James Brown

Who They Are: 
Singer, Entertainer
May 3, 1933 – December 25, 2006

There are very few artists who have a more compelling and tumultuous rags to riches story as the "Godfather of Soul", James Brown.  Born in Barnwell, South Carolina in 1933, James grew up in extreme poverty and bounced from home to home, once living in his aunt's house, which doubled as a house of prostitution.  James dropped out of school in the seventh grade and spent much of his youth hustiling on the streets to get by: shining shoes, washing cars, and doing other work in the neighborhood.

While struggling through poverty as a youth James Brown was no saint.  At the age of 16, he was arrested for theft and served 3 years in prison. In 1988, Brown was arrested following an alleged high-speed freeway car chase and spent another 3 years in prison.  It was between those two incidents however that James Brown made music history.

James Brown - The Music

In 1952, while still in reform school, he met future R&B legend Bobby Byrd.  Together they made musical history as James Brown and The Famous Flames, creating hits like Please, Please, Please, tunes "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag"[34]and "I Got You (I Feel Good).  Although Brown had a string of hits through the late 50’s and 60’s and 70’s (17 top 10s), he and the band were equally known for their performance as they were for their music.

James Brown's performances were legendary.  He masterfully controlled his band and his dancing and choreography were a sight to behold.  He invented his own unique style of dance to include his unique spin on the Mashed Potato, his signature splits and his unified steps with the band and the dancers.  just when you thought it was over James would leap into action expanding each song and working the crowds into a fever pitch.  To this day many say that his performances have yet to be matched and he earned his nickname "the hardest working man in show business" every night.   

James Brown on Soul Train 1973

James Brown and The Famous Flames 1964

James Brown - The Activist

James Brown ThinkingFor those who were teens and young adults during the 60s James Brown was known as much for his activism as he was for his music.   In 1966, he released the single "Don't Be a Drop-Out" as a lesson to young students who had thoughts of dropping out.  Even in the face of the racism and inequality of the time James Brown was very patriotic and in 1967 he release "America is My Home", a "rap song" about how he felt people, particularly in the African-American community, were neglecting the country that he said "could give (them) opportunities".  

Other socially conscious singles Brown released include "I Don't Want Nobody To Give Me Nothing (Open Up the Door, I'll Get It Myself)" (1969), "Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved" (1971), "Talking Loud and Saying Nothing" (1972), "King Heroin" (1972), "Funky President (People It's Bad)" (1974) and "Reality" (1975), but he is best known for the 1968 single "Say It Loud – I'm Black and I'm Proud" released  after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr..  Many call "Say it Loud" the national anthem of the civil rights movement.

In addition to his socially conscious music James Brown spent much of his time making speeches to kids urging them to stay in school.  He performed numerous benefit concerts for organizations and groups that supported the Civil Rights struggle to include  Jesse Jackson's PUSH and The Black Panther Party's Breakfast program throughout the early-1970s.  James Brown’s live televised performance in Boston the day after Dr. King's death is often cited as a major factor in quelling major riots from extending further than they did and although he was not a major speaker on civil rights he did spend time making numerous speeches to kids urging them to stay in school and to take advantage of the opportunities that could open up to them if they did so.

James Brown – The Legend

James Brown Michael JacksonThere is no doubt that James Brown is one of the most influential musical artists and inspirational people to ever to walk the planet.  He has earned the nickname "The Godfather of Soul" and many credit him as the inventor of funk.  His speaking style used in his songs is a precursor to rap and his dance moves influenced everyone from Michael Jackson to Prince.  James Brown is the most sampled artist of all time and his song "Funky Drummer" is the most sampled piece of music of all time. 

In 1983 James Brown was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.  He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and was a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors.  James Brown has 4 albums in the Rolling Stone Magazine's top500 greatest albums of all time  including Live at the Apollo at #24.  In 2004 Rolling Stone listed James Brown as #7th greatest artist of all time.  In addition to his music, James Brown has appeared in over a dozen films to include Rocky IV and Undercover Brother, and several documentaries on his life and music.

James Brown passed away on December 23, 2006 from congestive heart failure after battling pneumonia.  True to his hardworking nature he was passing out toys to children 1 week before he died.  For all that James Brown was and wasn’t we will always remember him for his music, his activism and his devotion to providing joy to his fans and giving them their money’s worth – and more

10 Things You May Not Know About James Brown

James Brown and Band1. James Brown holds the record for having the most singles on the Billboard Hot 100 without having a number 1 hit.

2. James Brown is the most sampled artist of all time

3. James Brown was a self-taught musician; learning to play harmonica, piano, drums and guitar.

4. Often James Brown would dance with his back to the stage while flashing hand signals.  Sometimes those hand signals were to direct the band, but other times they were to point out which dancers would be fined for missing a step or breaking other rules

5. James Brown would fine his band members for things like wearing unshined shoes, missing a dance step or showing up late to a gig.

6. The beat for "Give It Up Or Turnit A Loose"  was so popular among the break dancers of the late 70’s and early 80’s that Kurtis Blow called the song "the national anthem of hip hop"

7. In 1987, Brown won the Grammy for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance for "Living in America." A song he performed live in Rocky IV.

8. At time s in his career James Brown had 40 to 50 people working in his stage show

9. Bootsy Collins, was a member of James Brown backup band in the 70’s

10. The 1967 #1 R&B hit, "Cold Sweat", is sometimes cited as the first true funk song.

Why They Inspire: 

He inspired a generation of black people to "Say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud".  Today most people think of James Brown and revere him for his amazing dance moves, rocking stage show and signature voice, but in the 60's James Brown was one of the most influential members of the Civil Rights Movement.  It was James who in 1964 told us to "Say it loud".  James gave us permission to be ourselves, stand up, be creative, be original and to be strong.

James Brown JumpingHe lived up to his nickname "the hardest working man in show business".  James was a relentless performer and a perfectionist.  He is legendary for working his band and his dancers until almost ready to drop, and then turning around and doing the same thing the next night. Brown traveled by bus from town to town all over the country, performing as many as 330 shows a year with almost all of the shows as one-nighters.

His dedication to giving everything he had in his performances came through to his audiences and this is one of the main reasons we have always respected him.

He was a true innovator in the music industry.  In a time when too much soul music was playing it safe James was a breakout superstar.  Nobody danced like James.  Nobody sounded like James.  Nobody had the stage presence like James and definitely no one was as cool as James Brown.  A testament to his unique style, artists from Michale Jackson to Prince to Chris Brown to Usher continually copy his moves and style in the hopes of capturing the James Brown magic in the new millennium.

He had hard times but rebounded from them to still come out on top.  Everybody has hard times and James Brown was no different.  James Brown remains as an inspiration largely because he was able to accept his shortcomings, own up to his mistakes, pay for them (to include jail time), and still come out swinging and returning to the top of the music scene.  Nothing was able to keep James Brown down and for that we salute him.

In Their Own Words: 

"My expectations of other people, I double them on myself." - James Brown

"When I'm on stage, I'm trying to do one thing: bring people joy. Just like church does. People don't go to church to find trouble, they go there to lose it." - James Brown

"Sometimes I feel like I'm a preacher as well, 'cause I can really get into an audience." - James Brown

"Sometimes you struggle so hard to feed your family one way, you forget to feed them the other way, with spiritual nourishment. Everybody needs that." - James Brown

"The hardest thing about being James Brown is I have to live. I don't have no down time." - James Brown

"I taught them everything they know, but not everything I know." - James Brown

Speak on it James!

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