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James Brown Click to return to the tributes main page

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3 May 1933 - 25 December 2006

James Brown, the self-confessed ‘Godfather of soul’ died of heart failure at Emory Crawford Long Hospital at 1:45a.m. Monday December 25, 2006. 73-year-old Brown was hospitalised after suffering with pneumonia.

James Joseph Brown was born an only child in Bramwell, South Carolina in 1933. His parents separated when he was four. Brown would then go to live in his aunts’ brothel in Augusta, Georgia. Brown was never work shy. After leaving school in the seventh grade he would turn his hand to many jobs, shoeshine boy, car washing, washing dishes and sweeping shop floors.

At 16, Brown took part in an armed robbery and was later caught breaking into a car. His punishment was an eight to sixteen year sentence of hard labour. After serving a relatively short period in the county jail he was transferred to juvenile work farms. Brown spent a further three years in a community home.

Upon his release he would attempt many roles in the sporting arena, initially boxing and later as a baseball pitcher. Both would be short lived, mainly through injuries.

Brown began work with pianist Bobby Byrd (whom he first met in prison) in bars and clubs in Toccoa, Georgia. He impressed Clint Brantley (Little Richard’s manager). A contract would be signed and Brown would soon be performing at the Twospot Nightclub in Macon, Georgia. Like many tenacious musicians, Brown would lead a double-life. During the day he worked at Lawson’s Motor Company, in the evenings he worked as a drummer and organ player in the club’s house band. Byrd’s Gospel and r&b was the flavour at the time. Brown would eventually become a member of Bobby Byrd’s popular gospel group Three Swanees. The group would evolve into the Swanee Quintet, then the Swanees. Group members included the likes of Sylvester Keel (vocals) and Nafloyd Scott (guitar). The group would tour Georgia and eventually became the Famous Flames.

In 1956, under Brown’s guidance, the Famous Flames signed to King Records. The single “Please, Please, Please” was released and became an instant hit, catapulting Brown and the group into the limelight. However, following releases failed to chart and King Records threatened to cancel the contract if a hit single was not forthcoming. “Try Me” was released September 1958. This release hit the top of the r&b charts and a respected 58 on the US single charts. By now Brown had already flaunted his talents as the groups’ front man. The success of two singles would prove to be great springboards for Brown’s career.

Live At The Apollo

On October 24, 1962 James Brown performed at the Apollo. He was confident enough to pay for the recording of “Live At The Apollo” himself. This would prove a decisive decision in his career as this album not only hit on the pop charts, but also turned Brown into a household name. Brown’s concert with the Famous Flames, led by saxophonist J.C Davis went on to break all concert records.

1964- 1966 would prove to be extremely fruitful years for Brown, with the “Live At The Apollo” recording becoming the first album in pop history to sell more than a million copies. Further community recognition and commercial success would follow with the “Pure Dynamite” album (one of Brown’s other nicknames) the Grammy winning “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag” “I Got The Feelin’, “Say It Loud – I’m Black and Proud and Mother Popcorn. “It’s A Man’s, Man’s World” hit number 8 in the US charts in 1966. This timeless, dramatic ballad almost never made it as a single due a legal dispute with King Records and Mercury Records. Brown continued to tour and performed 300 times a year, earning him the title ‘the hardest working man in show business’. Financial rewards would also follow in the form of owning a private jet; four radio stations, a restaurant chain, a castle and a music-publishing house.

Most are aware of James Brown’s self-confessed title as the Godfather of soul. Many do not doubt, or question such a title. But many also believe Brown to be the Godfather of Funk as he invented the style before George Clinton. Ironically, Brown’s decline is said to have begun when key musicians such as Maceo Parker, Fred Wesley and Bootsy Collins left him to join forces with Clinton’s bands Parliament and Funkadelic. Pee Wee Ellis also left Brown to pursue other musical avenues.

Brown’s hit machine continued in 1970 with classics such as “It’s a New Day”, “Brother Rapp”, “Get Up (I Feel Like Being A Sex Machine) and Super Bad. In the same year, Brown also married his first wife Deirdre Jenkins. The hits continued through to 1974 with “Hot Pants, Part1”, “Make It Funky, Part 1”, “Good Foot, Part 1”, “My Thang” and “Payback”. The albums “Hot Pants” and “Black Caeser” also gained respected positions in the charts.

