James Brown, better known as the “Godfather of Soul,” left behind one of the most legendary musical catalogs across any genre. On what would have been the funk pioneer’s birthday, we look back at Brown’s illustrious career.
Brown was born on this day in 1933 in the small town of Barnwell, S.C. After his parents split when he was four, Brown was sent to live with an aunt in Augusta, Ga., who was also a madame of a local brothel. Living in extreme poverty, Brown wore tattered rags and did odd jobs for pennies at a time. He was put out of school at the age of 12 for not having proper clothing, and that led to a life in petty crimes.
At 16, Brown was arrested for stealing a car and sent to juvenile prison. His passion for singing and dancing carried over while in the system, leading him to a fateful meeting with Bobby Byrd. Brown, who led the prison gospel choir, and Byrd would begin a fruitful partnership that spanned decades.
In the mid-fifties, Brown joined Byrd’s music group, the Gospel Star Lighters, which was eventually renamed the Famous Flames. The group recorded a demo version of “Please Please Please,” which ended up becoming a hit on the R&B charts. In 1958, Brown went off on his own in New York and began recording a series of hits, including his breakout smash “Try Me.”
This led to a series of charting singles in “Night Train,” “Lost Someone,” and “Prisoner of Love,” the first of his tracks to break into the Pop charts. From this period on and well into the ‘60’s, Brown earned the nickname of “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business” because of a relentless tour schedule. Brown gained a reputation of being both an excellent showman and shrewd band leader who expected perfection.
The 1965 track, “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” helped usher in the early roots of the Funk sound, and was one of Brown’s early classics. Other hits from this time included “I Got You (I Feel Good),” and “It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World” among other standouts. Brown used his musical platform for social activism, providing one of the Black Power movement’s enduring anthems in, “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.”
The ‘70’s were a good time for Brown with hits like “Sex Machine” and “Get Up Offa That Thing” along with others. However, the later part of the decade saw Brown’s hitmaking abilities fading. However, the mid-eighties gave Brown a significant boost with the hit song “Living in America,” used in Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky IV film.
Like many entertainers of his time, Brown succumbed to the pressures of fame and drug addiction ensued. Several publicized run-ins with the law made the beloved singer the butt of jokes on late night television and standup comedy routines. He attempted several comebacks but never quite regained his top form.
Brown’s contemporary impact happened in the most unlikely of ways. Hip-hop producers began incorporating the deep funk and grooves of Brown’s bands and sampling the sound to form their own backdrops. Without Brown, rappers like Rakim, Heavy D, Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie, MC Lyte and several others wouldn’t have had the beats they needed for their major hits. Further, musicians like the late Prince and Michael Jackson and current stars like Anderson.Paak owe a great deal to Brown’s vocal and stage showmanship.
Brown, who would have been 84 today, passed in 2006 after battling pneumonia. He was 73.