His latest backup band, the Soul Generals, thrashed on, playing as if they were in one of his jam-packed concerts. The crowd cheered and danced to his hits like “Soul Power” and “I Feel Good,” like he himself were singing for them right then and there. If it were someone else’s funeral, it wouldn’t be this funky. For his fans did not just come to mourn his death, they also came to celebrate his life and his music. He is James Brown, “The Godfather of Soul.” He was 73.
James Joe Brown was born during the Great Depression, on May 3, 1933 in Barnwell. S.C. When he was four years old, he was abandoned by his mother and moved with his father to live with his aunt in Augusta, Georgia.
He was the hardest working kid on the streets long before he was the “Hardest-Working Man in Show Business.” During childhood, he worked in many odd jobs, singing on street corners, picking cotton and shining shoes “in order to survive as a little black boy growing up in the South,” he said. “I was nine years old before I got a pair of underwear from a real store; all my clothes were made of sacks and things like that. But I knew I had to make it. I had the determination to go on, and my determination was to be somebody.”
Forced to drop out of school, Mr. Brown, as he likes to be called, sang and danced for soldiers at nearby Fort Gordon. He also helped his father washing cars. And at 16 years old, long before he became the Godfather of Soul, he almost became a godfather of the other sort: he was involved in car theft and other petty crimes, earning him a three-year stint at reform school. There he met Bobby Byrd, leader of a gospel group and later became his life-long friend.
After juvenile camp and starting life anew, Mr. Brown tried semi-pro boxing and baseball. Unfortunately, a leg injury took him out of the ring and the fields and led him to our radios.
In 1956, he joined Bobby Byrd’s gospel singing group that was then touring Georgia. However, after seeing Hank Ballard and Fats Domino perform, James and Bobby were enticed to secular music. They formed a group called the “Flames” and recorded “Please, Please, Please,” which was to become later as Mr. Brown’s signature song. Being a business man and a bandleader he gathered into the Flames more talent of singers, dancers and musicians to an ensemble that later became known as “James Brown and the Famous Flames” with which he toured.
Although he would always have a full crowd anywhere he performed, he was but a minor R&B artist with a limited audience. He then thought of releasing a live recording of one of his concerts. Alas, it was turned down by his then label King Records, certain that the album would not sell.
But his self-reliance, trained since early childhood, would not let his dream remain unachieved. Mr. Brown put up his own money to record the October 1962 Apollo Theatre Concert. Three months later, with the album’s highly successful release, James Brown was catapulted to stardom. Thus Soul’s greatest leader came.
He toured relentlessly over the ensuing years, selling out concerts and adding up to almost a thousand songs in his repertoire, including “I Got You (I Feel Good)” (1965), "Cold Sweat" (1967), "Sex Machine (1970), "Hot Pants" (1971) and "The Payback" (1973). "Say It Loud: I'm Black and I'm Proud" (1969) remains to be an African-American civil rights anthem.
Recognition also started to pile up. He won the Best R&B Recording Grammy Award for “Pappa’s Got a Brand New Bag” in 1965. In 1987, “Living in America,” which can be heard in “Rocky IV” movie, won another Grammy for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance. And in 1992, he was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award. Other major recognitions he garnered includes being a charter “Rock and Roll Hall of Famer” and being honoured by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
Aside from collecting awards, he also came to influence music in other, mostly younger and fledgling, artists. Unknowingly, with every horn, cranky rock and roll guitar, powerful bass, funky grunts, bedevilling dance moves and vibrant and explosive showmanship, he inspired the likes of Michael Jackson, Mick Jagger, Prince, and yes, Elvis Presley.
Even contemporary artists, who could not have been old enough to be among his audiences in the 60’s, 70’s and the 80’s were inspired and continue to be inspired by his style, like Dr. Dre, P. Diddy, Snoop Dogg, Ne-Yo, Justin Timberlake, Rage Against the Machine…the list goes on.
All of them and so much more – fans and other artists all over the world mourn the passing, but celebrate the life, of the “Godfather of Soul,” “Forefather of Rap,” “God of Rhythm and Blues,” “Mr. Excitement,” “Hardest-Working Man in Show Business,” “Funkiest Mutha in the Universe.”
So befitting a life center-stage and dramatic, he died on Christmas Day. The James Brown that only God can so perfectly create, He has taken away on His day. And in the words of yet another of Mr. Brown’s disciples, Public Enemy’s Chuck D, “may his funky soul R.I.P."
We at WikiMusicGuide pay our respects to the late James Brown. Our thoughts and prayers go out to Mr. Brown’s family, friends and loved ones. He will be missed. But his music lives on.
Like all other music artists – legends, pioneers, breakthroughs – James Brown will have his rightful place in cyberspace. At WikiMusicGuide (wikimusicguide.com), all that is music is celebrated by the music fans for the music fans.