James Joseph Brown is the originator of funk music and is a major figure of 20th century popular music and dance. Brown was born in Barnwell, South Carolina on May 3, 1933.
In 1955, Brown and Bobby Byrd‘s sister Sarah performed in a group called “The Gospel Starlighters”. Eventually, Brown joined Bobby Byrd’s vocal group, the Avons, and Byrd turned the group’s sound towards secular rhythm and blues. After the group’s name was changed to The Flames, Brown and Byrd’s group toured the Southern “chitlin’ circuit”. The group eventually signed a deal with the Cincinnati, Ohio-based label Federal Records, a sister label of King Records. Brown’s early recordings were fairly straightforward gospel-inspired R&B compositions, heavily influenced by the work of contemporary musicians such as Ray Charles, Little Willie John, Clyde McPhatter and Little Richard. In 1959, Brown and The Famous Flames moved from the Federal Records subsidiary to King Records, the parent label. Brown began to have recurring conflicts with King Records president Syd Nathan over repertoire and other matters. In one notable instance, Brown recorded the 1960 Top Ten R&B hit “(Do the) Mashed Potatoes” on Dade Records, owned by Henry Stone, under the pseudonym “Nat Kendrick & The Swans” because Nathan refused to allow him to record it for King.
Brown scored on the charts in the early 1960s with recordings such as his 1962 cover of “Night Train”. While Brown’s early singles were major hits across the southern United States and then regular R&B Top Ten hits, he and the Famous Flames were not successful nationally until his self-financed live show was captured on the 1963 LP Live at the Apollo. Brown financed the recording of the album himself, and it was released on King Records over the objections of label owner Syd Nathan, who saw no commercial potential in a live album containing no new songs. Defying Nathan’s expectations, the album stayed on the pop charts for fourteen months, peaking at #2.
Two of Brown’s signature tunes, “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” (which won the 1966 Grammy for Best Rhythm & Blues Recording (an award last given in 1968)) and “I Got You (I Feel Good)”, both from 1965, were his first Top 10 pop hits as well as major #1 R&B hits, with each remaining the top-selling singles in black venues for over a month.
In November 1967, James Brown purchased radio station WGYW in Knoxville, Tennessee for a reported $75,000, according to the January 20, 1968 Record World magazine. The call letters were changed to WJBE reflecting his initials. WJBE began on January 15, 1968 and broadcast a Rhythm & Blues format. The station slogan was “WJBE 1430 Raw Soul”. His 1967 #1 R&B hit, “Cold Sweat”, sometimes cited as the first true funk song, was the first of his recordings to contain a drum break and the first that featured a harmony that was reduced to a single chord.
By 1970, most members of James Brown’s classic 1960s band had quit his act for other opportunities, and The Famous Flames singing group had disbanded, with original member Bobby Byrd the only one remaining with Brown. Brown and Byrd employed a new band that included future funk greats, such as bassist Bootsy Collins, Collins’ guitarist brother Phelps “Catfish” Collins and trombonist and musical director Fred Wesley. This new backing band was dubbed “The J.B.’s”, and the band made its debut on Brown’s 1970 single “Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine”. Brown’s Polydor recordings during the 1970s exemplified his innovations from the previous 20 years. Compositions such as “The Payback” (1973), “Papa Don’t Take No Mess”, “Stoned to the Bone”, and “Funky President (People It’s Bad)” (1974), and “Get Up Offa That Thing” (1976) were among his most noted recordings during this time.
Before James Brown appeared on stage, his personal MC gave him an elaborate introduction accompanied by drumrolls, as the MC worked in Brown’s various sobriquets along with the names of many of his hit songs. The introduction by Fats Gonder, was captured on Brown’s 1962 album Live at the Apollo album. James Brown’s performances were famous for their intensity and length. His own stated goal was to “give people more than what they came for — make them tired, ’cause that’s what they came for.’”
A trademark feature of Brown’s stage shows, usually during the song “Please, Please, Please”, involved Brown dropping to his knees while clutching the microphone stand in his hands, prompting the show’s longtime MC, Danny Ray, to come out, drape a cape over Brown’s shoulders and escort him off the stage after he had worked himself to exhaustion during his performance. As Brown was escorted off the stage by the MC, Brown’s vocal group, The Famous Flames, continued singing the background vocals “Please, please don’t go-oh-oh”.Brown would then shake off the cape and stagger back to the microphone to perform an encore. Brown’s routine was inspired by a similar one used by the professional wrestler Gorgeous George.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, James Brown was renowned for his social activism. In 1966, he released the single “Don’t Be a Drop-Out” as a lesson to young students who had thoughts of dropping out. He later made public speeches in front of dozens of children and advocated the importance of education in school. In 1967, he issued a patriotic single, “America is My Home”, which was a “rap” about how he felt people, particularly in the African-American community, were neglecting the country that he said “could give (them) opportunities” explaining how at one time he was shining shoes and the next, he was greeting the President of the United States as he did when President Lyndon B. Johnson thanked him for donating money to school drop-out prevention programs.
In 1968 after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Brown released “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud”following pressure from fans to take a stance on the civil rights movement, an issue he had avoided up until this point. It became an anthem of the civil rights movement.
On Christmas Day, Brown died from congestive heart failure resulting from complications of pneumonia.