James Brown made it funky, so funky that he changed the course of music forever with his infectious performances, hard-to-follow lyrics, and a band that few others could match in style and stature. Although Brown is the “Godfather of Soul," he is also the father a new genre within soul music: funk. With his biopic "Get On Up" currently streaming on HBO Now, it's a good time to revisit the history of "Soul Brother No.1."
James Joseph Brown started singing when he competed in talent shows as a youth growing up in Augusta, Georgia. Back in those days, he was performing buck dances for change at Camp Gordon when World War II got underway. It was during this time that Brown began to learn how to play musical instruments, including the piano, guitar, and harmonica.
After seeing the Tympany Five perform the single “Caldonia” in a short film, the performing bug bit him, and he was convinced that this would be his ticket to stardom. But before that could happen, he had to overcome his legal woes, in which when he was 16-years old, he was convicted of robbery and sentenced to serve a stint at the Toccoa Juvenile Detention Center.
During his stint in Toccoa, he formed a gospel quartet with his fellow inmates, which further convinced him that singing professionally was what he wanted to do. In 1952, Brown was granted parole and moved in with the family of Bobby Byrd, who he would later form a musical partnership with.
After he was released, Brown worked numerous jobs while at the same time honing his performing chops, and in 1953, Brown and Byrd created the Gospel Starlighters, which also moonlighted as an R&B group known as the Avons. Joining Brown and Byrd was Sylvester Keels, Doyle Oglesby, Fred Pulliam, Nash Knox and Nafloyd Scott.
After several name and roster changes, the group got in touch with Little Richard in 1955, and he advised them to get together with his manager, Clint Brantley. This would mark a changing point in Brown’s career, as Brantley sent them to a local radio station to record a demo. Now known as the Famous Flames, the single that would come out of that recording session was “Please, Please, Please.”
“Please, Please, Please” got Brown and the Flames a record deal with King Records, and the group re-recorded the demo single and released it in the spring of 1956. The single was a hit, but it couldn’t retain its status and the group’s subsequent hits flopped. After firing Brantley, Brown disbanded the original Flames and changed the group’s name to James Brown and the Famous Flames.
Brown’s next hit single would be the versant “Try Me,” which touched on Brown’s ability to do ballads. “Try Me” went to number one on the R&B charts in early 1959. Brown scored another top-ten hit in “(Do the) Mashed Potatoes,” and more hits would follow, including 1962’s “Night Train” (which was Brown’s first Top 40 Hit) 1963’s “Prisoner of Love” (which became his first Top 20 hit). At the same time, he formed Try Me Records, and in 1964, Brown and Byrd formed a production company, Fair Deal, and inked a distribution deal with Smash Records, a subsidiary of Mercury Records.
By 1965, Brown had become a sensation with his new take on soul music, and his profile was raised even higher when he scored a Pop chart-topper in “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” which also garnered his first Grammy Award. Brown hit pay dirt again with “It’s a Man’s World,” and this made Brown a force not only within R&B and soul but music in general.
In 1967, R&B music would change forever with the release of “Cold Sweat,” which would be regarded as the first true funk song. Brown would go on to dominate the rest of the ‘60s and the early-to-mid ‘70s, gaining the nickname “The Godfather of Soul,” and influencing a number of legendary funk bands such as Sly and the Family Stone and Funkadilic.
Brown enjoyed booming success as the king of R&B until 1975 when things began to turn south for him. First, money woes forced most of his new backing band, The J.B.’s to quit on him and to add injury to insult, he was about to enter a period of declining commercial fortunes due to the disco movement and other funk bands who had evolved the sound.
Although Brown was able to get hits onto the charts, it wasn’t at the lofty peak of his earlier output, and by 1984, he was in danger of falling off the charts completely. But in 1986, he got a revival in the smash hit “Living in America,” which became his first single to reach the Top 10 of the Hot 100 since 1968. Brown then turned his attention to doing production, including producing Full Force’s sophomore LP I’m Real in 1988, but he once again found himself in legal trouble and spent the rest of the ‘80s behind bars.
After his release, Brown was mostly regulated to the oldies circuit, but he still remained a big attraction at music festivals and concerts all over the world. That all began to change drastically on December 23, 2006, when he fell ill and arrived at a dentist appointment several hours late. His dentist quickly realized that Brown was in bad shape, and instead of getting dental implants, brown was rushed to Emory Crawford Long Memorial Hospital.
While in the hospital, Brown was still insistent on performing and he still held out hope to perform a New Year’s Eve concert at the B.B. Kings Blues Club in New York City. But on Christmas Day of that year, Brown’s medical condition grew worse, and at 1:45 am, James Brown died of congestive heart failure due to complications of pneumonia. He was 73 years old.