm Proud” (1968), “Give It Up or Turnit a Loose” (1968) and “Mother Popcorn” (1968) with the James Brown Orchestra. The song “I Got You (I Feel Good)” rose to No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100. Brown's later hit singles included “Super Bad,” “Soul Power,” “Hot Pants” and “Make It Funky” (all 1971), “Talking Loud and Saying Nothing” and “Get On The Good Foot” (both 1972), “The Payback,” “My Thang,” “Papa Don't Take No Mess” and “Funky President (People It's Bad)” (all 1974), “Get Up Offa That Thing” (1976), “I'm Real” and “Static” (both 1988). A four time Grammy winner, Brown, who had over 100 hits on the Billboard Top 100 Rhythm and Blues chart during his career, won his first Grammy Award in 1966 for “Papa's Got a Brand New Bag,” which he recorded with The James Brown Band. He received his second trophy in 1987 for “Living in America.” Four years later, he nabbed a Grammy Award for the 1991 compilation album “Star Times.” In 1992, he was given a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Prior to his death in 2006, Brown released the studio album “The Next Step” (2002). Brown also acted in a variety of films and TV shows.
Brown was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 1983 and the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame three years later. He was handed a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation Pioneer Awards in 1993. On January 10, 1997, he was inducted into the Hollywood Walk of Fame for Recording. Brown next became an inductee of the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2000 and the U.K. Hall Of Fame on November 15, 2006. He earned Kennedy Center honors in 2003, along with Carol Burnett, Loretta Lynn, Mike Nichols and Itzhak Perlman. In 2008, Brown was named the “10th Greatest Singer of the Rock Era” by Rolling Stone magazine. He was once ranked No. 7 on the Entertainment Weekly list of “Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Artist of All Time.”
Despite his success in the music industry, Brown was involved in a series of crimes during his lifetime. He was arrested many times for drug abuse and charged four times by his wife, Adrienne Rodriguez, with felony assault. He also served 26 months of a 6 year prison sentence after leading police on a high speed chase in Georgia in 1988. In January 2004, he was arrested for allegedly pushing his fourth wife, Tommy Rae Brown, at their South Carolina home. He later filed for annulment of their marriage. Brown had been married four times and had six kids in marriage.
Childhood and Family:
Born James Joseph Brown Jr. on May 3, 1933, in Barnwell, South Carolina, to James Joseph Brown, Sr. and Susie Brown (died February 26, 2004 of heart failure), James Brown had a tough upbringing. When he was two years old, his mother abandoned the family for another man, leaving young Brown under the care of his father where he lived with his father's girlfriends until age 6 when they moved to Augusta, Georgia. Brown was later sent to live with his aunt who operated a house of prostitution. He dropped out of school in the seventh grade.
Growing up in extreme poverty, Brown, who was called Junior as a young child and Little Junior when he lived with his relatives, took on various jobs during his childhood to earn money, such as selling and trading old stamps, shining shoes, washing dishes and cars and sweeping out stores. He also sang in talent contests. During this time, the musically gifted youth learned to play the harmonica, guitar, piano and drums. It was Louis Jordan, a popular jazz and R&B musician that gave Brown the inspiration to become an entertainer.
While living with relatives, Brown became involved with crime and was sent to a juvenile detention center for armed robbery when he was around 16 years old. It was there that he met and developed a friendship with future collaborator Bobby Byrd. Pitying Brown's family difficulties, Byrd's family brought the youngster to their home and after cleaning up his life, Brown began his career as a boxer and baseball pitcher in semi professional baseball. However, a leg injury occurred and he turned to music.
Brown had been married four times. He was married to Velma Warren from 1953 to 1969 and they had three kids. He then married Deidre Jenkins on October 22, 1970, but they divorced on January 10, 1981. The couple shared two children. He was married to Adrienne Rodriguez from 1984 until her death on January 6, 1996. With his fourth wife, Tommy Rae Brown, whom he married on January 15, 2002, Brown had one child. Reports have said that Brown also had three more children outside of marriage.
