JAMES BROWN: 1933 - 2006
Pioneering and volatile -- the stage was his world
By Geoff Boucher, Times Staff Writer
December 26, 2006
U.S. singer James Brown performs in Zagreb November 5, 2006. Brown, the self-proclaimed 'Godfather of Soul,' who billed himself as the hardest working man in show business, died on December 25, 2006 at age 73, his manager said. REUTERS/Nikola Solic/Files (CROATIA)
Last month, on a frosty night in Zagreb, Croatia, they draped the shimmering cape on the shoulders of James Brown for the last time. As the crowd cheered, the "Hardest Working Man in Show Business," whose career had begun six decades and a world away as a child dancing for coins along the Savannah River, walked away from the microphone. "They loved it, they came out for the show; it didn't matter how cold it was, the crowds always came out for Mr. Brown," said Danny Ray, the emcee who had introduced Brown at performances since the early 1960s. "It was a good night. If you never saw Mr. Brown, well, there's no way to tell you about it. Not really. He was one of a kind." The singular life of James Brown ended on Christmas Day at Emory Crawford Long Hospital in Atlanta. The 73-year-old singer left his home in his native South Carolina for dental work in Georgia but then fell ill and was admitted to the hospital over the weekend. His agent, Frank Copsidas, said the early indications are that Brown died of congestive heart failure.
Anyone who watched Brown on stage or off had to marvel that his heart had endured as long as it did. A whirling, feverish performer, Brown was a melodramatic showman, with his scissor-splits and ritual of feigning fatigue, being led off stage in a cape and then charging back with evangelical zeal. More than that, he created a staccato vocabulary of dance that echoes in the steps of Michael Jackson, Prince, Usher and new performers today such as Chris Brown. His music, meanwhile, was a unique bridge between soul and funk, and its audacious experiments with beat and structure made it a vital template for the hip-hop revolution.
Brown's life was as jolting as his art; there was his firebrand role in the black pride movement and his outspoken boldness on issues of race inequality but there also were his bizarre drug and crime exploits and mercurial personality, which could be as coiled and unpredictable as his music. All of it combined to make him a volatile figure of fascination, a Miles Davis with dance moves. The hits began in 1956 with "Please Please Please," a straightforward R&B hit of its time, but by 1961, with the memorable and unexpected sound of "Night Train," the singer was moving toward a sound that was melodically minimal and rhythm-heavy, laced with brass and punctuated by the ad-lib vocals that would become his signature. True national stardom arrived with the 1963 landmark release, "Live at the Apollo, Vol. I," hailed by many critics as one of the essential concert albums in modern music.
Brown's live prowess and his incandescent hits among them "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," "I Got You (I Feel Good)" and "Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine (Part 1)" earned him the moniker the Godfather of Soul. But, like Elvis Presley, he cut across musical boundaries and then made new ones. As Rick Rubin, the producer, once wrote: "James Brown is his own genre."Debra Lee, the chief executive officer of Black Entertainment Television, in a statement Monday called Brown a towering figure in modern pop culture."We have lost the most inspirational force the music world has ever known. James Brown's impact across all genres of music especially funk, soul, disco and rock is immeasurable and will never be duplicated," Lee said. "He was one of the few individuals who truly merited recognition as an American legend."
The legend wasn't always embraced warmly. There was a stint in prison, the strife with women in his life and the chapters of his career when the mainstream audience left him, for reasons either musical or personal. Still, in January 1986, there was absolutely no surprise when Brown was among the first class of inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, along with Presley, Ray Charles, Chuck Berry and six other pioneering figures. That same year he published "Godfather of Soul: An Autobiography." In it, he talked about Presley: "Not long after I was put in the Hall of Fame I was in a restaurant with a white friend of mine. Another white fella came up and said, 'Elvis was the greatest, and you're next.' That was from his side. Then a black girl came up and said to my white friends, 'The black people love him y'all like him but he's still ours.' Between those two people I bridged the gap. Elvis was American as apple pie. Years ago I couldn't be American as apple pie. It took me four generations to be apple pie."
