“James Brown was born to lose. He refused to accept that fate.” Those words begin the biography of the Godfather of Soul included in the booklet that accompanied Star Time (1991), a four-CD anthology that presents a comprehensive overview of Brown’s career. Harry Weinger and Cliff White continue the story: “Brown was determined to be Somebody. He called himself ‘Mr. Dynamite’ before his first Pop hit, and ‘The Hardest Working Man in Show Business’ before the business knew his name.”
Brown spent more than 50 years as a performer proving that last epithet was his by right. It’s not unusual to read the life stories of performers, especially African American performers, born to crushing poverty. Even by those standards, Brown stood out. He made his way to the top through sheer determination, unshakable belief in his talent and vision, and hard, hard work.
James Joseph Brown was born on May 3, 1933, in a shack in Elko, South Carolina, a tiny town in Barnwell County. His mother, Susie Brown, was 16, and his father, Joseph Gardner Brown, 21. James was “motionless and quiet” when he was delivered, according to R. J. Smith’s The One: The Life and Music of James Brown. His aunt Minnie “refused to give up, blowing strong breath into his lungs until, after infinite minutes, he came to life.”
In his autobiography, The Godfather of Soul (1986), Brown wrote: “I wasn’t supposed to be alive. You see, I was a stillborn kid.” As Smith points out, Brown wasn’t technically stillborn, but he probably would not have survived without his aunt’s heroic measures. It was the first of many hurdles that Brown overcame.
Brown’s family was terribly poor, living in the deep South during the Jim Crow era. His mother left him and his father when James was four, and the two soon moved with Aunt Minnie to Augusta, Georgia. They made the 42-mile journey on foot, and first took residence at another aunt’s brothel.
Augusta had a vibrant musical culture—especially for gospel music. James absorbed it all, watching and learning from the performances of his Pentecostal preachers. He had a talent for music; he learned how to play a battered, discarded organ his dad, who was an amateur musician, had brought home. By the time Brown was 13, he had formed a group, the Cremona Trio, with two friends. The group was named for the brand of guitar played by one of the band members.
In addition to music, Brown was good at sports. However, he was a poor kid in the segregated South and fell into crime. He was arrested for theft after breaking into a car, and at 16 was sent to a juvenile detention center in Toccoa, Georgia. Brown sang with a gospel quartet there, but made his first—and most important—musical friendship when the prison’s baseball team played a Toccoa team that included singer and musician Bobby Byrd.
Three years into his sentence, Brown was eligible for parole, and Byrd’s family spoke to the parole board on his behalf. Brown was given a work release in June 1952 and started working for a local businessman in Toccoa. He began singing in Byrd’s sister’s gospel group, but soon joined Byrd’s own group. After several name changes, the group decided to call themselves The Flames. They picked up a third member, Johnny Terry, and even after the group had expanded to include other singers, Brown, Byrd, and Terry remained the core.
The Flames began as a gospel group, but started playing R&B after Brown and Byrd had seen Hank Ballard and the Midnighters perform. Brown threw himself into the music and was soon on the way to developing what would become his characteristic stage presence. The Flames played throughout Georgia and caught the eye of Little Richard’s manager, Clint Brantley, who advised the band to add “Famous” to its name. Brown was a great admirer of Richard’s, and Brantley booked Brown and the Flames to fulfill engagements Richard couldn’t make. On some occasions, Brown actually performed as Little Richard.
By 1955, the Famous Flames were becoming more popular, and Brantley decided they should record an original song as a demo. Brown and Terry wrote the tune, and the Flames recorded the demo at a radio station in Macon, Georgia. Brown based the lyrics on a phrase Little Richard had written on a napkin that Brown had kept: “Please, Please, Please.” For the melody, he and Terry took inspiration from “Baby Please Don’t Go” and other R&B hits.
Ralph Bass of Federal Records heard the demo and signed the Famous Flames to his label, which was a subsidiary of King Records. King was a powerful, independent R&B and country-music label based in Cincinnati, Ohio. Federal had several acts on its roster that the Flames admired, including Hank Ballard, Little Willie John, and the “5” Royales. Bass took the group into the studio in February 1956 to do another recording of the tune, this time with session musicians.