Brown had diabetes. He was once diagnosed with prostate cancer, but was successfully treated with surgery. In 2003, he was diagnosed with heart disease. Brown found out he had pneumonia while visiting his dentist in December 2006. Two days later, he died of heart failure from complications of pneumonia.
Living in America
Following a sport career that was sidelined by an injury, James Brown, who founded a gospel group while in prison at 16 years of age, decided to focus his energy on music. In 1955, he played for a group called The Gospel Starlighters before eventually joining the Avons. Formerly a gospel group, the group's name was changed to The Famous Flames after they switched their focus to R&B. Brown went on to tour with the group and they singed a record contract with the Cincinnati based Federal Records, a subsidiary of Syd Nathan's King Records.
Brown made his first professional recording when he and The Famous Flames released “Please, Please, Please” in March 1956. Written by Brown and Johnny Terry, the song made the top 10 on the U.S. R&B Singles (#5). It eventually sold over one million copies and became Brown's first hit. The group launched several follow up singles, but none achieved the same success as their debut. It was not until they released “Try Me” (1958) that The Flames returned to the chart. Written by Brown, the song rose to the top spot on the R&B chart in February 1959 and became the group's first No. 1 hit song. It also charted at No. 48 on the Billboard Hot 100. Meanwhile, in 1957, Brown appeared on stage to complete Little Richard's remaining tour dates upon Richard's departure from pop music to become a preacher. He also recruited several former members of Richard's backup band to join his group.
Brown's debut album with the Flames, “Please Please Please,” was released under King Records in 1959. Although Brown and his backup vocal group had moved to King Records in 1959, they went on to release a series of R&B hits for Federal Records during 1959 and 1960, including “I Want You So Bad,” “I'll Go Crazy,” “Think,” “You've Got the Power" and “This Old Heart.” In 1960, they also produced a pop single for King titled “The Bells,” which peaked at No. 68 on the Billboard Hot 100.
In the early 1960s, Brown scored many R&B hits for King Records, including the single “Bewildered” (1961) from the album “Think” (1960). It was followed by “I Don't Mind,” “Baby You're Right,” “I Love You Yes I Do,” “Lost Someone,” a cover of the song “Night Train,” “Shout and Shimmy” and “Three Hearts in a Tangle” (all 1962). In May 1963, Brown and his group launched “Live at the Apollo,” a live album recorded at the Apollo Theater in October 1962. Produced by Brown, the album was an immediate hit and peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard 200. It created pop history for becoming the first LP to sell over a million copies. Also that year, Brown recorded a rendition of “Prisoner of Love,” which peaked at No. 6 on the R&B chart and established Try Me Records under the King label. It was the singer's initial attempt at running a record label.
1964 saw Brown form the production company Fair Deal, a partnership with Bobby Byrd that promoted Brown's record releases to white listeners. They signed with Smash Records, a subsidiary of Mercury Records, for distribution. “Out of Sight” (1964), Brown's first single on the Smash label, rose to No. 24 on the Billboard Hot 100. He also recorded “The Things That I Used to Do” (1964) and “Try Me” (instrumental, 1965) and covered the Louis Jordan song “Caldonia” (1964) for the label.
Back to King, Brown released the singles “Papa's Got a Brand New Bag” and “I Got You (I Feel Good)” 1965). Written by Brown, the first song skyrocketed to No. 1 on the R&B chart and stayed in the position for eight weeks. It also went to No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 and charted at No. 25 in the U.K. The second release, also written and produced by Brown, gave Brown's another No. 1 hit on the R&B chart and peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100. “Papa's Got a Brand New Bag” received a 1966 Grammy for Best Rhythm & Blues Recording. Around that same time, Brown enjoyed further popularity with his appearances in the films “The T.A.M.I. Show” (1964) and “Ski Party” (1965).
