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James Brown

St. James Encyclopedia of Pop Culture by Willie Collins

Known as the "Godfather of Soul," this influential African-American singer was, in the 1950s and 1960s, one of the seminal figures in the transformation of gospel music and blues to soul. Also known as "Soul Brother Number 1" and "The Hardest Working Man in Show Business," Brown amassed a record-setting total of 98 entries on Billboard's top-40 R&B singles chart while influencing scores of performers such as Sly and the Family Stone, Kool and the Gang, and Prince, as well as contemporary rap and hip-hop performers. Brown is also a charter member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and has won numerous awards for his recordings. Despite these professional successes, Brown is notorious for his "bad-boy" reputation stemming from several run-ins with the law over the years; he served prison time as a youth for theft and later for resisting arrest and traffic violations. He also experienced serious personal and business troubles in the 1970s, complicated by a longstanding dispute with the IRS over millions of dollars in back taxes that were resolved in part by his hiring of the radical attorney William Kunstler.

Born James Joe Brown, Jr. on May 3, 1933 in Barnwell, South Carolina, Brown early on became accustomed to grinding poverty and the struggle for survival. The family lived in a shack in the woods without plumbing or electricity. His father, Joe Garner Brown, made a living by selling tree tar to a turpentine company. Brown's parents separated when he was four and he continued to live with his father. The family moved to Augusta, Georgia, where his father left him under the guardianship of an aunt who ran a whorehouse. Brown earned money for rent and clothing by buck dancing for soldiers and by shining shoes.

Young James Brown's musical talent emerged at an early age. His father gave him a harmonica that he taught himself to play, and Brown sang gospel with friends, emulating the Golden Gate Quartet. Other members of the Augusta community guided his musical development: the famous Tampa Red taught him some guitar, and Leon Austin and a Mr. Dink taught him piano and drums respectively. Brown listened to gospel, popular music, blues, and jazz. His exposure to Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five's short film Caldonia convinced him that he should be an entertainer. At the age of 11, Brown won an amateur-night contest at the Lenox Theater for singing "So Long" and started a trio called Cremona in which he played piano, drums, and sang.

Mired in poverty, Brown began resorting to petty theft for his personal wardrobe, then began stealing automobile parts, for which he was arrested and sentenced to 8-to-18 years in the penitentiary, and later transferred to the Georgia Juvenile Training Institute. While in prison, he formed a gospel quartet, earning the name "Music Box" from his fellow inmates and insisting that gospel music helped him keep his sanity. While incarcerated, he met Bobby Byrd, a musician with whom he would later have a long-lasting professional relationship. After securing an early release based good behavior and a promise to his parole board to develop his creative talents, Brown settled in Toccoa, Georgia, where he lived with Bobby Byrd's family and worked at a car dealership while immersing himself in gospel music after hours. Brown formed a group called the Gospel Starlighters, which eventually evolved into the Famous Flames, an R&B group that consisted of Bobby Byrd, Sylvester Keels, Doyle Oglesby, Fred Pullman, Nash Knox, Baby Roy Scott, and Brown. Later, Nafloyd Scott would join the group as a guitarist.

In 1955, a studio recording of "Please, Please, Please" became the group's first hit, which became a regional favorite. Ralph Bass, a talent scout signed the group for the King/Federal record label. In 1958, the group recorded "Try Me," which rose to the number one spot on the R&B chart. Based on this recording, the group solidified and began to fill major auditoriums with its strong black following. Several hits ensued, but it was the 1963 release of the album Live at the Apollo that catapulted Brown into national recognition when it rose to the number two spot on Billboard's album chart. Radio stations played the album as if it were a single and attendance at Brown's concerts increased dramatically.

Throughout most of his career Brown has been sensitive to political and social issues. Though he never graduated from high school, his 1966 recording "Don't Be a Drop Out" posted at number four on the R&B chart, and he approached Vice President Hubert Humphrey with the idea of using the song as the theme for a stay-in-school campaign aimed at inner-city youth. His prominence in this effort encouraged activist H. Rap Brown to urge the singer to be more vocal in the black-power movement, which James Brown often found too extreme for his tastes. Still, during the civil-rights activism of the 1960s, he purchased radio stations in Knoxville, Baltimore, and Atlanta as a way of giving greater clout to blacks in the media, and his recording "Say It Loud--I'm Black and I'm Proud" became one of the unofficial theme songs of the new black consciousness. During those years, Brown wielded political clout and garnered respect and attention in the black community, though he endured criticism in some circles for his association with Humphrey and his later friendship with President Richard Nixon--the singer endorsed Humphrey for President in 1968 and Nixon in 1972, and performed at Duke Ellington's inaugural gala for Nixon in January of 1969. Earlier, in the wake of the urban unrest following the April 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Brown interrupted his stations' programming with live broadcasts in which he urged nonviolence. In Boston the following day, he acceded to a request by Mayor Kevin White to appear on a live television program advocating a similar response.


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