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JAMES BROWN

Soul Brother Number One (1933-)

James Brown has had more honors attached to his name than any other performer in music history.  He has variously been tagged "Soul Brother Number One", the "Godfather of Soul", the "Hardest Working Man in Show Business," "Mr. Dynamite" and even "the Original Disco Man."  This much is certain what became known as soul music in the sixties, funk music in the seventies and rap music in the eighties is directly attributed to James Brown.  His transformation of gospel fervor into the taut, explosive intensity of rhythm & blues, combined with precision choreography and dynamic showmanship, served to define the directions black music would take from the release of his first R&B hit "Please Please Please"in 1956, to the present day.

Brown's life history documents one triumph over adversity after another.  He was born into poverty in Barnwell, South Carolina, during the Great Depression.  As a child, he would pick cotton, danced for spare change and shined shoes.  At 16, he was caught and convicted of stealing, and he landed in reform school for three years.  While incarcerated, he met Bobby Byrd, leader of a gospel group that performed at the prison.  After his release, Brown tried his hand at semi-pro boxing and baseball.  A career-ending leg injury inspired him to pursue music fulltime.  He joined Byrd in a group that sang gospel in and around Toccoa, Georgia.  But then Byrd and Brown attended a rhythm & blues revue that included Hank Ballard and Fats Domino, whose performances lured them into the realm of secular music. 

Remaining themselves the Flames (later, the Famous Flames), they became a tightly knit ensemble that showcased their abundant talents as singers, dancers, and multi-instrumentalists.  Brown rose to the forefront as leader of the James Brown Revue and entourage complete with emcee, dancers, and an untouchable stage band (the J.B.'s).  Reportedly sweating off up to seven pounds a night, Brown was a captivating performer who would incorporate a furious regimen of spins, drops and shtick (such as faking a heart attack, complete with the ritual donning and offing of capes and a fevered return to the stage) into his skintight outfit.  What Elvis Presley was to rock and roll, James Brown became to R&B: a prolific and dominant phenom.  Like Presley, he is a three-figure hitmaker, with 114 total entries on Billboard's R&B singles charts and 94 that made the Hot 100 singles chart. 

Over the years, he amassed 800 songs in his repertoire while maintaining a grueling touring schedule.  Recording for the King and Federal labels throughout the Fifties and Sixties, Brown distilled R&B to its essence on such classic albums as "Live at the Apollo" and singles like "Cold Sweat", "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" and "I Got You", "I Feel Good".  His group the J.B's was anchored by horn player and musical mainstays Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker. 

Revised: July 18, 2013.