In 1966, Brown had his next No.1 R&B hit with the single “It's a Man's Man's Man's World,” which he co-wrote with Betty Jean Newsome. The song also rose to No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 13 on the U.K. Singles chart. It was followed by the No. 4 R&B Singles hit “Don't Be a Drop-Out” and the No. 7 single “Bring It Up (Hipster's Avenue)” later that same year.
The rest of the decade saw the releases of the popular singles “Cold Sweat - Pt. 1” (1967), a No. 1 R&B hit and a pop Top 10 hit (#7), “I Can't Stand Myself (When You Touch Me),” “There Was a Time” (1967), “I Got the Feelin'” (1968), which rose to No. 1 on the R&B Singles chart and No. 6 on the pop chart, “Goodbye My Love” (1968), “Say It Loud - I'm Black and I'm Proud, Pt. 1” (1968, #1 R&B), “Give It Up Or Turnit A Loose” (1968, #1 R&B), “Mother Popcorn” (1969, #1 R&B), “I Don't Want Nobody To Give Me Nothing (Open Up The Door, I'll Get It Myself)” (1969), “Let A Man Come In and Do the Popcorn, Pt. 1” (1969) and “Ain't It Funky Now” (1969), among others. Brown also expanded his business by buying radio station WGYW in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1967. It was later renamed WJBE. The station, which based its format on Rhythm & Blues, began airing in January 1968. He later purchased the radio station WRDW in Augusta, Georgia.
Brown stopped performing with the singing group The Flames in 1968, but his partnership with the band's founder Bobby Bryd would continue into the 1970s and beyond. In March 1970, he formed a new band called the J.B.'s after most of his classic 1960’s band left his act to try other opportunities. The new band included bassist William “Bootsy” Collins and his guitarist brother Phelps “Catfish” Collins, trombonist and musical director Fred Wesley, Bobby Byrd (on organ) and John “Jabo” Starks (on drums). Funk and soul jazz saxophonist Maceo Parker later joined Brown in the J.B.'s. The band's members continued to shift frequently until the group disbanded in 1976 after Wesley and Parker left the group to join Parliament-Funkadelic.
“Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine,” Brown's first single with The J.B.'s, was released in July 1970 and peaked at No. 2 on the R&B Singles chart and No. 15 on the Billboard Hot 100. It was followed by “Super Bad” (1970), which peaked at No. 13 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 1 on the R&B Singles chart, “Soul Power” (1971), a No.3 R&B hit and the last single Brown recorded with King, and “Talkin' Loud and Sayin' Nothing” (1972), which was released under Polydor, among other songs. The latter song went to the No.1 spot on the Billboard Best Selling Soul Singles and peaked at No. 27 on the Billboard Hot 100. The song was included in Brown's album “There It Is” (1972), his second release with Polydor after 1971's “Hot Pants.”
In November 1972, Brown released the double album “Get on the Good Foot,” which spawned the No. 1 R&B Hit “Get on the Good Foot.” Co-written by Brown, Fred Wesley and Joseph Mims, the song peaked at No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100. The next year, he recorded the soundtrack album to the motion picture “Black Caesar,” which was written and directed by Larry Cohen. He also performed three songs on the film, including “Mama's Dead” and “The Boss,” which he composed. In December 1973, he released the double album “The Payback,” which was initially scheduled to be the soundtrack for Cohen's “Hell Up in Harlem,” a sequel to “Black Caesar,” but later was declined by the director for “not being James Brown enough.” The album went to No. 34 on the Billboard 200.
The follow up studio album, “Hell,” was released as a double LP in July 1974. It produced the R&B No. 1 hit singles “My Thang” (also a No. 29 hit on the Billboard Hot 100) and “Papa Don't Take No Mess” (a No. 31 pop hit). Later that same year, he recorded the song “Funky President (People It's Bad).” The song peaked at No. 4 on the U.S. R&B Singles and No. 44 on the Billboard Hot 100. It also appeared on his subsequent album “Reality” (1975).
