Born June 17, 1928 (some sources cite May 3, 1928; others cite May 3, 1933) in Pulaski, Tenn. (some sources cite Augusta, Ga.); mother's name, Susie; married to Adrienne "Alfie" Rodriguez (a hair stylist and makeup artist). Addresses: Home-- Beech Island, S.C. Current residence-- State Park Correctional Center, 7901 Farrow Rd., Columbia, S.C. 29203.

In The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, critic Robert Palmer credits James Brown with taking rhythm and blues and " ... pulling it away from show business sophistication and back into the orbit of the black churches from which it ultimately derived." Popularly known as "The Godfather of Soul," Brown was born into extreme poverty in 1933 in Georgia. While growing up, he worked every odd job he could to earn an extra buck, from picking cotton and shining shoes to boxing and semi-pro baseball, striving to become something respectable.

Brown's ambitions, however, led him astray and into an 8- to 16-year stint at the Alto Reform School (Toccoa, Georgia) in 1949 for armed robbery. After three and a half years, Brown found himself and, with the help of his friend Bobby Byrd, he was paroled. Once out, Brown joined Byrd's singing group, the Gospel Starlighters, which soon became the Flames and switched to rhythm and blues. Federal Records executive Ralph Bass found the group in Macon, Georgia, and brought them north to sign with his label in January of 1956. Brown soon began to assume control and renamed the band James Brown and the Famous Flames (Don Terry, Syd Keels, Nash Knox, Floyd Scott and Byrd). They released their first single that same year, "Please, Please, Please." Bass told Arnold Shaw, "When Syd Nathan (of the King label, a subsidiary of Federal) heard 'Please, Please, Please,' he thought it was a piece of [crap]. He said that I was out of my mind to bring Brown from Macon to Cincinnati--and pay his fare. And we put out that first record on Federal, not King. But then after 'Please' began to sell and made the charts--that was in 1956--Syd sang a different tune ... Brown was way ahead of his time. He wasn't really singing R & B. He was singing gospel to an R & B combo with a real heavy feeling ... He wasn't singing or playing music--he was transmitting feeling, pure feeling."

It would take another two years and ten more singles for Brown to climb the charts again. "Try Me" became a huge hit and helped to usher in the age of soul music. Prior to this, the band had been imitating other groups like the Midnighters, the Drifters, and the Five Royals. Realizing that their own material was just as good, Brown asked Nathan if he could record with his own touring band (the J.B.s), but was denied. So, under the name of Nat Kendrick and the Swans, they released 1960's instrumental hit "(Do the) Mashed Potato" on another label. Former tour manager Alan Leeds told Rolling Stone that Brown would "make them suffer until they needed a James Brown record so badly that they'd take whatever he gave them." King relented and soon Brown was back with the label and recording with his own band.

The Famous Flames honed their live shows to perfection by playing one-night stands throughout the South. The word took years to spread, but by 1963 James Brown Show Live at the Apollo was number 2 on Billboard 's album charts. The James Brown Revue had become the tightest, most spectacular rhythm and blues act ever. The musicians were fined by Brown for anything less than razor-sharp precision while "Mr. Dynamite" himself virtually defined the standard for showmanship.

Future performers like Mick Jagger, Otis Redding, Michael Jackson, Prince, Wilson Pickett, and Terrence Trent D'Arby would all "borrow" extensively from Brown's repetoire, but no one could equal his acrobatics and sheer energy. His "Please" finale found him on his knees, seemingly spent, while the Flames would drape a cape over his shoulders and help to lead him off-stage. But he would only get a few feet before the cape was hurled off and he fell back to the floor, gripping the microphone and pleading once again. After a few rounds of this, most audiences were literally too drained to expect any more.

By 1964 though, Brown was fed up with King's weak promotional abilities and decided to release a batch of tunes on the more substantial Mercury label, Smash. "Out of Sight" was an immediate hit and Brown's popularity soared as English groups began to cover his tunes and style. And, after a year-long court fight with King, Brown won the right to control almost every aspect of his career. In 1965 he recorded "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," probably the epitome of Brown's sound, influential not only during the '60s but the '70s as well: shucking rhythm guitars, choppy bass lines, one-chord vamps and a horn section that blasted like a roll of fire-crackers. Solos were nearly out of the question; rhythm was the key.

