James Brown


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He's Godfather of Soul. He's Mr. Dynamite. He's Soul Brother No. 1.

He is James Brown -- one of the most influential figures in the history of popular music, and he feels good.

Perhaps no other African-American musician in recent history has been quite so dynamic a figure as Brown. His shows are renowned for his exciting and exhilarating performances of athleticism and timing.

Over a 39-year period, Brown has amassed an amazing total of 98 entries on Billboard's Top 40 R&B singles charts, a record unsurpassed by any other artist. Seventeen of those songs reached No. 1, a feat topped only by Stevie Wonder and Louis Jordan, and equaled only by Aretha Franklin.

Brown grew up as the only child of an impoverished family. When he was five, he moved into his aunt's brothel in Augusta, Ga. He earned his keep by running errands for soldiers at nearby Camp Gordon, dancing and singing for them to entice them into a visit to his aunt's business.

By the 1940s, he had run afoul of the law on an armed robbery conviction. But a family friend named Bobby Byrd helped him get parole, and in 1952 Brown and Byrd started a music quartet called the Gospel Starlighters. The quartet sang with a raw, Southern style and eventually evolved into an R&B group. They first chose the name the Avons and ultimately settled on the Flames.

In November 1955, the Flames cut a demo titled "Please, Please, Please." Record producer Ralph Bass heard the demo and immediately recognized Brown's talent. He was so impressed with the group that he drove to Macon and signed the band to Cincinnati-based King Records.

One week later, the Flames (now James Brown and the Famous Flames) were recording in Ohio and within two months released "Please, Please, Please" on King's Federal label. By March of 1956, the single reached No. 5 on Billboard's R&B list.

While Brown and the Flames continued to make records for Federal, they didn't hit the national charts again for three years. Finally, the Andy Gibson-produced "Try Me," hit the jackpot in the winter of 1958. The group hit No. 1 and Brown hired a steady backup band, which eventually became the hottest R&B unit in the land. Brown trained his musicians to accent every scream, split, shake and shimmy he maneuvered during his concerts, which had become the visual trademark of the group's stage act.

Brown continued to rack up hit singles through the early 1960's but began to wonder what would happen if he could capture his energy and excitement on an album. But King Records wasn't convinced an album would sell so Brown put up his own money to record a performance at the Apollo Theater in October 1962. It took nearly a year, but Live At The Apollo broke down barriers for R&B and went to No. 2 on Billboard's album chart.

In 1964, Brown ignored his King contract and recorded Out of Sight for Smash. This paved the way for a drawn-out legal battle that made it impossible for him to issue any new recordings for a year. When he finally resumed recording for King in 1965, his new contract allowed him a wide array of artistic control.

Out of Sight hit the pop Top 30 and topped the R&B charts. He also scored his first Top 10 pop single, "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag." Soon after I Got You (I Feel Good), hit No. 3.

From this point, the hits rolled out one after another at an unheard of rate. The Flames gradually dispersed and the gospel and blues structure mushroomed into rhythmically riveting sandpaper vocals. The complex funk syncopations of his band can still be heard in several popular music styles around the world today including funk, rock, Afro-pop, disco and rap. (In later years, much of the credit for the sound he devised has been belatedly attributed to saxophonists Maceo Parker, St. Clair Pinckney and Pee Wee Ellis; guitarist Jimmy Nolen; Bobby Byrd and Clyde Stubblefield.

In 1969, Brown's band walked out on him, citing his boorishness as a bandleader in their reasoning. Brown, however, was nothing if not resourceful and recruited a young Cincinnati band, the Pacemakers, to take the place of the Flames. The Pacemakers were only around for about a year but they prompted Brown to explore even harder funk and rhythm.

By the early 1970s, many members of his old band returned as J.B.'s, and Brown continued to pound down the R&B charts. Critics began complaining that the Godfather was repeating and recycling his music and Brown began to burn out artistically. He produced sporadic hits and never lost his enthusiastic audience base, but by the 1980s, he lost his label.

Today Brown has gained a new generation of fans who sample his voice and rhythms on rap and hip-hop recordings. Meanwhile critics are finally recognizing his music as some of the most important in all of rock or soul.

Since the mid-1970s, Brown has had a number of difficulties, including financial and drug problems that landed him in prison. In 1988, Brown's wife brought assault and battery charges against him. After a year of bumbling through legal and personal troubles, he led police on an interstate car chase and, according to police, Brown allegedly threatened people with a handgun. For this, he went back to prison for another six years, but was paroled after two.

Brown is a charter member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and received a special lifetime achievement Grammy Award in 1992.

In 1998, Brown returned with the aptly titled I'm Back, released on Private I/Mercury.

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