Brown, James Joe, Jr.
BROWN, James Joe, Jr.
(b. 3 May 1933 in Augusta, Georgia), highly influential singer and pioneer first of rhythm and blues and later of funk, known variously as the "Hardest-Working Man in Show Business," "Soul Brother Number 1," and the "Godfather of Soul."
Son of Joe Gardner Brown, a turpentine worker, and Susie Behlings, Brown was born in poverty. His parents split when he was four years old, and he lived for many years with his father in turpentine shacks. He learned to play the harmonica at age five. In Augusta, Brown danced for nickels for servicemen from nearby Fort Gordon and learned the blues from the veteran composer and singer Tampa Red. He also learned shouting technique at Pentecostal churches. Despite positive influences, Brown took up petty theft and was arrested and sentenced to eight to sixteen years in jail. He became so adept at singing and dancing in prison that he was nicknamed Music Box. Released on parole at nineteen, he joined a gospel group headed by Bobby Byrd. He married Velma Warren on 19 June 1953.
Despite his religious affiliation, Brown was drawn to secular music. He studied the styles of popular black artists, especially Hank Ballard and the Midnighters. Brown formed a band called the Flames and recorded "Please, Please, Please," with King Records in 1956. The raw emotion and shouting style of the song made it a million-seller. Brown and the Flames began a virtually constant tour, doing as many as 350 one-night stands a year. Eventually this schedule, along with the overwhelming flow of his shows, which invariably ended with him covered with a cape after an exhausting, sweaty rendition of hits, won him the sobriquet "Hardest-Working Man in Show Business." Brown allegedly lost seven pounds during each performance.
As the 1960s opened Brown had a strong collection of hits and a well-honed band, now known as the Famous Flames. He lobbied the King Records management to record him live at the legendary Apollo Theater in New York, and when they declined, he paid for the recording himself. The resulting 1963 album, Live at the Apollo, became a classic of live performance; it brought him to the attention of the white audience and still sells well. To advance his career Brown moved to New York City, signed a contract with Smash Records, and released another classic, "Out of Sight," in the summer of 1964.
As Brown contended in his autobiography, James Brown: The Godfather of Soul, he and his band now established "all kinds of rhythms at once," making for spell-binding dance music. A reconstituted James Brown Revue became a tightly knit ensemble anchored by a powerful horn section headed by Fred Wesley and the incomparableMaceo Parker. As "Out of Sight" roared up the charts, young whites created a crossover market for Brown. His song lyrics entered popular slang, and his music was inescapable. Although contract disputes with King temporarily hampered his recording career, Brown made numerous television appearances. He appeared in the TAMI International Show, taped in Santa Monica in November 1964 and released a few months later. Though the lineup featured Chuck Berry, the Supremes, the Rolling Stones, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Lesley Gore, and Marvin Gaye, Brown dominated the show.
Now commanding 10 percent royalties and enjoying ever-greater artistic freedom, Brown released a series of archetypal songs including "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" (July 1965), "I Got You (I Feel Good)" (November 1965), "Prisoner of Love" (March 1966), "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" (March 1966), and "Don't Be a Drop Out" (October 1966). He toured England and the United States incessantly and released more live albums.
Brown had a polyvalent political appeal. Black militants endorsed him because of his strong, masculine roots music. They were less enthusiastic about his association with mainstream leaders and even taunted him as an Uncle Tom. Brown went to Vietnam to entertain U.S. troops, and upon his return responded with another paradigmatic song, "(Say It Loud) I'm Black and I'm Proud" (August 1968).
National political figures sought Brown's endorsement. He was invited to the White House in 1968 and, when summoned to Vice President Hubert Humphrey's table, he declined, but suggested they meet halfway across the room, an offer Humphrey accepted. Brown later endorsed Humphrey's presidential bid. Also in 1968, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated, Boston authorities pleaded with Brown to go forward with a planned performance as a means of helping keep the streets quiet. Brown put on the show before a capacity crowd, and his presence that night helped make Boston one of the few major American cities that did not erupt with rioting and looting following the assassination. The tape of this extraordinary show, in which Brown expressed his grief for the slain leader, became an underground classic. Brown angered many militants and others by performing at Richard Nixon's inaugural in January 1969; refusing to be pigeonholed, he later endorsed Nixon in the latter's successful 1972 presidential reelection bid.
Now known as the "Godfather of Soul" and "Soul Brother Number One," Brown began extending the length of his songs, creating dance classics with powerful rhythmic grooves, a style known as funk, which he virtually invented. Released on King and on Polydor Records, examples include "Give It Up or Turn It a Loose" (January 1969), "(Get Up, I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine" (July 1970), and "Super Bad" (October 1970). Brown accumulated ninety-four Top 100 Billboard singles and recorded over 800 different songs on his many albums, all done in the midst of a grueling touring schedule. Brown's touring band became a research university for young black musicians, the most prominent being William "Bootsy" Collins. Parker and Wesley later propelled the music of Prince in the 1980s before starting solo careers of their own.
Brown's first marriage ended in divorce in 1968, and later that year Brown married a second wife, Deirdre. That marriage also ended in divorce, and in September 1984 Brown married Adrienne Lois Rodriguez, a hairstylist and makeup artist. In addition to a deceased son from his first marriage, Brown has six children.
Brown continued to make influential dance tracks throughout the 1970s and was able to survive the disco revolution by his contributions to movie soundtracks, most notably "Living in America" from Rocky IV (1985). As rap and hip-hop began to dominate black music in the 1980s, Brown joined hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa for a duet in 1983. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. Increasingly Brown was drawn into drugs and by 1990 returned to prison for several years after an arrest for possession of PCP ("angel dust"). Nevertheless, his music continues to appeal across the generations and is still a staple of radio selections.
Biographical information about Brown is in his autobiography, James Brown: The Godfather of Soul (1990). A biographical profile of Brown is in St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture (2000). For additional information, see Philip Gourevitch, "Mr. Brown: On the Road with His Bad Self," New Yorker (29 July 2002).
Graham Russell Hodges