By 1971 Brown was managing his own career and even had his own record company. His insistence on control had both positive and negative aspects though. Brown could craft a song down to the most minute detail by actually singing the way he wanted parts to be played to each musician (and at one point the band totaled 30 members!). Sometimes he took credit for ideas he did not originate but made into his own, which has caused resentment among members like Byrd, who co-wrote many of the hits. Nevertheless, as Brown's associate Bob Patton told Rolling Stone, "If you took James away, the band could play the tunes, but they didn't have the spark. He made the engine run. Damn near burn it out sometimes."

During the racially-tense period of the 1960s, Brown became somewhat of a spokesman for blacks. He preached through songs like "Say It Loud--I'm Black and I'm Proud," "Don't Be a Dropout," and "I Don't Want Nobody to Give Me Nothin." He even received a personal thanks from President Lyndon Johnson for calming rioters down with a television appearance. His social position was elevated also by his astute business dealings, which included ownership of fast-food franchises, radio stations, a booking agency, publishing companies, and a Lear jet. He became, according to The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock, "the first and most potent symbol of black America."

Calling himself the Minister of New Super Heavy Funk, Brown helped create the funk music movement, spawning artists like Sly and the Family Stone, Earth, Wind & Fire, and Parliment Funkadelic. Brown's own style was too raw though to be lumped in with the techno-slick groups of the 1970s. And, when disco appeared later on, Brown "was unable to lighten up his groove enough to get disco's sense of propulsion," wrote Tom Smucker in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, but the influence he had is still very obvious. Even rap music relies heavily on Brown's recordings for its samplings, and, as Brown told Rolling Stone 's Michael Goldberg, "The music out there is only as good as my last record." Indeed, other artists need pretty good aim to shoot as well as Brown. Robert Christgau described the Revolution of the Mind LP as being "so hot that anybody but JB will have trouble dancing to it."

With over 114 charted singles ("I Want You So Bad," "I'll Go Crazy," "I Got You (I Feel Good)," "It's a Man's Man's Man's World," "Cold Sweat," "The Popcorn," and "Sex Machine" are just a few) to his credit and one of the best live shows (still), Brown has earned the title of "The Hardest Working Man in Show Business." He told Rock 100, "I have no personal life at all. I spend all my time keeping JB together." Though he never really left the music scene, Brown was back in the spotlight with his first Top Ten pop song in 18 years with 1986's "Living in America." And that same year he was also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But Brown's personal life has received just as much attention. He reportedly owes the U.S. government $9 million in taxes and he has been alleged to beat up his wife Adrienne (she called it a publicity stunt in Rolling Stone: "We sold newspapers.") But on September 24, 1988, Brown entered an insurance seminar in Augusta, Georgia, with a shotgun, which resulted in a police chase and many bullet holes in his car. The next day he was again arrested, and subsequently convicted of driving under the influence of the drug PCP. With good behavior, Brown could end his six-year term in prison by 1991. "I'll tell you, it's like an omen," he told Rolling Stone. "As a kid in that prison, I found myself. An omen in my life. The same place I'm at right now. That was the beginning of my life, in 1950. This is the beginning of my life again. An omen."

by Calen D. Stone

James Brown's Career

Incarcerated in Alto Reform School, Toccoa, Ga., 1949-52; was a boxer and a semi-pro baseball player, c. 1953-55; lead singer in gospel group the Gospel Starlighters, c. 1955, group changed name to Famous Flames and format to rhythm and blues, 1956, became James Brown and the Famous Flames, c. 1956. Appeared in motion picture "Ski Party," 1965. Formerly owned and was president of J.B. Broadcasting, Ltd., James Brown Network, James Brown Productions, and seventeen publishing companies. Incarcerated in State Park Correctional Center, Columbia, S.C., 1988--.

James Brown's Awards

Winner of Grammy Award for best rhythm and blues recording, 1965, for "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," and for best male rhythm and blues performance, 1986, for "Living in America"; inducted into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1986.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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