"Godfather of Soul" James Brown (born 1933) is also known as "the hardest-working man in show business."
In the book about his life, Living in America, James Brown told the author, "I never try to express what I actually did," regarding his influence on the American soul scene. "I wouldn't try to do that, 'cause definition's such a funny thing. What's put together to make my music—it's something which has real power. It can stir people up and involve 'em. But it's just something I came to hear."
The music that James Brown heard in his head—and conveyed to his extraordinary musicians with an odd combination of near-telepathic signals and vicious browbeating—changed the face of soul. By stripping away much of the pop focus that had clouded pure rhythm and blues, Brown found a rhythmic core that was at once primally sexual and powerfully spiritual. Shouting like a preacher over bad-to-the-bone grooves and wicked horn lines, he unleashed a string of hits through the 1960s and early 1970s; he was also a formative influence on such rock and soul superstars as Parliament-Funkadelic leader George Clinton, Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger, Prince, and Michael Jackson, among countless others.
By the late 1970s, however, Brown's career was waning, and he was plagued by demands for back taxes, a nagging drug problem, and a combative relationship with his third wife. In 1988 he went to prison after leading police on a high-speed chase. And even as the advent of hip-hop has made him perhaps the most sampled artist in the genre, he has had frequent scrapes with the law since his release in 1991. Even so, his legacy—as bandleader, singer, dancer, and pop music visionary—is assured.
Brown was born in the South—sources vary, but generally have him hailing from Georgia or South Carolina—and grew up in Augusta, Georgia, struggling to survive. At the age of four, he was sent to live with his aunt, who oversaw a brothel. Under such circumstances, he grew up fast; by his teens he drifted into crime. In the words of Timothy White, who profiled the singer in his book Rock Stars, "Brown became a shoeshine boy. Then a pool-hall attendant. Then a thief." At 16 he went to jail for multiple car thefts. Though initially sentenced to 8-16 years of hard labor, he got out in under four for good behavior. After unsuccessful forays into boxing and baseball, he formed a gospel group called the Swanees with his prison pal Johnny Terry.
The Swanees shifted toward the popular mid-1950s doo-wop style and away from gospel, changing their name to the Famous Flames. Brown sang lead and played drums; their song "Please, Please, Please"—a wrenchingly passionate number in which Brown wailed the titular word over and over—was released as a single in 1956 and became a million-seller. By 1960 the group had become the James Brown Revue and was generating proto-funk dance hits like "(Do the) Mashed Potato." Deemed the "King of Soul" at the Apollo Theater, New York's black music mecca, Brown proceeded over the ensuing years to burn up the charts with singles like "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," "I Got You (I Feel Good)," "It's a Man's Man's Man's World," "Cold Sweat," "Funky Drummer," and many others. In the meantime, he signed with the Mercury subsidiary Smash Records and released a string of mostly instrumental albums, on which he often played organ.
Brown's declamatory style mixed a handful of seminal influences, but his intensity and repertoire of punctuating vocal sounds—groans, grunts, wails, and screams—came right out of the southern church. His exhortations to sax player Maceo Parker to "blow your horn," and trademark cries of "Good God!" and "Take it to the bridge!" became among the most recognizable catchphrases in popular music. The fire of his delivery was fanned by his amazingly agile dancing, without which Michael Jackson's fancy foot-work is unimaginable. And his band—though its personnel shifted constantly—maintained a reputation as one of the tightest in the business. Starting and stopping on a dime, laying down merciless grooves, it followed Brown's lead as he worked crowds the world over into a fine froth. "It was like being in the army," William "Bootsy" Collins—who served as Brown's bassist during the late 1960s—told Musician, adding that the soul legend "was just a perfectionist at what he was doing." Brown adopted a series of extravagant titles over the years, but during this period he was known primarily as "The Hardest-Working Man in Show Business."
At the same time, Brown's harshness as a leader meant that bandmembers were constantly facing fines for lateness, flubbed notes, missed cues, violating his strict dress code, or even for talking back to him. His musicians also complained of overwork and insufficient pay, and some alleged that Brown took credit for ideas they had developed. The singer-bandleader's temper is legendary; as trombonist Fred Wesley told Living in America author Cynthia Rose, "James was bossy and paranoid. I didn't see why someone of his stature would be so defensive. I couldn't understand the way he treated his band, why he was so evil."
Charles Shaar Murray ventured in his book Crosstown Traffic that "playing with James Brown was a great way to learn the business and to participate in the greatest rhythm machine of the sixties. It was a very poor way to get rich, to get famous, or to try out one's own ideas." Even so, the group—which included, at various times, funk wizards like Maceo Parker, guitarist Jimmy Nolen, and drummer Clyde Stubblefield—reached unprecedented heights of inspiration under Brown. "He has no real musical skills," Wesley remarked to Rose, "yet he could hold his own onstage with any jazz virtuoso—because of his guts."
The increasingly militant stance of many black activists in the late 1960s led Brown—by now among an elite group of influential African Americans—to flirt with the "Black Power" movement. Even so, the singer generally counseled nonviolence and won a commendation from President Lyndon B. Johnson when a broadcast of his words helped head off a race riot. He was also saluted by Vice-President Hubert Humphrey for his pro-education song "Don't Be a Dropout." Brown's music did begin to incorporate more overtly political messages, many of which reiterated his belief that black people needed to take control of their economic destinies. He was a walking example of this principle, having gained control of his master tapes by the mid-1960s.
The year 1970 saw the release of Brown's powerful single "(Get Up, I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine," a relentless funk groove featuring several hot young players, notably Bootsy Collins and his brother Phelps, aka "Catfish." Brown soon signed with Polydor Records and took on the moniker the "Godfather of Soul," after the highly successful mafia movie The Godfather. Further refining his hard funk sound, he released hits like "Get on the Good Foot," "Talking Loud and Saying Nothing," and "Soul Power." With the 1970s box-office success of black action films—known within the industry as "blaxploitation" pictures—Brown began writing movie soundtracks, scoring such features as Slaughter's Big Rip-Off and Black Caesar.