Syd Nathan, the president of King Records, didn’t really like “Please, Please, Please” and was reluctant to release it on his subsidiary label. It wouldn’t be the last time Nathan had to be convinced to release one of Brown’s records. Bass insisted that “Please, Please, Please” would be a hit, and Nathan finally relented, if only to prove Bass wrong. Federal released the single in April 1956 and momentum built slowly. By August it was in the top 10 on the R&B charts and would go on to sell three million copies.
“Please, Please, Please” sounded strange to Nathan, and to the musicians who played on the session. The repetition of the word “please” irritated him, but Nathan was also unsettled by Brown’s raw emotion. In fact, it was the song’s oddness that had attracted Bass in the first place and convinced him it might be a hit.
It’s hard to say, nearly 70 years later, why the song seemed so unusual back then. It shows the influence of blues shouters Brown liked, such as Wynonie Harris and Roy Brown, and of gospel music, and there’s some rock’n’roll in the song. In many ways it anticipates the Southern soul that would fill the airwaves ten years later. Bass’s instincts were right, though, and the song became a highlight of Brown’s live performances for years.
When Federal released the single, it was as a James Brown record “with” the Flames. This did not sit well with rest of the group, so they walked. Brown hired a backing band, which he rehearsed into a tight, well-polished unit—he kept discipline by fining band members for mistakes, for being late, or for violating the onstage dress code. He also worked hard on his own stage presence, and his dynamic performances began to attract bigger audiences.
“Please, Please, Please” became the high point of a highly choreographed performance. Brown, the backup singers, and the band all followed carefully plotted moves onstage throughout the show. At the climax of the show, Brown would sing the hit song and drop to his knees as if in full emotional and physical exhaustion. One of the band members would drape him in a cape and attempt to lead him offstage. Brown would throw off the cape and return to the microphone to continue singing, while his bandmates tried to pull him off the stage.
It was fortunate that Brown had built a following with his stage performances, because he did not have another hit for nearly three years. Federal released nine more singles, and none charted. The label was ready to drop him when, in late 1958, “Try Me” made #1 on the R&B charts and #48 on the pop charts. The song demonstrated Brown’s ability to handle a ballad, and he followed up with “I Want You So Bad,” a midtempo ballad that hit #20 on the R&B charts.
Three more singles in 1959 went nowhere, but in early 1960, Federal released “I’ll Go Crazy” (#15 on the R&B charts), followed a few months later by “Think” (#7). Byrd was back as a Famous Flame by that time, and he helped Brown rework “Think,” which had been a hit for the “5” Royales, to fit Brown’s style. Brown had his own band in the studio with him, and Nat Kendrick’s snare and kick drum gave the song an emphatic rhythmic foundation. The horn arrangement was also gripping, and Bobby Roach’s guitar gave the song an even stronger pull.
The combination of Brown’s well-rehearsed band and Byrd’s help with the arrangements moved Brown forward dramatically. As the British music journalist Cliff White wrote in his liner notes for the two-CD set, Roots of a Revolution (1995; Polydor 42281 7304 2): “‘Think’ was as if from a different plane of consciousness . . . suddenly fifties R&B was yesterday and James Brown was tomorrow.” The collaboration with Byrd would be an important factor, well into the next decade. Smith asserts in The One: “If it hadn’t been for Bobby Byrd, there might not have been a James Brown.”
Brown moved to King Records and continued to release singles that made the top 40 in the R&B charts over the next two years. “I Don’t Mind” and “I Lost Someone” were aching soul ballads that further broadened his appeal. He gave “Night Train,” a jazz instrumental that many other musicians had already recorded, a unique interpretation that was pushed along by his shouted mentions of various cities. He used a similar shout-out of city names on the instrumental “(Do the) Mashed Potatoes,” named for a popular dance. Nathan thought the record would stiff, so it was released as a single under the name “Nat Kendrick and the Swans” by Dade Records. It hit #8 on the R&B charts.
Brown continued to tour, and he built a loyal following with his carefully paced, visually gripping stage show. By 1962, he was doing 300 shows a year and had appeared on American Bandstand. One of his stops was New York City’s Apollo Theater, the most important venue in the country for an African American performer. The audiences there were sophisticated and demanding, and demonstrative if they disapproved of a performer. Brown’s first appearance, in April 1959, was unsuccessful, so he began tightening up his show, streamlining and sharpening it. By 1961, he was headlining at the Apollo.
In the fall of 1962, Brown and his group were scheduled to appear at the Apollo for a week-long stand, five shows a night. Brown had the idea that recording one of the shows and releasing it on LP would expand his audience. Nathan again tried to block one of Brown’s ideas. King was a singles-driven label, and pop-music LPs didn’t sell well—especially live recordings. Brown had some money set aside to fund an upcoming tour and paid for the recording.
King released Live at the Apollo in mid-1963, but only after Brown had slipped test pressings to DJs, who generated interest by playing it on the radio. It surprised everyone by selling briskly and reaching #2 on Billboard’s album charts.
Even the opening introduction by Fats Gonder, organist and MC for Brown’s band, is iconic. “So now, ladies and gentlemen, it is star time,” he begins. “Are you ready for star time?” He continues: “It is indeed a great pleasure to present to you at this particular time: national and international [sic] known as the hardest-workin’ man in show business. Man that sang ‘I Go Crazy.’” The band plays an emphatic chord, and Gonder recites a litany of Brown’s hits, pausing after each mention so the band can add a dramatic punch. Each title creates more excitement and anticipation in the audience, and then Gonder announces: “Mr. Dynamite, the amazing Mr. ‘Please, Please’ himself, the star of the show: James Brown and the Famous Flames!”
The band kicks in fully, guitarist Les Buie playing a low-string riff as the band vamps for 45 seconds before coming to a stop. Brown sings: “I feel alright. You know I feel alright, children! I feel alriiiight!” His voice rises in tone on that last, extended “alright,” and Buie plays the sliding chords that lead into “I’ll Go Crazy.” Brown pleads during the verse (“If you leave me / I’ll go crazy”), but during the chorus he offers advice: “You’ve got to live for yourself / Yourself and nobody else.”
The band pauses only briefly before jumping into “Try Me.” Brown’s impassioned vocals are buoyed along by Hubert Perry’s bass line—phat for 1962—and the Famous Flames’ precise backing vocals. A brief instrumental goes into a quick pass at “Think,” played at a much faster tempo than the original, then another instrumental goes into “I Don’t Mind.” So far, the tracks all come in at around the two-minute mark.
Brown and the band then move into the longest track on the album, a nearly 11-minute rendition of “Lost Someone.” Brown intros the song with a sung list of his hits followed by a series of emotional exhortations, the band underlining each line. “Lost Someone” is a ballad, and Brown wrings feeling from each line. The band simmers behind him, and on the second verse the horns enter. Brown works the crowd, repeating lines, varying them in volume and force. Drummer Clayton Fillyau inserts a snare / kick drum hit on occasion for emphasis.
The band comes to an abrupt stop before Brown continues to another verse. On the original LP release, side 1 ended here and the song continued on side 2. Brown builds the song back up again with a sung monologue about love lost, love regained, love’s pains and joys. Brown teases and cajoles, and his object of affection is the audience, which screams and squeals in response. The band follows him closely, responding to visual cues from Brown. The band’s arranger and director, Lewis Hamlin, taught the musicians to watch Brown carefully and follow his moves onstage to help reinforce the power of his performances.
After “Lost Someone,” Brown goes into a roughly six-minute medley of songs, including “Please, Please, Please,” “You’ve Got the Power,” and several other hits, ending with a return to “Please, Please, Please.” The band and Brown close the show and the album with “Night Train.”
DJs, including Philadelphia’s highly influential Jerry Blavat, played the 35-minute Live at the Apollo in full on the radio, helping create interest and sales. Its success on the album charts reflected Brown’s popularity with a wider audience, including White listeners. Soon after releasing Live at the Apollo, Brown recorded “Prisoner of Love,” a heavily produced ballad with strings and a nine-piece vocal backing. It was his first top-20 pop hit, reaching #18 on the pop charts.
Brown continued to place singles in the top 100 through 1963, but he was becoming dissatisfied with King Records. He wanted more money and more control over his recordings. He, Byrd, and Ben Bart, Brown’s manager, formed a production company and linked it to Smash Records, a subsidiary of Mercury. King filed an injunction to stop Smash from releasing Brown’s music, but not before the label had released “Out of Sight” in July 1964.
“Out of Sight” set the stage for the recording style Brown would follow, with rare exceptions, for the rest of his career. It created the template for what soon would be called “funk.” In Godfather of Soul, Brown wrote: “‘Out of Sight’ was another beginning, musically and professionally. . . . You can hear the band and me start to move in a whole other direction rhythmically. The horns, the guitars, the vocals, everything was starting to be used to establish all kinds of rhythms at once. . . . I was trying to get every aspect of the production to contribute to the rhythmic patterns.”
The arrangement on “Out of Sight” is as precise as a Swiss watch but flows in a way that feels spontaneous. Brown’s band at the time included three players who would remain a key part of his music: St. Clair Pinckney on tenor sax; Maceo Parker on tenor and baritone sax; and Bernard Odum on bass. Maceo’s brother Martin was the drummer on the track. They were almost certainly in the band that accompanied Brown for his appearance on the T.A.M.I. Show, an American International film released in late 1964.
The T.A.M.I. Show captured the high points of three of Brown’s shows at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in October 1964. The two-hour film included performances by the Beach Boys, Chuck Berry, Marvin Gaye, the Miracles, and many others. James Brown and The Famous Flames appear immediately before the headline act: The Rolling Stones. Brown’s performance is, to put it mildly, incendiary. The band is already wailing as he dances onto the stage; the Flames are also going through a choreographed dance routine.
The band is playing the intro to “Out of Sight” as Brown does the Mashed Potato. He shimmies across the stage, goes onto one foot, and moves up to the microphone. He’s sharply dressed in a checked jacket, dark pants, and shiny, black boots. His hair is piled up high and he tears into the song, the band swinging hard behind him. He doesn’t stop moving until the song ends; the band pauses and segues into “Prisoner of Love.” Martin Parker’s drums accentuate the vocals of the midtempo ballad, and the Flames provide counterpoint. Brown drops to his knees as the audience screams in surprise and delight.
When Brown moves into “Please, Please, Please,” he again falls to his knees. One of the Flames drapes a cape over him and begins to lead him offstage. Brown throws off the cape, returns to the microphone, and falls to his knees again. His bandmate consoles him, puts the cape on him again, and leads him offstage. Brown repeats this seemingly anguished performance a few more times, each time reaching an even stronger crescendo. By the time Brown and his band wrap things up with a rousing version of “Night Train,” he is the undisputed star of the show. The Stones turn in a strong performance, but the night is Brown’s.
In February 1965, Brown and King Records were still ironing out their differences. Brown and his band went into the studio to record his next single. “In typical JB fashion,” Weinger and White wrote in the notes for Star Time, “‘Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag’ was recorded in less than an hour.” Brown had added a new guitarist to the lineup: Jimmy Nolen, whose use of the dominant ninth chords would become an important element in Brown’s music. By the time King Records released the single in June, Brown was back with the label.
As with “Out of Sight,” the song is heavy on rhythm, with emphasis on the first beat of each measure. The horns hit a note, reach an octave down, and then play a series of chords. Nolen plays a cutting ninth chord in answer to the horns, while Martin Parker keeps steady time. Odum’s bass line is full and flexible, snaking round the rest of the instruments. The structure of “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” is standard blues, but the song’s carefully constructed beats are something entirely unlike the blues or R&B that preceded it.
Rhythm was central to Brown’s concept for his music in the mid-1960s. Each section of the band contributed to the groove, and the rhythms were deep and multi-tiered. They crossed over into each other, linked together with both precision and fire, and created something breathtakingly new. But when I hear a James Brown recording, I’m also impressed with the sound of the horns. They enrich the songs harmonically. No one else’s horns sound like Brown’s.
“Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” became the first of several top-5 pop hits for Brown, and many of his singles over the next ten years reached the top 40. His next single, “I Got You (I Feel Good),” has the same rhythmic focus and depth as its predecessor, along with a monster bass line that pops through the whole track. Brown solidified his new sound, but he didn’t let it become a formula.