In 1975 the IRS demanded $4.5 million unpaid tax from Brown. His radio stations were hit by a bribery scandal and his marriage was on the rocks. His son Teddy was killed in a car accident the same year. Brown was forced to sell his private jet and radio stations in an attempt to ease the financial squeeze. A tour of Japan and Africa was also added to his schedule.

The disco phenomenon affected many established musicians popularity and record sales during the mid to late seventies. Brown was no exception with only two commercial successes as the year 1980 rolled in (the single “Get Up Offa That Thing” and the album “Reality”). Brown had racked up 100 million record sales by this point.

Brown continued to push on. After all, he was the hardest working man in show business! In 1980 his popularity rose again after a guest appearance in the cult movie The Blues Brothers. The album “Rapp Payback” followed, but his contract with Island Records was cancelled. Brown signed to RCA in 1983 and hit the UK charts with the singles “Bring It On – Bring It On” and “Unity, Part 1” (collaboration with Africa Bambaataa).

1985 would see ‘the showman’ Brown perform the Dan Hartman penned “Living In America” in the film Rocky IV. Though this proved a hit with a worldwide younger audience (and earned a Grammy Award) his older fans seemed little impressed. “Sex Machine was re-released that summer and gained a top thirty position in the British pop charts. In 1987, Brown released “Gravity” to mixed reviews. The single “I’m Real” was released and gained more favourable reaction.

In 1987 Brown was arrested for drug abuse for the fifth time. Resisting arrest, attacking his wife and the illegal possession of arms was also added to his rap sheet. In December he was convicted of the attempted murder of his wife. He received a six-year prison sentence.

In April 1990 Brown was released after serving 15 months at the State Park Prison in Columbia, South Carolina. He was moved to a reintegration centre for good behaviour. He would use this time to produce radio and television advertisements warning against the pitfalls of drug and alcohol abuse. Brown was released in February 1991. The same year would see him performing at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles to a rapturous applause from patrons and music moguls alike.

1993 would see the release of “Love Over Due”, an album that many saw as a true return to form. Brown received a Grammy for his lifetime achievements the same year. “Universal James” was also released in 1993. On this set Brown attempted to blend traditional and contemporary styles with a hip-hop – soul mix. This album was not well received by critics, or Brown’s fans. In 1998 he released the album “I’m Back” to mixed reviews.

November 4, 2000 would see James Brown perform a memorable concert at the AVO-2000 festival in Basel, Switzerland. Backed by a fifteen-man band, backing singers and master of ceremony, Brown thrilled his ecstatic audience with his renowned jazzy funk filled set.

James Brown 1933 - 2006

In 2004, Brown was diagnosed with prostate cancer, but he successfully fought the disease. Friends and family were still concerned for his health, but by 2006 he began a global tour (Seven Decades of Funk World Tour). Brown was diagnosed with pneumonia while attending a routine dentist appointment. He was admitted to hospital, but died a few days later. Brown is survived by his forth wife, Tomi Raye Hyne and their son James Jr.

Despite James Brown’s colourful past, his contribution to the world of music is without question. His influence can be heard on a daily basis in every genre. At one stage Brown was quoted as ‘the worlds most sampled artist’. He was still seen as a positive role model for many, both musically and from a ‘strictly business perspective’. In 1969, Look magazine commented that he was ‘the most important black man in America’! His rise from the ghetto was an example to many of just what you can achieve with share hard work and persistence. Brown was a strong believer in ‘putting his money where his mouth is’. He supported programmes against drug abuse and was active on the political front (specifically the ideas of Martin Luther King). Brown also supported many black causes, charities and organisations.

Robin Francis
© Michael Valentine Studio Ltd.

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The James Brown recording catalogue is extensive.
The list below is just scratching the surface.
Much previously unreleased material will undoubtedly come to light in the near future.

50th Aniversary Collection 70's Funk Classics 20 All Time Greatest Hits Ballads
Star Time Boxset Funk Power Black Caeser Foundations Of Funk (A Brand New Bag 1964 - 1969)
Living In America
Make It Funky The Big Payback Sex Machine Soul Pride There it is
James Brown & the Famous Flames - Think! James Brown & the Famous Flames - Try Me! Motherlode The Payback



Click Maceo Parker's album below to view his photographs...
Click Pee Wee Ellis' image to view his photographs...

Maceo Parker - Life On Planet Groove(click to go to his page) Pee Wee Ellis @ the Barbican (click to go to his page)

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