James Brown

'Godfather of Soul' who in the culturally explosive Sixties became an icon for black America


James Joe Brown, singer: born Barnwell, South Carolina 3 May 1933; four times married (five sons, three daughters, and one son deceased); died Atlanta, Georgia 25 December 2006.

James Brown was one of the most extraordinary Afro-Americans of the second half of the 20th century. A raw, emotional singer, electric performer and tough bandleader, he instigated a number of dramatic, indeed revolutionary, shifts on the black musical map. Certainly, he was wholly responsible for fashioning R&B/soul into funk during the Sixties. Brown's subsequent recordings, with their unique screams and squeals, then unwittingly created the very building blocks of hip-hop, and he became the world's most sampled artist. Prince, Mick Jagger, Public Enemy and Michael Jackson are all indebted to his manifold creativity.

Brown, though, was more than a highly influential musician. He became a major black icon at a time of explosive political and cultural change. The Rev Al Sharpton, a friend of his, once commented, "James Brown changed the whole cultural paradigm of black America. He was a way of life." Indeed, Brown publicly championed the civil rights struggle, recorded countless message songs like "Say It Loud - I'm Black and I'm Proud", dined with presidents, cooled down race riots and performed for US troops across Vietnam.

In 1968, Look magazine splashed him across their cover and asked, "Is This the Most Important Black Man in America?" During his artistic halcyon days, from 1962's Live at the Apollo to his 1974 performance at the boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman that became known as the "Rumble in the Jungle", it seemed that Brown was doing the boogaloo for the entire black nation.

An outspoken, often contentious figure during this era, he courted controversy of a different kind in the Eighties and Nineties. Arrested a number of times, he battled with drug addiction, was charged with domestic abuse and served jail time. His poor, eccentric upbringing was instrumental in shaping the extraordinary, complex adult he became. It filled him with a spectacular drive to achieve, but also instilled in him a paranoia that fostered the bizarre, cartoon-like figure he often degenerated to in later life.

James Joe Brown Jnr was born in 1933 (some sources say 1928) in a one-room country shack just outside Barnwell, South Carolina. His parents separated when he was four and Brown didn't see his mother again until 1959. Just before his sixth birthday, he and his father moved across the South Carolina/Georgia state line into Augusta, to live with his Aunt Honey. She was the madam of a brothel at 944 Twiggs Street, James Brown's new home. At the whorehouse, he was frequently beaten by his father and other male tenants. He was also expected to contribute to the rent by procuring customers and shining shoes.

In a society rife with overt racism, Brown's childhood was affected by the poverty that arose from such prejudice. He was once dismissed from school for wearing "insufficient clothes". The young James Brown was passionate about baseball, boxing and music, although his circumstances compelled him to grow up pretty quickly. He soon realised, to paraphrase one of his later song titles, that "you've got to use what you got to get what you want", and admitted, "Outside of school I was a hustler."

Falling in with a rough crowd, at 16 he was sentenced to eight to 16 years after breaking into a car. In jail, Brown flaunted his potential band-leading skills by whipping the gospel choir into impressive shape. Two years into his sentence, he met Bobby Byrd, who chatted to Brown through the perimeter fence at the penitentiary outside Toccoa, Georgia.

The Byrd family helped him procure parole and Brown was released in 1952. He became part of Bobby Byrd's group - the Arons. These musicians evolved into the Flames, performing across Georgia in the mid-1950s - with Brown out front, singing and dancing. In 1956, after impressing Ralph Bass, King Records' A&R man, with their demo, the Flames' very first single, "Please Please Please", was released, eventually selling over a million copies. A number of minor and then more substantial R&B hits, like "Try Me" (1958), followed.

Like most black acts touring the segregated South, they experienced racism at hotels, diners, gas stations and sometimes in the very venues where they were performing. But their tenacity paid off. In the last year of the decade, with a healthy national following, the group, now billed as James Brown and the Famous Flames, made their début at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem. That night, Brown met his mother for the first time since she had walked out on the family. Brown himself was now married, with a wife, Velma, and three sons.

In the early 1960s, James Brown released his third million-selling hit, "Think". He also performed on national television. But this period's biggest triumph was a live recording, cut two days into the Cuban missile crisis, on 24 October 1962. King Records thought Brown was committing commercial suicide with his latest ruse, and forced him to finance it himself. But Live at the Apollo became one of the greatest live soul albums and a fantastic testament to Brown's dramatic shows and the emotive power of his voice. Released in March 1963, Live at the Apollo shifted millions of copies, climbing to No 2 on the pop album charts, just behind Andy Williams's Days of Wine and Roses. It catapulted Brown out of the chitlin' circuit and attracted those much-coveted white fans.

Throughout the mid-Sixties, his concert schedule didn't flag. He would perform five or six nights a week, and his shows were hotly anticipated. The saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis stated, "When you heard James Brown was coming to town, you stopped what you were doing and started saving your money." He also conducted affairs with his female singing protégés, including Bea Ford and Yvonne Fair, who bore him a son and a daughter. "When I'm on the road," he once commented, "I behave just like a teenager - Bang! Bang! Bang!" Brown fathered another son with a female employee of the James Brown Fan Club.

One of Brown's most dazzling performances - outside the bedroom - was in Santa Monica, Los Angeles, at the filmed Tami Show (Teenage Awards Music International) in 1964. The bill featured black American acts and new "British invasion" groups unduly influenced by these very Afro-American musicians. James Brown was scheduled to perform before the Rolling Stones. In his dressing room, he guaranteed the British upstarts would regret ever leaving England. His subsequent set was, perhaps, a career best, with Brown executing most contemporary black dances - the mashed potato, the popcorn, the camel walk - to jaw-dropping perfection. Following him, the Stones looked embarrassingly amateurish.