Brown’s next top-40 hit was “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” a ballad that would become a key part of his show. When Brown went into the studio to record “Money Won’t Change You” in June 1966, John “Jabo” Starks was the drummer. Brown had hired him and another drummer, Clyde Stubblefield, the previous year. Each drummer had a distinct style that gave Brown what he needed, depending on the song arrangement. In concert, Brown used both drummers to create an even deeper groove. Martin Parker was also still available for work onstage and in the studio.
Brown continued to tweak and refine his music. Stubblefield is the drummer on “Cold Sweat,” which Brown and his group recorded in May 1967. The song is notable for its medium-slow tempo, somewhat static chord structure, and swaggering horn arrangement. Brown announces a solo by Maceo Parker, and later exhorts, “Give the drummer some!” to highlight Stubblefield’s astonishing drumming.
In June, Brown would return to the Apollo to record another live album. Live at the Apollo, Volume II is nearly as strong as its predecessor. One track, “There Was a Time,” shows how tight Brown’s band was at that point, and how responsive it was to his every move. In The One, Smith calls it “a history of black dance Brown illustrates in sequence.” By the time the album was released in August 1968, Brown had placed several more songs in the charts, including “I Can’t Stand Myself (When You Touch Me),” a single edit of “There Was a Time,” “I Got the Feelin’,” and “Licking Stick—Licking Stick.” All were top-40 singles, and “I Got the Feelin’” made #6 on the pop chart.
Those songs from 1968 still sound revolutionary, but even after more than 50 years, “I Got the Feelin’” is positively avant-garde. No one in any genre of music was doing anything as daring, let alone making the top 10 with it. The horns come out hitting a hard, low chord, sway up high, then to the middle and back down low, setting a firm tempo. The two guitarists, Nolen and Alphonso “Country” Kellum, play interlocking parts, with Nolen laying down a foundation of chords and Kellum punching in a series of springy riffs and chords.
Stubblefield’s snare drum dances across and around the beat, the kick drum thumps hard but fluently to center the music, and the hi-hat skitters around everything with a surprising but logical dexterity. Odum’s bass moves with melodic ease, creating its own rhythmic space. The song glides into a climax and an abrupt break. Brown sings “Baby, Baby, Baby!” unaccompanied, four times, and then the band rejoins. Brown sings another verse, and after another “Baby, Baby, Baby!” Parker closes the song with a brief solo. The rhythmic density and complexity of the song is thrilling, but Brown’s a capella break is eccentric and fearless.
1968 was a tumultuous year in America. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated on April 4, and Brown was scheduled to appear in Boston, Massachusetts, the next day. The show was almost canceled, but Brown appeared anyway and helped ease tensions in the city. Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in June, and that same month, Brown went to Vietnam to entertain the US troops. Two months later, Brown released “Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud.” The Black Power movement was growing at the time and hoped Brown would weigh in. The song encourages African American pride and self-determination, and it reached #10 on the pop charts.
Some radio stations, especially in the South, gave Brown’s singles less exposure after “Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud.” Nevertheless, Brown’s run of successful singles continued into 1969 with “Give It Up or Turnit a Loose,” “I Don’t Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing (Open Up the Door, I’ll Get It Myself),” “The Popcorn,” and “Ain’t It Funky Now,” among others. Each time a new Brown single hit the radio, it was up to the minute and innovative. Other musicians absorbed the lesson, and some, such as the Isley Brothers and Sly and the Family Stone, took funk in their own directions without challenging Brown’s supremacy.
In March 1970, several of Brown’s most important band members, including Martin and Maceo Parker, Nolen, and Fred Wesley, left him over payment issues. Byrd stayed with Brown and organized a new group with musicians from a Cincinnati group called the Pacesetters. Bassist William “Bootsy” Collins and his brother, guitarist Phelps “Catfish” Collins, were the core of the new group, which Brown called the JB’s. The first single featuring the JB’s, “Get Up (I Feel Like Being Like a Sex Machine),” was more stripped-down than Brown’s other hits. Byrd and Brown do a call and response, and Byrd, Bootsy, Catfish, and drummer Jabo Starks carry the song’s insistent groove.