The odyssey was a strange one. Brown was married four times and had a history of domestic violence accusations, and he had been repeatedly arrested in recent decades. But on Monday he was hailed as a national treasure. "For half a century, the innovative talent of the 'Godfather of Soul' enriched our culture and influenced generations of musicians," President Bush said in a statement. "An American original, his fans came from all occupations and backgrounds. James Brown's family and friends are in our thoughts and prayers this Christmas." James Joseph Brown Jr. was born May 3, 1933 (although the date, place and even his exact name have been matters of contention). It was two months after Franklin D. Roosevelt was sworn in as president and, looking out on a nation in the grips of the Great Depression, told Americans that they had nothing to fear but fear itself. Brown was delivered in a one-room shack in the pinelands outside Barnwell, S.C., and appeared to be stillborn. But, as his father wept, the baby's great aunt, Minnie Walker, took him up into her arms and breathed into his mouth until, finally, he stirred. In his book, Brown wrote that his family tree was largely a mystery to him, but he believed that he had a Cherokee grandfather on one side and one who was "highly Asian" on the other.The boy's mother left when he was 4, and he didn't see her again for two decades. His father, Joe Gardner, sapped trees at the turpentine camps, and the boy, so far out in the woods, had a fairly solitary youth. One of the sounds that kept him company was the harmonica his father gave him. His father also sang to him, usually grim and unvarnished blues songs of the day, such as the tunes of Blind Boy Fuller. The music didn't click with the boy.
"I don't remember whether I sang them, but I know I never liked them," Brown wrote in "Godfather of Soul." "This is going to surprise a lot of people; I still don't like the blues. Never have." What did have allure for him were the circuses that rolled through town with their gaudy fanfare and shameless sawdust melodrama; Brown's day-to-day life may have been grim, but he didn't want his entertainment to follow suit.
The boy and his father moved to Augusta, Ga., in 1938 in search of better opportunities. There, the youngster would end up living in a roadhouse brothel with Walker, his great aunt, and he made money by picking cotton, shining shoes and kicking up dust with the buckdances that he did to amuse the servicemen who, as the 1940s began, were being stationed at a nearby airstrip and arsenal.Brown also was a petty criminal or, as he described himself, "a little roughneck, a thug." At 16, after a car burglary spree, he was convicted on charges of breaking and entering and larceny and sent upstate to a juvenile detention facility in Rome. He spent three years there, and to pass the time he took up boxing and sang in a gospel group. After his release, he flirted with a career in the ring or as a professional ballplayer, but a leg injury nudged him further toward music.
First stage gig
He played his first stage gig at Bill's Rendezvous Club in Toccoa, Ga., as a member of Bobby Byrd's gospel group, which by 1953 was called the Gospel Starlighters. But the snappy movie reels featuring Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five had been tugging Brown's musical interests toward more secular pursuits. Then he and Byrd drove over to Greenville, S.C., and caught a show by Hank Ballard and the Midnighters; Ballard had a tawdry sensation with "Work With Me Annie," a song deemed too sexually charged for radio. According to "Godfather of Soul," Brown and Byrd shook hands at the show and pledged that they would someday swap their seats in the audience for stardom on stage. The Famous Flames, as Brown and Byrd now called their group, made a rough recording of "Please Please Please" at a radio station in Macon, Ga., in November 1955. Over the next four months, talent scout Ralph Bass signed Brown, took the Flames to Ohio for polished studio sessions and released the single. "Please Please Please" was a Top 10 hit on the R&B charts by April. One critic of the day likened the sound to "Little Richard fronting the Drifters." Then in October 1957 Brown got a major break when Little Richard put his rock 'n' roll career on hiatus and Brown was recruited to take some of his bookings. Then Brown scored a No. 1 R&B hit with the yearning ballad "Try Me" in 1958. With Byrd joining him in a reconstituted band, the singer made his debut at the Apollo Theater in Harlem in April 1959. The 1960s music of Brown was pushing in new directions and sometimes seemed like a fever dream with an irresistible rhythm section. Songs such as "I'll Go Crazy," "Think" and "You've Got the Power" were tapping into blossoming soul music but with a jazz mentality and a frenetic, restless sound that belonged to Brown alone. Brown wanted to match his band's fiery name on stage, so at the end of his first headlining night at the Apollo he jumped from the top of the piano and plunged off the stage. The crowd nearly tore him apart in its excitement.
Brown wanted to take a different kind of leap and record the band's live show. Syd Nathan, who ran King Records Co., balked at the notion that the public would have any interest in a concert of previously released material, especially with a rowdy crowd marring the taping. Brown paid for the recording himself and made music history. "Live at the Apollo, Vol. 1" was released in 1963 and climbed to No. 2 on the album charts.
Some radio stations took to playing a whole side of the concert album at a time, burnishing Brown's reputation as a truly special force on stage. In 2004, the Library of Congress added the album to the National Recording Registry. A year earlier, Rolling Stone magazine had ranked "Apollo" at No. 24 on its tally of the 500 greatest albums. Brown became one of the hottest concert tickets in pop and traveled the world. By his own reckoning, he would lose five pounds or more during one of his frenzied exhibitions. No shows were alike, either, he bragged, emphasizing the jazz-like improvisation of his band, which he famously chided for any lapse or lack of allegiance.
Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones, quoted in 1965, marveled at Brown and scoffed at the notion of comparing Stones singer Mick Jagger to the soul star. "He does the most incredible dancing, like Mick, only about 20 times faster&. You could put Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley on one side of the stage, and James Brown on the other, and you wouldn't even notice the others were up there!" The mid-1960s saw Brown hit his commercial peak. In February 1965, he released "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," a revolutionary single that crossed over to the Top 10 on the pop chart, where it was followed in short order by "I Feel Good (I Got You)." That song still resonates today: It's the oldest recording that gets regular airplay on Radio Disney, a channel not known for plumbing oldies for its pre-teen audience. The song fits in with today's collage-minded and beat-driven music and with good reason; Brown is routinely referred to as the most sampled artist in hip-hop history, and his music helped shape the spare aesthetics and bravado of the two-turntable-and-a-microphone generation.
Ann Powers, pop music critic for The Times, said Monday that Brown made lifeblood contributions to pop culture with his sonic innovations. "James Brown's music is not just the heartbeat of American music, it's the whole circulation system," Powers said. "He took R&B into the soul era with his raw, infinitely nuanced approach to singing and musical arrangements, and invented funk by transforming African polyrhythms into the American vernacular. His band was primary school for a legion of great musicians, and in the hip-hop era, his music only grew in importance, becoming the very foundation of hip-hop." Little Richard, who was inducted with Brown into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, told MSNBC on Monday that the Godfather of Soul also was a parent to hip-hop. "He was an innovator, he was an emancipator, he was an originator," Richard said. "Rap music, all that stuff came from James Brown."
Funk and beat-spiked R&B also trace back to Brown. Prince's official website was silent Monday instead of the usual page and posting, there was only a black screen with a message in purple: "In Restful Peace, James Brown."Brown has been parodied for his one-of-a-kind, difficult-to-decipher vocal style (Eddie Murphy, for instance, memorably spoofed his music hero on "Saturday Night Live" for his penchant for staccato gibberish). That didn't mean Brown didn't have plenty to say just the opposite. In 1968, he created a lighting-rod anthem that helped change the American lexicon. "Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)" was a message of defiance and celebration, and Brown often said that, in his view, it pushed the nation's African American community to fully turn away from "Negro" as a self-identifier.In early 1969, a Look magazine cover posed the question: "Is he the most important black man in America?" The accompanying article detailed Brown's business empire, his populist ideals and cultural resonance, and declared him to be "the black Horatio Alger."
