Godfather of Soul: A Colossus of Popular Music

James Brown, who died yesterday, was the most unlikely embodiment of the American Dream. Born into abject poverty in 1933, he became perhaps the most influential performer of the twentieth century. Andrew Gumbel surveys his enduring legacy
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The Independent US

"Funky," James Brown once said, "is about the injustices, the things that go wrong, the hungry kids going to school trying to learn. Funky is about what it takes to make people move - take it from the gospel, from the jazz." Brown was the consummate showman, a performer who didn't just own the stage so much as seem possessed by it, a singer and a dancer who seemed to defy gravity and the laws of ordinary musicology with his crazy rhythms, vocal inflections and, above all, his boundless energy.

The reason it all worked, though, was that he was never less than absolutely genuine. He poured everything into his music - his hardscrabble childhood in segregation-era Georgia and South Carolina, his sheer determination to make something of himself against the odds, the rags-to-riches trajectory that made him the unlikeliest of embodiments of the American Dream, and the glaring flaws he carried with him well into middle age and beyond, when he made as many headlines with his run-ins with the law as he did with his devotion to his art.

That unswerving authenticity didn't just make him a great musician, and an enduring influence on generation after generation of new styles - from soul to funk to disco and rap. It also made him continually subversive, a true revolutionary.

It's impossible to listen to his music - everything from his groundbreaking Live At The Apollo album of 1962 to his 1980s comeback hit "Living In America" - without sensing the deeply political nature of everything he did. Here was the black man -- wild, magnetic, sexual, unpredictable - shoving himself in the face of the white establishment.

Brown's death yesterday at the age of 73 was, in many ways, at peace with the way he lived his life. It was unexpected, unpredictable and immediately commanded centre stage. "He was dramatic to the end -- dying on Christmas Day," said Jesse Jackson, the civil rights leader who first met Brown at the start of his career in 1955. "Almost a dramatic, poetic moment. He'll be all over the news all over the world today. He would have it no other way."

Three days earlier, he had presided over the Christmas toy giveaway he organised for years in his hometown of Augusta, Georgia. The following day, he had a dental appointment in Atlanta, and his dentist sensed there was something seriously wrong. He was admitted to hospital on Christmas Eve with a severe case of pneumonia, and died within hours.

His agent, Frank Copsidas, told reporters it wasn't clear exactly what had happened to him. "We really don't know at this point what he died of," he said.

Along with Ray Charles, who died two years ago, Brown was one of the towering giants of 20th century American popular music, inventing entire genres and inspiring a musical following that remains undiminished decades after he first came to prominence.

Mick Jagger's hyperkinetic stage style is at least part-homage to Brown. Michael Jackson's stratospheric success as both performer and artist on albums like Off The Wall and Thriller would not have been possible without Brown's example. Songs like David Bowie's "Fame" and Sly and the Family Stone's "Sing A Simple Song" carried Brown's unmistakable inflections.

In the first flowering of the hip-hop era in the 1980s, he became known as the most sampled man in showbusiness, with snippets of his recordings being reused and recycled by everyone from Public Enemy, Dr Dre and Easy-E to Prince, the Beastie Boys and Sinead O'Connor.

Asked once who had done the best job of sampling his work, he replied: "The one that pays me. And a lot of them didn't pay me, but don't worry, we're going to get them too. Because that's all I have to sell, my songs."

Brown came from the most downtrodden of backgrounds. He was born in Bardwell, South Carolina, abandoned by his parents when he was four and forced to fend for himself on the streets of Augusta, working as a shoe-shine boy and cotton-picker. He wound up first in reform school and then, at the age of 16, in juvenile prison following an armed robbery bust.

Brown had flirted with dreams of becoming a boxer or a baseball player - a dream snuffed out by a leg injury - but focussed on music after a meeting behind bars with Bobby Byrd, a musician whose family ended up taking Brown under their wing.

Together Byrd and Brown formed the Gospel Starlighters, then changed the name to the Famous Flames. An early record, "Please Please Please", became a top ten R&B hit in 1956. At first, Brown found himself strongly influenced by both Ray Charles and Little Richard. Over the next few years, though, his reliance on rhythm and improvisation put him into a class of his own. "Night Train", released in 1961, inaugurated a glorious few years of classic recordings that also included "I Got You (I Feel Good)" and "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag".

Brown was also the prototype musician as celebrity, buying radio stations and restaurants and flaunting his sudden wealth by flying around in a private jet. One of the radio stations he bought, WDRW in Augusta, was a place where he had shined shoes as a boy.

Brown's first flush of fame coincided with the civil rights era, and he did as much as anyone to validate the cause espoused by Martin Luther King and his followers. "Say it once and say it loud - I'm black and I'm proud," was one of Brown's signature slogans of the era. When King was assassinated in 1968, all eyes turned to Brown as he performed a nationally broadcast concert in Boston. His appeals for calm earned him the thanks of President Lyndon Johnson.

Brown himself said he was not asking to live in a world where everyone was given a hand up, just a world where others would have the opportunity, as he had, to make their own way. That was the theme of his song, "I Don't Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing (Open the Door, I'll Get It Myself)" and the core of his philosophy. "There are a lot of people who think they're in the system, but they're really not in the system," he said in a 1996 interview. "Any time an Afro-American kid, nine or 10 years old, can get up and say 'Mama, I think I'm gonna study hard because I want to be president', and have a shot at being president, then we've got America. Other than that, we've got a name and we're trying to find out what it means."

His musical experimentation, meanwhile, pushed him in ever bolder directions. 1969's "Funky Drummer" was another milestone, as Brown developed a half-sung, half-spoken vocal style that would later be identified as the beginnings of rap. The following year saw another huge hit, "Get Up (I Feel Like Being A Sex Machine)". By 1974, Brown's iconic status was sealed when he played in Zaire in the build up to Muhammad Ali's legendary Rumble In The Jungle fight against George Foreman.

Brown's personal demons caught up with him in his later years, as he moved on to a third and then a fourth marriage, faced multiple charges of domestic abuse and then, in 1988, hit the headlines for storming into an insurance office next to his office, brandishing a shotgun and threatening the employees because, he said, they had been using his private toilet. Brown then led police on a protracted chase out of Georgia into South Carolina and back into Georgia again, where he was at last arrested and sentenced to six years behind bars. He served 15 months in prison and another 10 on work release before being paroled.

His legal troubles prompted the techno group LA Style to issue a song called "James Brown Is Dead". Another band, Holy Noise, responded with a single of their own called "James Brown Is Still Alive". Traumatic Stress, meanwhile, issued the track "Who The F*** Is James Brown?" By then, Brown was more than just a black musician. He belonged, and was appreciated, by everybody.

In the film version of Roddy Doyle's The Commitments, the members of a working-class Dublin soul band are encouraged to follow Brown's example. "Do you not think," one of the characters suggests, "we're a little white for that sort of thing?" In the film, the line is a joke, but Brown himself had the perfect response. "Everybody's got soul," he once said. "Everybody doesn't have the same culture to draw from, but everybody's got soul."