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James Brown has had more honorifics attached to his name than any other performer in music history. He has variously been tagged “Soul Brother Number One,” “the Godfather of Soul,” “the Hardest Working Man in Show Business,” “Mr. Dynamite” and even “the Original Disco Man.” This much is certain: what became known as soul music in the Sixties, funk music in the Seventies and rap music in the Eighties is directly attributable to James Brown. His transformation of gospel fervor into the taut, explosive intensity of rhythm & blues, combined with precision choreography and dynamic showmanship, served to define the directions black music would take from the release of his first R&B hit ("Please Please Please") in 1956 to the present day.
Brown’s life history documents one triumph over adversity after another. He was born into poverty in Barnwell, South Carolina, during the Great Depression. As a child, he picked cotton, danced for spare change and shined shoes. At 16, he was caught and convicted of stealing, and he landed in reform school for three years. While incarcerated, he met Bobby Byrd, leader of a gospel group that performed at the prison. After his release, Brown tried his hand at semipro boxing and baseball. A career-ending leg injury inspired him to pursue music fulltime. He joined Byrd in a group that sang gospel in and around Toccoa, Georgia. But then Byrd and Brown attended a rhythm & blues revue that included Hank Ballard and Fats Domino, whose performances lured them into the realm of secular music. Renaming themselves the Flames (later, the Famous Flames), they became a tightly knit ensemble that showcased their abundant talents as singers, dancers and multi-instrumentalists.
Brown rose to the fore as leader of the James Brown Revue - an entourage complete with emcee, dancers and an untouchable stage band (the J.B.’s). Reportedly sweating off up to seven pounds a night, Brown was a captivating performer who’d incorporate a furious regimen of spins, drops and shtick (such as feigning a heart attack, complete with the ritual donning and doffing of capes and a fevered return to the stage) into his skintight rhythm & blues. What Elvis Presley was to rock and roll, James Brown became to R&B: a prolific and dominant phenom. Like Presley, he is a three-figure hitmaker, with 114 total entries on Billboard’s R&B singles charts and 94 that made the Hot 100 singles chart. Over the years, he amassed 800 songs in his repertoire while maintaining a grueling touring schedule. Recording for the King and Federal labels throughout the Fifties and Sixties, Brown distilled R&B to its essence on such classic albums as Live at the Apollo (patterned after Ray Charles’ In Person) and singles like “Cold Sweat,” “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” and “I Got You (I Feel Good).” His group, the J.B.’s, was anchored by horn players and musical mainstays Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker. Brown also recorded a series of instrumental albums, taking a break from soul shouting to pursue his prowess as an organist.
By the late Sixties, Brown had attained the status of a musical and cultural revolutionary, owing to his message of black pride and self-sufficiency. In the late Sixties and early Seventies, such message songs as “Say It Loud - I’m Black and I’m Proud” reverberated throughout the black community, within which he was regarded as a leader and role model. During this time, he began developing a hot funk sound with young musicians, such as bassist William “Bootsy” Collins, who passed through his ever-evolving band. Though his influence waned in the latter half of the Seventies, a cameo role in The Blues Brothers film in 1980 and his recognition as a forefather of rap helped trigger a resurgence. His records were more heavily sampled by rap and hip-hop acts than those of any other artist, and he achieved renewed street credibility by recording a single ("Unity") with rapper Afrika Bambaataa in 1984. Brown was among the first group of performers inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. Unfortunately, his personal life took a nose-dive in 1988, as he was investigated on a series of charges that ranged from spousal abuse and drug possession to problems with the IRS. Paroled after serving two years in prison, a chastened but resolute Brown picked up the pieces in the Nineties and carried on. If nothing else, his status as the Godfather of Soul has remained unassailable. In December 2003, only months after his 70th birthday, James Brown was the recipient of the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors.