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Summary Article: James Brown (1933–2006)
From African American Almanac
Singer, Bandleader

Born in Barnell, South Carolina, on May 3, 1933, James Brown moved to Augusta, Georgia, at the age of four. Although he was raised by various relatives in conditions of economic deprivation, Brown possessed an undaunted determination to succeed at an early age. When not picking cotton, washing cars, or shining shoes, he earned extra money by dancing on the streets and at amateur contests. In the evening, Brown watched shows by such bandleaders as Louis Jordan and Lucky Millinder.

At fifteen Brown quit school to take the R&B group the Flames. During the same period he also sang and played drums with R&B bands. Brown toured extensively with the Flames, performing a wide range of popular material, including the Five Royales's “Baby Don't Do It,” the Clovers's “One Mint Julep,” and Hank Ballard and the Mid-nighters's hit “Annie Had a Baby.”

In 1956 Brown's talents caught the attention of Syd Nathan, founder of King Records. In the same year, after signing with the Federal label, a subsidiary of King, Brown recorded “Please Please Please.” After the Flames disbanded in 1957, Brown formed a new Flames ensemble, featuring former members of Little Richard's band. Back in the studio the following year, Brown recorded “Try Me,” which became a Top-50 pop hit. On the road, Brown polished his stage act and singing ability, producing what became known as the “James Brown Sound.”

After the release of Out of Sight, Brown's music exhibited a more polyrhythmic sound as evidenced in staccato horn bursts and contrapuntal bass lines. Each successive release explored increasingly new avenues of popular music. Brown's 1967 hit “Cold Sweat” and the 1968 release “I Got the Feeling” not only sent shock waves through the music industry, they served as textbooks of rhythm for thousands of aspiring musicians. In 1970 Brown disbanded the Flames and formed the JBs, featuring Bootsy Collins. The group produced a string of hits like “Super Bad” and “Sex Machine.” Among Brown's other commercially successful efforts was the 1988 hit “Living in America,” which appeared on the soundtrack of the film Rocky IV.

Brown produced Star Time, a boxed set of his hits, released in 1991. He continued to do selected appearances and received accolades for his enormous contribution to music all over the world. Brown's impact on American popular music has been of seismic proportion. His explosive onstage energy and intense gospel and R&B-based sound earned him numerous titles such as “The Godfather of Soul,” “Mr. Dynamite,” and “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business.” During the 1960s and early 1970s, Brown's backup group emerged as one of the greatest soul bands in the history of modern music, one that served as a major force in the development of funk and fusion jazz. James Brown died on December 25, 2006, in Atlanta, Georgia, due to complications from pneumonia.

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