Bobby Byrd

James Brown's right-hand man


Bobby Byrd, singer, songwriter, arranger and keyboard-player: born Toccoa, Georgia 15 August 1934; married Vicki Anderson; died Loganville, Georgia 12 September 2007.

Without the involvement of the vocalist and arranger Bobby Byrd, the career of James Brown, Godfather of Soul and "the hardest working man in show business", might well not have happened at all. In 1952, it was Byrd who discovered the young Brown in a prison in Toccoa, Georgia, where he was serving time for burglary, and helped him get an early release. The law-abiding Byrd and his local basketball team were playing against the prison team for which Brown was pitcher.

Byrd and his family vouched for Brown, gave him a home, and the two formed a gospel group called the Flames. Originally the nominal leader, Byrd became Brown's right-hand man and a founder member of the group that became known as James Brown and the Famous Flames. For many years, Byrd was a loyal servant to Brown, as warm-up man, background vocalist, organist, co-writer and arranger, but, like many of Brown's subsequent collaborators, he seldom received the credit he deserved.

Byrd was one of the co-writers of Brown's 1970 worldwide hit "Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine", on which he also sang, as well as "Lost Someone", "Licking Stick – Licking Stick", " Talkin' Loud & Sayin' Nothin'" and "Get Up, Get Into It and Get Involved". When the James Brown box-set Star Time was released in 1991, Byrd's name was credited alongside Brown's on half a dozen tracks, and Byrd issued a compilation of his own solo material with the ironic title Finally Getting Paid (1990).

By then Brown was a superstar who had changed the face of popular music but he often acknowledged his debt to Byrd more in words than deeds. Byrd started legal proceedings against Brown but the case was eventually thrown out because too much time had elapsed since the release of the 40 or so tracks from the Fifties, Sixties and early Seventies whose authorship was disputed.

As part of James Brown's extended Funky People family, Byrd also recorded several singles under his own name, most famously the infectious 1971 track "I Know You Got Soul", which was produced by Brown, and became one of the most sampled of the hip-hop era.

Byrd left Brown's employ in 1973 and performed regularly throughout the world, often with his wife Vicki Anderson, who had also been part of the James Brown Revue. Byrd had a big following in the UK where the rare-groove scene had rediscovered tracks such as "If You Got a Love You Better Hold On To It" in the Eighties.

Bobby Byrd was born in Toccoa, Georgia in 1934. He sang in church choirs before forming various groups. After his fateful meeting with Brown, they were joined by the vocalists Johnny Terry, Sylvester Keels and Nash Knox as well as the guitarist Nafloyd Scott, to become the Famous Flames. "When we saw all the girls screaming for groups like Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, we thought: Oh, so this is what we want to do!" said Byrd of their transition from gospel. In 1956, they signed to King Records and recorded "Please, Please, Please".

Throughout Brown's ascent to become Godfather of Soul in the Sixties and the originator of funk in the early Seventies, Byrd was the singer's trusted lieutenant, the only one to make the transition from the Famous Flames to the JBs in 1968. He was there on the million-selling 1962 album The James Brown Show Live at the Apollo, and he took part in the television appearances that enabled Brown to cross over to a much wider audience. Byrd was a powerhouse vocalist himself, trading vocal lines with Brown on " Make It Funky" in 1971, but he had no problems stepping aside to admire Brown's barnstorming, spellbinding performances on and off stage.

"The dancing y'all seen later on ain't nothing to what he used to do back then," Byrd later recalled. "James could stand flat-footed and flip over into a split. He'd tumble, too, over and over like in gymnastics. We'd say, 'What's wrong with you? When it's time to record, you'll be done killed yourself'."

Between 1963 and 1972, Byrd also made several solo singles of note. As well as "I Know You Got Soul", he scored R&B hits with "Baby Baby Baby", a duet recorded with Anna King in 1964, "We are in Love " in 1965, "You've Got to Change Your Mind" in 1968, " Hot Pants – I'm Coming, Coming, I'm Coming" and "I Need Help (I Can't Do It Alone) part 1" in 1971 and "Keep On Doin' What You're Doin'" in 1972.

In 1994, Byrd issued On The Move, his first solo album proper, recorded with Vicki Anderson, her daughter Carleen, her son Barlett, and his own brother Tony. He toured Europe regularly with the Soulpower Allstars until 2005.

Byrd had his ups and downs with Brown but he put all that aside and, with his wife, sang at the superstar's funeral at the end of last year.

Pierre Perrone

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