James Brown

The Godfather Of Soul reviews his life, from juvenile delinquent to music legend. Papa may have got a brand new bag, but addiction and imprisonment still plagued his (funky) steps.


“The Father of Soul” won his audience with his musical genius and onstage histrionics. Shrieking, ‘Wow’ing and ‘Yeh’ing through four decades, James Brown was not only a brilliant musician and song writer, as a band leader he has fostered the careers of many other influential musicians.

His innovative funk has provided the foundation for break dancing and rap, and his sound continues to be sampled in rap songs and electronic music.Brown picked up the keyboard, drums and bass at a young age. From a poor family, he left school in the 7th Grade, to earn a living on the streets of Augusta, Georgia, shining shoes, dancing for pennies, picking cotton and stealing.

Sent down for armed robbery at 16, Brown languished in prison until he met Bobby Byrd, who came with his gospel group to perform for the inmates. Byrd’s family helped to get Brown released by giving him a home and a job. While performing with the gospel group, Brown tried to become a pro boxer and then a baseball pitcher, but a leg injury wrecked his chances of fame on the field.

Byrd and Brown sang duets together in church, until they saw a rock and roll show featuring Hank Ballard and the Midnighters. The duo quit gospel to form the Flames. With Brown on the piano and the drums, and Byrd on keyboard and vocals, they stuck together for the next three decades. On tour in the South, The Flames played to Ralph Bass, head of Federal Records and he signed them in 1956. 'Please, Please Please', their first single, was a big hit regionally, and eventually sold a million copies. More singles in the same gospel influenced, yet distinctly rougher R&B style, made Brown a regional star, and then 'Try Me' became a national hit in 1958.

The group now added Famous to their Flames name, and Brown created the James Brown Revue, a carefully choreographed show with Brown pumping his hips and doing the splits, while the troupe performed an intricate dance behind him. Sweating off seven pounds a night, and breaking box office records in every major black venue in America, Brown was nicknamed "Mr. Dynamite" and was called "The Hardest Working Man in Show Business".


Brown's 'Live at the Apollo', recorded in Harlem in 1962, sold a million copies, unprecedented for a black music album. His success continued with a string of singles that defined funk music. He used simple rifts on horn and guitar locked into a tight tune by a bass guitar, in songs like 'Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)', and he used his lyrics to make socio-political comment. During the mid-1960s, two of Brown's signature tunes, 'Papa's Got a Brand New Bag' and 'I Got You (I Feel Good)', both from 1965, were his first Top 10 pop hits, as well as major number one R&B hits, with each remaining the top-selling singles in black venues for over a month. In 1966, Brown's 'Papa's Got a Brand New Bag' won the Grammy for Best Rhythm & Blues Recording.

By the mid-Seventies, the hits dried up, the wearing effect of Brown's ego caused key musicians to leave the band, and his singles became poor imitations of his earlier records. Despite this, Brown experienced something of a resurgence during the 1980s, effectively crossing over to a broader, more mainstream audience. He appeared in the feature films 'The Blues Brothers', 'Doctor Detroit' and 'Rocky IV', as well as guest starring in the Miami Vice episode 'Missing Hours' (1988). He also recorded 'Gravity', a crossover album released on his new host label Scotti Bros., and the top 10 hit 1985 single 'Living in America', which was featured prominently in the 'Rocky' film.

In 1987, Brown won the Grammy for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance for 'Living in America'. Acknowledging his influence on modern hip-hop and R&B music, Brown collaborated with hip-hop artist Afrika Bambaataa on the single 'Unity'. In 1988, he was arrested following a high-speed car chase through the streets of Augusta. Imprisoned for firearms and drugs offences, as well as for the repercussions of his flight, he was released in 1991.

Throughout the 1990s, Brown continued to perform and release new material like 'Love Over-Due' (1991), 'Universal James' (1992), and 'I'm Back' (1998). While none of these recordings could be considered as important as his earlier work and did little to increase his popularity, his classic catalog became more popular in the American mainstream during this time than it had been since the '70s, and not just among young rappers and samplers.

In 2004, Brown was diagnosed with prostate cancer but successfully fought the disease. By 2006, it was in remission and Brown, then 73, began a global tour. Late in the year, the singer was diagnosed with pneumonia. He was admitted to the hospital for treatment but died of heart failure a few days later on 25 December 2006.