In May 1976, Brown released the song “Get Up Offa That Thing” (1976), which appeared on an album of the same name. Another big hit for him, it peaked at No. 4 on the R&B chart and No. 45 on the Pop chart and made the top 40 in the U.K. (#22). However, after the release, Brown's career gradually declined and most of his songs during the late 1970s to early 1980s failed to reach the Top 20 on the R&B chart. He left Polydor in 1981.
Brown received a revival during the 1980s when he costarred as Reverend Cleophus James in the John Landis comedy “The Blues Brothers” (1980), opposite John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. After a reunion with Aykroyd in Michael Pressman's comedy “Doctor Detroit” (1983), he played The Godfather of Soul in the Sylvester Stallone vehicle “Rocky IV” (1985) and made a guest appearance in the “Miami Vice” episode “Missing Hours” in 1987. He later voiced Hostage Negotiator in an episode of the animated TV series “Duckman: Private Dick/Family Man” called “Kidney, Popsicle, and Nuts” (1997) and played Cleophus James in Landis' “Blues Brothers 2000” (1998). He also made cameo appearances in Eddy Murphy's “Holy Man” (1998), Malcolm D. Lee’s “Undercover Brother” (2002) and Jackie Chan's “The Tuxedo” (2002), among other films.
During the 1980s, Brown released the albums “Soul Syndrome” (1980) with T.K. Records, “Bring It On” (1983) with Augusta Sound, and “Gravity” (1985) and “I'm Real” (1988) with the Scotti Bros. From the album “Gravity,” Brown scored the notable single “Living in America,” which was featured in the film “Rocky IV” prior to its release. It rose to No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100, No. 10 on the R&B chart and No. 5 on the U.K. Singles Chart and won a 1987 Grammy for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance. His subsequent single, “How Do You Stop” (1987), made the Top 10 on the R&B chart and charted in the U.K. at No. 90. Brown produced two top 10 R&B hit singles in 1988 with “I'm Real” (#2) and “Static” (#5). He then collaborated with Aretha Franklin on the song “Gimme Your Love” (1989), a No. 48 hit on the R&B chart. It was featured on the 1988 live album “James Brown and Friends: Soul Session Live.”
Following a stint in jail during the late 1980s, Brown released the album “Love Overdue” (1991) under Scotti Bros. The same year, he also released three compilation albums, including “Star Time,” which won a Grammy for Best Album Notes, and “20 All-Time Greatest Hits” (both released on Polydor) and appeared in the music video “Too Legit to Quit” by MC Hammer. “Universal James,” his fourth and last album with Scotti Bros., was released in 1993 and yielded the singles “Can't Get Any Harder” (1993), which peaked at No. 76 on the R&B chart and No. 59 in the U.K., “How Long” and “Georgia-Lina.”
1995 saw Brown launch the live album “Live at the Apollo 1995,” with one new studio track titled “Respect Me,” which was released as a single that same year. The single “Hooked on Brown” followed the next year. In 1998, he released the studio album “I'm Back” (1998) under Inferno Records. It spawned the single “Funk on ah Roll,” which made the Top 40 on the U.K. Singles chart. He released “The Merry Christmas Album” in 1999 under Waxworks.
Brown released the studio album “The Next Step” in 2002 under Fome Records. It spawned the single “Killing is Out, School is In” and became his last album recorded with new material before he died in 2006. “Classic James Brown - The Universal Masters Collection” (2001), “The Godfather - The Very Best of James Brown” (2002), “50th Anniversary Collection” (2003), “The Singles, Volume One: The Federal Years: 1956-1960” (2006), “ A Family Affair (with daughters Yamma and Venisha)” (2007), “Dynamite X (Remixes)” (2007), “The Singles, Volume Six: 1969-1970,” “The Singles, Volume Seven: 1970-1972” and “The Singles, Volume Eight: 1972-1973” (all 2009) soon followed.
Grammy: Lifetime Achievement Award, 1992
Grammy: “Star Times,” Best Album Notes, 1991
Grammy: Best Male R&B Vocal Performance, “Living in America,” 1987
Grammy: Best Rhythm & Blues Recording, “Papa's Got a Brand New Bag,” 1966