(1933 – 2006)
A monumental figure in the development of Rhythm and Blues, James Brown was a one-of-a-kind musical visionary whose influence is as massive as the larger-than-life stage persona that spawned such superlative nicknames as the Godfather of Soul, Mr. Dynamite, and the Hardest-Working Man In Show Business. In a recording career that spanned six decades, Brown’s innovations helped to build the foundation of Soul, Dance music, and especially Funk, while his electrifying performances established him as one of contemporary music's best-known and best-loved icons.
Growing up poor and largely on his own, in and around Augusta, Georgia, Brown was exposed early to Gospel music. He began singing in local talent shows as a child, and served a short prison term for robbery, before joining his friend Bobby Byrd's group the Gospel Starlighters. That outfit morphed into a secular R&B act called the Avons, which later became the Famous Flames. The group signed to the Cincinnati, Ohio, label Federal, and worked the network of small Southern clubs known as the "chitlin' circuit." As the group's lead singer and eventual leader, Brown began to develop a reputation as a tirelessly athletic live performer while scoring late-50s R&B hits with "Please Please Please" and "Try Me." The milestone 1963 album Live at the Apollo captured the intensity of Brown's live shows.
By the second half of the 60s, Brown had evolved toward a more distinctive and rhythmically sophisticated approach that manifested itself on such hits as "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," "I Got You (I Feel Good)," "It's a Man's Man's Man's World," Cold Sweat" (which has been cited by some as the first Funk song) and the socially conscious "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud, Pt. 1," each of which hit the No. 1 slot on the R&B charts while also reaching the Pop Top 10. Around this time Brown, a.k.a. “Soul Brother Number One,” emerged as a potent figure in the emerging Black Power movement, his songs — in particular “Say It Loud,” which was embraced as something of an anthem — both reflecting and galvanizing the movement.
By the early 70s, Brown had carved out an ambitious, wholly distinctive Funk sound that drove such hits as "Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine," "Super Bad," "Hot Pants," "Get on the Good Foot," and "The Payback." Brown's Funk style combined R&B's propulsive drive with some of the rhythmic complexity and precision of Jazz, emphasizing interlocking, syncopated bass, drum, and guitar rhythms. The artist's ambitious musical ideas were executed by his handpicked bands, which Brown drilled with martial precision.
Brown remained prolific and inventive through the 70s, while continuing to write and produce records for a variety of other protégés, sidekicks, and friends, including Bobby Byrd, Lyn Collins, Marva Whitney, and Fred Wesley & the J.B.'s.
Although he never lost his iconic status, Brown's stature as a hitmaker and cutting-edge creative force had faded by the 80s. He managed one more Top 10 hit, 1985's "Living In America," which, tellingly, was written and produced by Dan Hartman rather than Brown himself. Despite that comeback hit, within a few years Brown was making headlines for his scrapes with the law rather than for his music. In 1988, he was arrested twice, first for drugs and weapons charges, and then after a high-speed car chase with police. For the latter, he was sentenced to six years in prison on a variety offenses; he was released in 1991.
Despite his high-profile legal problems, Brown remained one of music's foremost showmen, and continued performing and recording up until his death in 2006.