Les Brown (born 1945) is a motivational speaker. Born into poverty and abandoned as a child, Les Brown has gone on to become one of America’s best-known and highest-paid motivational speakers. His company, Les Brown Unlimited Inc., has made millions of dollars from the sale of motivational materials to a variety of audiences, from Fortune 500 executives to special education students and prisoners.

He described his goal to Ebony Magazine as getting "a message out that will help people become uncomfortable with their mediocrity. A lot of people are content with their discontent. I want to be a catalyst to enable them to see themselves having more and achieving more."

Early Life

Leslie Calvin Brown and his twin brother, Wesley, were born on February 17, 1945, on the floor of an abandoned building in Liberty City, a low-income section of Miami, Florida. Their birth mother, married at the time to a soldier stationed overseas, had become pregnant by another man and went to Miami secretly to give birth to her sons. Three weeks later, she gave them away.

At six weeks of age, both boys were adopted by Mamie Brown, a 38-year-old unmarried cafeteria cook and domestic. Brown considered his mother a key influence in his life, telling Rachel L. Jones of the Detroit Free Press, "Everything I am and everything I have I owe to my mother. Her strength and character are my greatest inspiration, always have been and always will be."

As a child, Brown was overactive and mischievous. He struggled in school, finding it impossible to concentrate, and was labeled "educable mentally retarded" in the fifth grade. It was a label he found hard to remove, in large part because he did not try. "They said I was slow so I held to that pace," he recounted. However, a dedicated teacher saw greater potential. LeRoy Washington, a speech and drama instructor at Booker T. Washington High School in Miami, inspired Brown. While in high school, Brown "used to fantasize being onstage speaking to thousands of people," he related to Jones, "and I used to write on pieces of paper, 'I am the world's greatest orator."'

When Washington saw potential in Brown, he insisted he live up to it. When he once told Washington in class that he couldn't perform a task because he was educable mentally retarded, the instructor responded, "Do not ever say that again! Someone's opinion of you does not have to become your reality."

Those words provided Brown's liberation from his debilitating label. "The limitations you have, and the negative things that you internalize are given to you by the world," he wrote of his realization. "The things that empower you-the possibilities-come from within."

Finding His Passion

After high school, Brown found employment as a city sanitation worker, but he was determined to achieve what he desired. Brown pursued a career in radio broadcasting. He had been enthralled throughout his life with the almost music-like patter of disc jockeys, so he repeatedly bothered the owner of a local radio station about a position until the owner relented. Having no experience, Brown was hired to perform odd jobs. Firmly intent on becoming a deejay, he learned all he could about the workings of a radio station. One day, when a disc jockey became drunk on the air and Brown was the only other person at the station, he filled in at the microphone. Impressed, the owner of the station promoted Brown to part-time and then full-time disc jockey.

In the late 1960s, Brown moved to Columbus, Ohio, where he had a top-rated radio program, and was eventually given added duties as broadcast manager. Here his world widened. This new level of influence inspired Brown to become more socially and politically conscious, urging his listeners to political action. He was further encouraged by Mike Williams, the station’s news director.

Politics and Social Issues

Brown would eventually be fired from his position as broadcast manager and DJ, partly for being too controversial of a figure. With the encouragement of Williams, Brown pursued politics instead. Brown ran for the Ohio State Legislature, winning the seat of the 29th House District. In his first year, he passed more legislation than any other freshman representative in Ohio legislative history. In his third term, he served as chair of the Human Resources Committee.

He served three terms before leaving the legislature in 1981, returning to Miami to care for his ailing mother. In Miami, Brown continued to focus on social issues, developing a youth career training program and holding community meetings.

During Brown’s time in Miami, the Dade County state's attorney investigated his handling of the youth program. After a year, however, the case was dropped and no improprieties were found. At that point, with continued encouragement from Williams, and by a chance encounter with motivational millionaire Zig Ziglar, who was earning $10,000 for one-hour talks, Brown decided to become a full-time motivational speaker.

Speaking and Writing

When he entered the motivational speaking arena in the mid-1980s, he had virtually nothing, having moved to Detroit with his clothes and just one tape of his motivational speeches. He rented an office that he shared with an attorney.

Brown read books on public speaking and studied the habits of established speakers. He first spoke to grade school students, then high school students. Clubs and organizations followed. Less than four years later, in 1989, he received the National Speakers Association's highest award — the Council of Peers Award of Excellence — becoming the first African American to receive such an honor. He was known in professional circles as "The Motivator."

In 1990, Brown reached for a wider audience by recording the first in a series of motivational speech presentations for the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS-TV). He conducted motivational training sessions not only for executives of corporations such as AT&T, General Electric, and Procter & Gamble, but also for prison inmates and, recalling his own background, special education students in high schools. "We all have a responsibility to give something back," he told a reporter for Upscale. "I am who I am because of the relationships I have developed, because of the people who have enriched my life."

Brown also hosted a short-lived talk show, The Les Brown Show, in 1993. This was followed by work at the radio station WRKS in New York. In October 1996, he was hired on as morning host at WBLS, also in New York, a position he left in May 1997 to spend more time on his speaking career and to undergo treatments for prostate cancer.

Later Work

Since then, Brown has continued his career as a motivational speaker and writer. His more recent work has included writing Long Life and Good Days (2005) and producing audio works like Choosing Your Future (2010).

Personal Life

On August 29, 1995, Les Brown married legendary soul singer Gladys Knight in a private ceremony in Las Vegas, Nevada. They both had been married previously. The two divorced in 1997 due to irreconcilable differences, though he claimed the two would remain friendly. Brown has 10 children from multiple relationships, as well as 15 grandchildren.

Further Reading on Les Brown

As a motivational speaker, Les Brown has created a number of books, videos and audio recorings, including his bestselling book Live Your Dreams. He has also been widely interviewed and portrayed in the media:

  • Black Enterprise, April 1998, p. 83.
  • Booklist, November 15, 1996, p. 546.
  • Chicago Tribune, December 10, 1991; April 13, 1992.
  • Detroiter, September 1991.
  • Detroit Free Press, November 5, 1992.
  • Ebony, October 1990.
  • EM, May 1992.
  • Essence, March 1993.
  • Herald-News (Joliet, IL), May 13, 1990.
  • Jet, November 27, 1995, p. 58; May 12, 1997, p. 35; June 23, 1997, p. 35.
  • Publishers Weekly, November 11, 1996, p. 65.
  • Upscale, August/September 1992.
  • USA Today, January 25, 1993.

Updates by Matt Salter