December 25, 2006 – James Brown Jr. Nearly stillborn, then revived by an aunt in a country shack in the piney woods outside Barnwell, South Carolina, on May 3, 1933, Brown became somebody who was determined to be Somebody. James Brown rose from extreme poverty to become the ‘The Godfather of Soul‘.
His parents were 16-year-old Susie (1917–2003) and 22-year-old Joseph “Joe” Gardner Brown (1911–1993), extremely poor, living in a small wooden shack.
They later relocated to Augusta, Georgia, when Brown was four or five. Brown’s family first settled at one of his aunts’ brothels and later moved into a house shared with another aunt. Brown’s mother later left the family after a contentious marriage and moved to New York. Brown spent long stretches of time on his own, hanging out in the streets and hustling to get by. Still he managed to stay in school until sixth grade.
Brown began singing in talent shows as a young child, first appearing at Augusta’s Lenox Theater in 1944, winning the show after singing the ballad “So Long”. While in Augusta, Brown performed buck dances for change to entertain troops from Camp Gordon at the start of World War II as their convoys traveled over a canal bridge from near his aunt’s home. Brown learned how to play piano, guitar and harmonica during this period and became inspired to become an entertainer after seeing footage of Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five performing “Caldonia” in a short film.
During his teen years, Brown briefly had a career as a boxer. In 1946, all of 13 years old, Brown first tried his musical luck with his Cremona Trio, a penny-making sideline. His career halted temporarily when he was imprisoned for petty theft in 1949 and was sent to a juvenile detention center in Toccoa. There Brown formed a gospel quartet with four fellow cellmates, including Johnny Terry and Bobby Byrd, whose family helped James secure an early release after serving only three years of his sentence, under the condition that he not return to Augusta or Richmond County and that he would try to get a job. Brown was paroled on June 14, 1952. Upon his release, he joined a gospel group and worked at several jobs, including the Lawson Motor Company and as a janitor at a local school.
Initially, he sang gospel with Sarah Byrd and the church club, then joined her brother Bobby Byrd’s locally established group, known as the Gospel Starlighters or the Avons, depending on what or where they performed.
There was no cohesive plan for advancement as transporting illegal hootch across the state lines was a bigger moneymaker than their day jobs and night gigs. Gradually though, singing rhythm & blues seemed to make the most sense.
From there on it was a long but steady road to become recognized as one of the most influential figures in 20th-century popular music. As a prolific singer, songwriter, bandleader and record producer, he was a seminal force in the evolution of gospel and rhythm and blues into soul and funk. He left his mark on numerous other musical genres, including rock, jazz, reggae, disco, dance and electronic music, afro-beat, and hip-hop music
They started experimenting in rhythm and blues, changed the name to The Blue Flames and began touring and were soon signed up with King Records. In 1956, their debut single, “Please, Please, Please” credited to “James Brown with the Famous Flames”, reached No.5 in the R&B charts and was a million-selling single. This was followed by 9 failed singles.
But in 1957 when Little Richard half way through a tour suddenly left Macon, James Brown and his band honored all Little Richards outstanding venues. A year later, the group released “Try Me,” which became James’ first No. 1 hit. The mid-1960s was the period of Brown’s greatest popular success, with two of his signature tunes, “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” and “I Got You (I Feel Good) released in 1965.
It was around this time when James turned much funkier, he sped up the released version of “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” to make it even more intense and commercial and 1970 saw a big change in his backing band which included Bootsy Collins on bass. This new band was called the JBs. In 1974, they performed in Zaire as part of the build up to the The Rumble in the Jungle fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. James and his JBs were one of the busiest bands on the road, he worked till 3 days before his death.
In the eighties he had a brief fling with the new wave clubs that had rediscovered him, Brown was introduced to a broader pop audience via films in which the principal creative forces were James Brown fans: The Blues Brothers, featuring Brown as a rousing preaching opposite John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd; Doctor Detroit, also with Aykroyd; and Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky IV, which showcased JB in a mythic cameo performing “Living In America,” his biggest Pop hit since 1968’s “Say It Loud – I’m Black And I’m Proud.”
The night “Living In America” reached the U.S. Top Five, James Brown was inducted as a charter member into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall Of Fame. He had gained the establishment recognition he craved. And he was the only inductee to have a contemporaneous hit.
At street level, a fundamentally more important appreciation of James Brown was taking place. An entire new generation was discovering his music and recycling, through sampling, his legacy as the soundtrack for their own aspirations. “Funky Drummer,” a nearly forgotten 1970 single-only release, was in particular an irresistible foundation for material. Aficionados estimate that between two and three thousand recorded raps of the late 1980s featured a James Brown sample in some form. In addition, his recordings with Afrika Bambaataa (“Unity”) and Brooklyn’s Full Force (“Static,” “I’m Real”) were homages paid by respectful disciples.
In December 1988, James Brown was handed two concurrent six-year prison sentences, on traffic violations charges and resisting arrest. As part of his sentence, the Godfather of Soul dutifully counseled local poor and preached against drugs. He was freed on February 27, 1991.
Though he hungered for a hit again like “Living In America,” an iconic performer like James Brown no longer needed hit records to sell tickets; throughout the 1990s and 2000s he was a bona fide headliner, often appearing in the world’s most prestigious venues.
James received several top music industry awards and honors, being was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on January 23, 1986. February 25, 1992 he was given a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 34th annual Grammy Awards.
Exactly a year later, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 4th annual Rhythm & Blues Foundation Pioneer Awards. On November 14, 2006, James was inducted to the UK Music Hall of Fame. He was one of several inductees that performed at the ceremony. He was a recipient of Kennedy Center Honors in 2003 and on August 22, 2006, the Augusta-Richmond County Coliseum Authority voted to rename the city’s civic center the James Brown Arena.
On Christmas morning Dec 25, 2006 he died after a short illness at age 73.