Brown scored more hits with the JB’s, including “Super Bad,” “Brother Rapp,” and “Get Up, Get into It, Get Involved,” a track later sampled by Public Enemy, Big Daddy Kane, and other rap and hip-hop artists. Brown toured with that lineup of the JB’s until March 1971, when money disputes and Bootsy Collins’s LSD use led to Brown disbanding the group and re-establishing the JB’s with Wesley, Pinckney, and Starks. By that time, Brown had left King Records for Polydor, a much larger, international label.
Brown’s releases with the JB’s continued to make the charts into the early 1970s, but by 1975, disco was ascendant and more traditional soul music was fading. Some bands who had learned from Brown, including Earth, Wind & Fire and many of the groups on Philadelphia International Records, merged funk with disco and did very well. Brown continued to make good records, even injecting some disco in “It’s Too Funky in Here,” which reached #15 on the R&B charts. That song was among the few James Brown hits to crack the top 40 in the mid-to-late 1970s, and he wouldn’t show up on the pop charts again until 1985.
Brown’s records during the 1980s appeared on Scotti Brothers Records, and he hit #4 on the pop charts with “Living In America” in 1985. But the late ’80s were a bad time for Brown. In April and May 1988, he was arrested for assault, carrying a deadly weapon, and drug use. In December, he was sentenced to six years in prison, but was paroled after a little more than two.
James Brown was still popular in concert throughout the ’90s and early 2000s. While he continued to record, other producers handled most of Brown’s releases and they showed only occasional hints of his earlier brilliance. Brown remained a strong concert draw and dynamic performer until the end. In 2003, he received a Kennedy Center Honor, one of many recognitions he received in the final years of his life. He died from congestive heart failure on December 25, 2006.
I usually consider a musician’s personal life to be outside the scope of these “Curator” pieces, but Brown’s was so complicated and so public that I should at least acknowledge it. The details of his later drug use and accusations of domestic abuse are well known, and you can find them on his Wikipedia page.
None of that information, as bad as it is, changes the fact that James Brown had a massive influence on American music and culture, and the force of his music reached far beyond his own country. Sly and the Family Stone, the Isley Brothers, Charles Wright, Parliament-Funkadelic, Earth, Wind & Fire, and many, many other musicians followed in his footsteps to varying degrees. Jazz musicians, such as Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, and Grant Green, integrated funk into the music they were making in the ’70s. Hip-hop owes much to him and many artists sampled his music; and Nigeria’s Fela Kuti added his own country’s musical heritage to the lessons he learned from Brown’s work and created Afrobeat.
Brown recorded so much music that it’s hard to limit a recommendation to just a handful of his albums. A good place to start is the compilations. Look for a used copy of Solid Gold (30 Golden Hits 21 Golden Years), a 1977 comp first released in the UK (Polydor 422-829 254-1 Y-2). The Star Time box set (Polydor 849 108-2) is a deep dive into Brown’s career and one of the very best anthologies assembled of any musician’s work. Add Roots of a Revolution (Polydor 817 304-2) and you have as full a picture of Brown’s work as you’re likely to need. After that, you can stream individual albums, many of which are very good.
Several James Brown live albums are essential listening, especially Live at the Apollo (Polydor 422 843 479-1) and Live at the Apollo Volume 2 (Polydor 314 549 884-2). Say It Live and Loud: Live in Dallas, August 26, 1968 (1998; Polydor 31455 7668-2) and Live at Home with His Bad Self (recorded 1969, released 2019; Republic 602577645617) are two fine examples of Brown’s live power in the late ’60s. Finally, Love Power Peace (recorded 1971, released 1992; Polydor 314 513 389-2) is a great live recording of Brown with the JB’s.
In the 2003 PBS American Masters documentary James Brown: Soul Survivor, Fred Wesley says something that captures an aspect of what made Brown unique:
Mr. Brown violates musical rules in all areas. . . . If you listen to a tune like “I Got the Feelin’” now, somehow it works, but there’s no count on it.
He goes on to say about the song’s break: “You cannot count that, you cannot write that.” Brown wasn’t musically trained, but Wesley, Maceo Parker, Pee Wee Ellis, and other musicians in his band were. He told them what he wanted, and insisted he was right, no matter what rules he violated.
And he was right, every time.
. . . Joseph Taylor