Godfather of soul

December 26, 2006


  • During an extraordinary five-decade career, James Brown collected almost as many nicknames as he did hits. He was Soul Brother No. 1, Mr. Dynamite and the Godfather of Soul.

    "So now, ladies and gentleman, it is star time!" Famous Flames organist Lucas "Fats" Gonder announced at the start of 1962's "James Brown: Live at the Apollo," one of the best live albums ever recorded. "It is indeed a great pleasure to introduce to you the man who's nationally and internationally known as the hardest- working man in show business!"

    Call him what you will, there is no denying that Brown earned a place in the pantheon beside the Beatles, Bob Dylan and Elvis Presley as one of the most influential musicians of the last half century, with echoes of his work heard loud and clear in almost all of the soul, funk, R&B, disco, hip-hop and electronic dance music that followed.

    That music will live forever, though the musician himself is gone. Brown was hospitalized with pneumonia at Emory Crawford Long Hospital in Atlanta on Sunday, and he died around 1:45 a.m. on Christmas, according to his agent, Frank Copsidas. "We really don't know at this point what he died of," Copsidas said. Brown was 73 years old.

    ''He was dramatic to the end -- dying on Christmas Day," said the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Brown's friend since 1955. "Almost a dramatic, poetic moment: He'll be all over the news all over the world today. He would have it no other way."

    'You believed he was the greatest'
    Sweating profusely, with a regal cape around his shoulders and a gold crown atop his sizable pompadour, Brown was a larger-than-life presence onstage and off: a four-times-married former cotton picker, boxer, baseball player and petty criminal turned performer with a love for drama and a tendency to find himself at the center of controversy at least two or three times per decade.

    Born James Joseph Brown Jr. in 1933, in the rural town of Barnwell, S.C., the musician was abandoned by his poverty-stricken parents when he was 4, left to the care of relatives and friends in Augusta, Ga. He soon found trouble on that city's streets, and by the age of 16, he had already served three years in reform school for breaking into cars.

    While incarcerated, he met gospel musician Bobby Byrd, who performed there and whose family helped steer Brown on a different career path.

    "The drums were Brown's first instrument, but the organ was his true love," music historians Alan Leeds and Harry Weiner wrote in the liner notes of the 1993 compilation "Soul Pride," one of many stellar collections of Brown's work. They go on to quote Byrd, who recalled that his friend "would pull out all the stops and put his fingers all over the keys. Sometimes his tone was terrible, but he always carried it off. He was fierce. You believed he was the greatest."

    Brown's vision of fronting his own band ran counter to R&B convention in the mid-'50s, when many performers traveled on their own and played with pickup groups. But he put together the justly named Famous Flames, the first of many star-studded groups -- saxophonist Maceo Parker, trombonist Fred Wesley, drummers Jabo Starks and Clyde Stubblefield and bassist Boots Collins are only a few of the crack players who moved through his ranks -- and he soon signed to Cincinnati-based King Records.

    The single ''Please, Please, Please'' became a No. 5 hit on the R&B chart and sold a million copies in mid-1956, but Brown didn't match that accomplishment for several years, and he spent the rest of the '50s slogging it out on the unforgiving chitlin' circuit. Then, in 1962, inspired by the success of Ray Charles' 1959 release "In Person," he self-financed his own live album recorded at Harlem's Apollo Theater.

    The resulting disc spent 66 weeks on Billboard's pop albums chart, peaking at No. 2, just behind Andy Williams' "Days of Wine and Roses."

    Brown would record more than 50 albums that yielded 119 charting singles through the '60s, '70s and '80s, among them "Out of Sight," "(Get Up I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine," "I Got You (I Feel Good)," "Say It Loud -- I'm Black and I'm Proud" (a groundbreaking statement of racial pride released in the riot-plagued year of 1968), the instrumental "Night Train" and "Living in America," a Grammy-winning comeback in 1987.

    But live performance was always his biggest strength, and he remained a touring musician to the end, leading his band through intricate shifts and split-second stops and starts, flailing about the stage in wild abandon, and punctuating the insistent grooves with his screeching wails and guttural moans.

    Brown sang the way the best drummers play the drums: It was all about rhythm and energy; if you couldn't really discern the lyrics, it hardly mattered, because the emotion always came through. Legend held that he fined his musicians for dropping a beat or hitting a bad note, and that he lost two or three pounds every time he performed. And many shows ended with him being carried offstage, thoroughly spent after his considerable exertions.

    'The best grooves'
    As the R&B years of "Live at the Apollo" yielded to the funk era of the early '70s and the disco period later in that decade, Brown laid the foundations for virtually every subgenre in black music today.

    As Roots drummer Hair "?uestlove" Thompson wrote, "It would be redundant of me to remind you of Mr. Brown's anchor in classic hip-hop ('Funky Drummer'), new jack swing (Lyn Collins' immortal 'Think (About It)'), drum and bass ('Soul Pride' accounts for at least 40 percent of the genre's drum breaks), or any of the offspring that these offspring."

    Though no one has figured out a way to calculate an official total, many musicians believe Brown is the most sampled artist of all time, with younger artists frequently turning to his music to electronically capture a few bars of a drum groove or horn riff from which they'd build an entire track. One fan Web site lists 650 samples from just 12 of Brown's songs -- there are doubtless thousands more -- by artists including LL Cool J, Run-D.M.C., Salt N Pepa, Mary J. Blige, En Vogue, R. Kelly Ice-T, Ice Cube and Public Enemy.

    "James presented obviously the best grooves,'' Public Enemy leader and radio personality Chuck D said. "To this day, there has been no one near as funky. No one's coming even close."

    Brown famously played the singer preacher in the 1980 film "The Blues Brothers," but he was no saint, and he was charged several times with abusing drugs and alcohol and hitting his third wife, Adrienne. In September 1988, high on PCP and carrying a shotgun, Brown led police on a high-speed chase from Augusta into South Carolina and back to Georgia that ended only when officers shot out the tires of his truck. He received a six-year prison sentence and spent 25 months in custody.

    In 2003, the South Carolina parole board pardoned Brown for his crimes in that state, and in the end, it will be his musical achievements rather than his misdeeds that are best remembered. Asked during one interview what motivated him, Brown simply said, "I wanted to be somebody." It was a goal he accomplished many times over.




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