In 1965, James Brown recorded the genre-creating "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag". He once described this as the "turnaround song". Indeed, it's now considered funk's year zero. Bursting with rhythmic tightness, Brown admitted in his autobiography, "I was hearing everything, even the guitars, like they were drums." More hits followed, including "I Got You (I Feel Good)", "Money Won't Change You", "Cold Sweat", the ballad "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" and "Don't Be a Drop Out".

The last signalled Brown's entry into the milieu of socio-political campaigns. With the support of the US Vice- President Hubert Humphrey, he toured schools, lecturing children on the benefits of education and donating $500 scholarships. In the same year, 1966, Brown performed a benefit gig in Tupelo, Mississippi, after racists wounded the black activist James Meredith during his March Against Fear.

James Brown was evolving into the prime black cultural icon of the second half of the 1960s. Selling out stadiums and Madison Square Garden, he was elected "Soul Brother Number One" by the Afro-American public. Heavyweight radicals, too, were in awe of him. Revolutionary left-wing groups like the Black Panthers, in favour of armed struggle, sought out his sponsorship. They were unsuccessful, of course, because Brown championed black capitalism.

Nineteen sixty-eight was probably the most extraordinary year of his life. He travelled to Africa for the first time, changed his hairstyle from straight to Afro, and bought radio stations. But it was the night after Martin Luther King's assassination, on 5 July, that was historic. Although Brown had been scheduled to perform at the Boston Garden, most of the country was aflame with riots. After contemplating cancelling the gig, he and Boston's mayor decided to proceed with the show and televise it live. They guessed correctly that people could not resist watching a James Brown show.

In May 1968, Brown received an invitation to the White House. The following month, Brown entertained the troops in Vietnam. Then, in October, he released "Say It Loud - I'm Black and I'm Proud". Selling 750,000 copies in two weeks, the track defined the mood of this racially explosive era, as the rapper Chuck D later acknowledged: " 'Say It Loud' prepared me for the third grade, 1969, and the rest of my life. Black now signified where we was at."

Amazingly, despite all his extra- curricular activities, Brown was still knocking out hit after hit. From the late 1960s into the early 1970s, he was forging the blueprint of funk in tracks like "Superbad", "Give It Up or Turn It Loose", "Mother Popcorn", "Funky Drummer", "Sex Machine" and "Hot Pants". Of course, his brilliant musicians, like Fred Wesley, Maceo Parker, Pee Wee Ellis and Clyde Stubblefield, were a crucial, if often unrecognised ingredient in the James Brown sound. Wesley later commented, "James was bossy and paranoid. It was ridiculous that somebody of his popularity could be so insecure."

Officially separated in 1964, James Brown and Velma finally divorced in 1969. The following year, he married Dee Dee Jenkins and moved from New York back to Augusta. The first half of the 1970s was pretty good for Brown. He signed to Polydor and, with hits like "Get On the Good Foot", "Papa Don't Take No Mess", "Funky President", coasted on a very healthy musical plateau. Now billed as the "Godfather of Soul", Brown also cut two excellent soundtracks to complement Blaxploitation movies, Black Caesar (1973) and Slaughter's Big Rip-Off (1973). In 1974, he performed in Kinshasa, Zaire, at the music festival prior to the Ali/Foreman "Rumble in the Jungle".

One of the two low points of this period was his very public choice to back President Richard Nixon for re-election. His shows were picketed by signs declaring, "James Brown - Nixon's Clown". In 1973, Brown's first son, Teddy, died in a car crash. As the second half of the 1970s unfolded, Brown's career suffered, a music television show he fronted, Future Shock, flopped and the IRS was also tailing him for millions of dollars in taxes. On top of this, he was waist deep in a payola scandal (pay for record airplay) and his marriage to Dee Dee collapsed.

In 1980, Brown's appearance in the film The Blues Brothers helped resuscitate his flagging career. His cameo in the film Rocky IV (1985), with its accompanying hit, "Living in America", offered an even greater boost. Then, in 1986, Brown was venerated as one of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's first 10 inductees. By the late Eighties and early Nineties, hip-hop acts were sampling his old funk classics to create their aural collages.

But it was a distinctly ambiguous comeback. In 1982, Brown had met his third wife, Adrianne Rodriguez, a make-up artist. They seemed to bond over the highly dangerous, psychosis-provoking chemical PCP - "angel dust". Their private drug life became public and all hell broke loose. In March 1987, Brown was charged with aggravated assault and intent to murder his wife. Later that year he was chased by police, guns blazing, from Georgia into South Carolina. He was jailed, eventually serving less than two years of his sentence. After his release in 1991, Brown was increasingly perceived as a rather cranky, unapproachable figure. Adrianne died following a plastic surgery operation in 1996. In 1998 Brown was sentenced to 90 days in a drug rehabilitation centre.

At the Millennium, Brown emerged an emotionally healthier, drug-free man. He was married again, to Tomi Rae Hynie, and now very rich, having emulated David Bowie by raising $30m on Wall Street against future royalties. In 2003, he was presented with a lifetime achievement award by Michael Jackson at the Black Entertainment Television's bash and received one of the highly prestigious Kennedy Center Honors. When Robert Chalmers interviewed a calmer, more reflective James Brown for the Independent on Sunday last summer, he said, "If there is ever anybody I'd like to be like, it is Moses."

James Maycock

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