James Brown was an American singer, dancer, composer, producer, bandleader, and philanthropist. His unique style of music, primarily based on gospel and blues, influenced a variety of musical types, and his dazzling dance moves were copied by several generations of musical stars. Brown was born to Susie and Joseph James Garner—his father later changed his last name to Brown—in Barnwell, South Carolina. His name was mistakenly written on the birth certificate as James Joseph, and it stuck. Born during the Depression and in the Jim Crow South, the Brown family lived in desperate poverty. His mother left his father for another man when Brown was a toddler, and at the age of six, the little boy moved with his father to Augusta, Georgia. Shortly thereafter, he was sent to live with an aunt who ran a brothel. The adults paid little attention to him, so he spent most of his days hanging out in the streets; he dropped out of school in the seventh grade.
Brown began working as a child—shining shoes, washing cars, singing for change on the streets. He soon taught himself to play the harmonica, and was taught to play drums, piano, and guitar by several of the adults who drifted in and out of his life. Brown also turned to petty crime and was convicted of armed robbery and sent to a juvenile center at the age of 16. It was there that he met Bobby Byrd, who was impressed with the dancing and singing abilities Brown showed. Byrd's family was able to get Brown released from prison after serving three years. Just like when he was a child, he worked a variety of jobs, including that of a boxer and a semiprofessional baseball player, but after injuring his leg, he committed himself to focusing on music full time.
Brown began singing with Byrd and his sister in a group called the Gospel Starlights. Byrd then formed his own band, the Avons, and began to dabble in secular music. It was not until the group changed its name to the Flames that its sound really took off. While playing the so-called chitlin circuit, the Flames got a contract with Federal Records. Their first recording, “Please, Please, Please” in 1956, was a smash hit; more than a million copies were sold, and it reached number six on the rhythm and blues chart. Subsequent records, however, failed to take off.
Brown was friends with Little Richard and took over his tour dates when Little Richard left the secular music world to become a preacher. Several members of the Little Richard band joined Brown, and they finally scored a hit in 1958 with “Try Me.” It is then the name of the group was changed to James Brown and the Famous Flames. They enjoyed great regional success, but had yet to reach a nationwide audience.
Disagreements with record producers and promoters over stylistic concerns pushed Brown into financing and recording a live show at the famed Apollo Theater in New York in 1963. The album was a smash success and led Brown and Byrd to form their own production company, in part to market their music to white audiences. The key to the success of James Brown lay in a simple change in rhythm: he had his band accent the first and third beats of the music rather than use the common two/four beat so popular in American rock music. Brown also treated all the instruments as though they were in the percussion family, and these innovations changed the world of popular music.
During the 1960s and 1970s, Brown and his band enjoyed their greatest success. A variety of nicknames were given to him: Mr. Please, Please, Please; the Hardest Working Man in Show Business; Soul Brother Number One; Mr. Dynamite; the King of Funk; and his favorite, the Godfather of Soul. His live shows were legendary–long, elaborately staged, and electrifying. It was often said that he lost as much as 10 pounds during a performance. Brown had a large band and was a difficult taskmaster, fining band members for such things as playing the wrong note, tardiness, or not dressing appropriately on stage. Because of this, the band changed personnel often. Yet Brown continued to refine his music, expanding the parameters of soul music and inventing funk—that is, music heavy on the beat—and laid the groundwork for hip hop. It was also during this period that Brown became a businessman; at one time he owned several radio stations, real estate, and an airplane.
In the 1960s, Brown turned to social activism, encouraging children to stay in school and promoting self-reliance and hard work through the prism of rhythm and blues. He supported leaders of the civil rights movement, spoke with presidents and toured disadvantaged neighborhoods. Brown is also credited with being a calming influence in Boston after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. While other major cities burned, Brown gave a concert, which was televised on public television for free, and there was relative calm in the city.
James Brown lived a colorful personal life; he was divorced twice, widowed once, and fathered nine children. At the time of his death he was in a common-law relationship and had allegedly father a son named James II. During the 1980s, he served three years in prison for traffic- and drug-related crimes. In the 1990s, there were numerous brushes with the law for domestic violence. But he garnered many more accolades than brickbats, even receiving a prestigious Kennedy Center honor from the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
Brown, who had survived prostate cancer and lived for years with diabetes, died of congestive heart failure on Christmas Day in 2006. The memorial services held at the Apollo Theater and at the James Brown Arena in Augusta, Georgia, featured costume changes and videos of Brown in concert. Former band members played his music at the services, and activist and minister Al Sharpton preached.
Controversy followed Brown even in death. His children battled with the executors of his estate and his common-law wife Tomi Rae Hynie; there were allegations that James II was not his son. Moreover, the family could not agree on a permanent resting place, and for several months his body remained in a room that was controlled for temperature and humidity. He was temporarily buried in a crypt at the home of one of his daughters. Plans for burial at a mausoleum and the conversion of his former estate into a public museum such as Graceland are allegedly under discussion.
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