James Brown may have been one of the biggest pop stars in the world—the marquees labeled him "Minister of New New Super Heavy Funk"—but he was not immune to trouble. In 1975 the Internal Revenue Service claimed that he owed $4.5 million in taxes from 1969-70, and many of his other investments collapsed. His band quit after a punishing tour of Africa, and most tragically, his son Teddy died in an automobile accident. Brown's wife later left him, taking their two daughters.
By the late 1970s, the advent of disco music created career problems for the Godfather of Soul. Though he dubbed himself "The Original Disco Man (a.k.a. The Sex Machine)," he saw fewer and fewer of his singles charting significantly. Things improved slightly after he appeared as a preacher in the smash 1980 comedy film The Blues Brothers, and he demonstrated his importance to the burgeoning hip-hop form with Unity (The Third Coming), his 1983 EP with rapper Afrika Bambaataa. But Brown's big comeback of the 1980s came with the release of "Living in America," the theme from the film Rocky IV, which he performed at the request of star Sylvester Stallone. The single was his first million-selling hit in 13 years. As a result, Brown inked a new deal with CBS Records; in 1986 he was inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame. "Living in America" earned him a Grammy Award for best R&B performance by a male artist.
Through it all, Brown had been struggling with substance abuse, despite his participation in the President's Council against Drugs. His and his third wife Adrienne's use of the drug known as PCP or "angel dust" led to frequent encounters with the law; in May of 1988 he faced charges of assault, weapons and drug possession, and resisting arrest. In December he was arrested again after leading police on a two-state car chase and was sentenced to six years in State Park Correctional Facility in Columbia, South Carolina. His confinement became a political issue for his fans, and Brown was ultimately released in early 1991. "We've got lots of plans," the soul legend declared to Rolling Stone, adding that the experience "has opened James Brown's eyes about things he has to do." He later announced plans to tape a cable special with pop-rap sensation M.C. Hammer.
That same year saw the release of Star Time, a four-CD boxed set that meticulously collected Brown's finest moments; much of which had never been released on compact disc before. The project's release date was set to coincide with the 35th anniversary of "Please, Please, Please." Brown, meanwhile, set to work on a new album, Universal James, which included production by British soul star Jazzie B. "It'll be the biggest album I ever had," he declared to Spin, though this was not to be the case. The 1990s did, however, reveal just how influential James Brown's work had been in rap and hip-hop circles: hundreds of his records were sampled for beats, horn stabs, and screams; the group Public Enemy, which had taken its name from one of his singles, often elaborated on the political themes he had raised.
Meanwhile—thanks in part to his participation in The Blues Brothers and the use of his music in feature films like Good Morning, Vietnam—Brown emerged as a "classic" mainstream artist. Indeed, Time magazine listed 32 appearances of "I Got You (I Feel Good)" in films, movie trailers, and television commercials, and this list was probably not exhaustive. In 1993 the people of Steamboat Springs, Colorado, christened the James Brown Soul Center of the Universe Bridge. The following year a street running alongside New York's Apollo Theater was temporarily named James Brown Blvd., and he performed at Radio City Music Hall; superstar actress Sharon Stone sang "Happy Birthday" to him on the occasion of his 61st. "I'm wherever God wants me to be and wherever the people need for me to be," he told the New York Times.
Unfortunately, his troubles were not at an end. In December of 1994, he was charged with misdemeanor domestic violence after yet another conflagration with Adrienne. And on October 31, 1995, Brown was once again arrested for spousal abuse. He later blamed the incident on his wife's addiction to drugs, stating in a press release, "She'll do anything to get them." Just over two months later, Adrienne died at the age of 47 after undergoing cosmetic surgery.
Brown's penchant for survival and the shining legacy of his work managed to overshadow such ugly incidents. "No one in the world makes me want to dance like James Brown," wrote producer and record executive Jerry Wexler—one of the architects of modern soul—in his book Rhythm and the Blues. "I came from nothing and I made something out of myself," Brown commented in a New York Times interview. "I dance and I sing and I make it happen. I've made people feel better. I want people to be happy." The Godfather of Soul released a new live album in 1995.
In 1997 Brown appeared in When We Were Kings, a documentary also starring Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. The film by Leon Gast is about Ali and Foreman's 1974 fight in Zaire (now Congo).
Further Reading on James Brown
Brown, James, The Godfather of Soul, 1990.
Murray, Charles Shaar, Crosstown Traffic: Jimi Hendrix and the Rock 'n' Roll Revolution, St. Martin's, 1989.
Rees, Dafydd, and Luke Crampton, Rock Movers & Shakers, ABC/CLIO, 1991.
Rose, Cynthia, Living in America: The Soul Saga of James Brown, Serpent's Tail, 1990.
Wexler, Jerry, Rhythm and the Blues, Knopf, 1993.
White, Timothy, Rock Stars, Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1984.
Augusta Chronicle (Augusta, GA), April 30, 1995.
Entertainment Weekly, December 23, 1994.
Los Angeles Times, September 10, 1994; December 10, 1994.
Musician, November 1994,.
New York Times, April 13, 1994.
Oakland Press (Oakland County, MI), November 4, 1995; January 7, 1996.
Rolling Stone, April 18, 1991.
Spin, December 1992; December 1993.
Starwave, "<http://web.3starwave.com/starbios/jamesbrown/b.html >," July 18, 1997.
Time, April 25, 1994; May 16, 1994.
Additional information for this profile was taken from Scotti Bros. Records publicity materials, 1995.