Powers hailed him for being too restless to merely use his stardom to sell records. "Brown's hugely resonant personality, black and proud, helped inspire the civil rights movement and defined the image of the powerful soul brother," she said. "Pop endlessly recycles sounds and personality, but this is one person who cannot be superseded or replaced."But as Brown's music and persona became more political, he lost some of his audience. He also said that he was viewed with fear and anger by some of the American establishment, which he said led to tax investigations and harassment in the 1970s. He also endured the death of his son, Teddy, in a car crash in 1973. The 1970s ended with more financial problems, accusations regarding a payola scandal and the awkward 1979 stab for a new audience with "The Original Disco Man," which performed miserably. The 1980s and the ascent of hip-hop brought Brown back some measure of attention. "I Know You Got Soul" by Eric B. and Rakim was one of the first of a flood of rap classics that culled samples from Brown's vintage vinyl. Brown also poked fun at himself in 1980 with a well-received role as an over-the-top preacher in the hit comedy film "The Blues Brothers." In January 1986, Brown parlayed another film job into a hit record. The anthem "Living in America," the theme from the movie "Rocky IV," hit No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and became a curious contribution to the swell of 1980s patriotic pop culture. It was Brown's biggest single since "I Got You (I Feel Good)" went to No. 3 in 1965.
Two years later, the wild ride of Brown took another grim turn. In September 1988, Brown, who was brandishing a shotgun, charged into an insurance seminar in Augusta, which led to a police pursuit. There had been a flurry of other incidents in the previous months, including charges of assault on a police officer, a weapons violation and possession of the drug PCP. The spree led to a six-year prison sentence, which met with a stir of protest that it was too severe and that the circumstances of his offenses had been exaggerated. Brown left prison on parole on Feb. 27, 1991, but there would be more legal problems, and financial issues would continue past his 70th birthday. The personal turbulence was juxtaposed with public ovations, such the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1992 and the Kennedy Centers Honors in 2003. Brown, through it all, continued to perform. He was scheduled to take the stage Wednesday in Connecticut and carry on with a road run through the states, Canada and Europe through next summer. The Rev. Jesse Jackson said Monday that it was fitting that the ultimate showman took his final curtain call against a holiday backdrop of lights and music."He was dramatic to the end, dying on Christmas Day," Jackson said. "He'll be all over the news all over the world today. He would have it no other way."
Memorial service arrangements were pending Monday. In Los Angeles, a candlelight vigil is scheduled at 5 p.m. today at Leimert Park at 3415 W. 43rd St.
James Brown's hits
James Brown had dozens of hits over his decades-long career. Here is a smattering of his seminal, career-defining songs:
1956: "Please, Please, Please" This begging ballad about a man trying to keep his woman took on a raw, sensual tone as Brown growled and yelped through the burning track.
1961: "Bewildered" Brown's she-done-me-wrong classic. He shrieks and shouts passionately, "bewildered" by the actions of his now-former woman.
1962: "Night Train" One of the first songs to feature the tight, jumping horn section that would become a cornerstone of most of his major hits. Brown's rough-edged voice shouts out cities nationwide on the "Night Train" route.
1965: "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag (Part I)" Another classic dance track about what else dancing.
1965: "I Got You (I Feel Good)" Perhaps Brown's most famous tune, and one of the all-time greatest songs in rock's canon. A buoyant, joyful jam that is an instant party starter. If you've never heard this, you've never heard music.
1966: "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" Though the title may suggest a chauvinistic ode, this passionate, downbeat track really pays homage to a man's eternal need for a woman by his side.
1967: "Cold Sweat (Part I)" A smoking, sultry mid-tempo jam that features Brown singing about a woman who makes him weak-kneed. It was sampled by dozens, perhaps hundreds of '80s rap songs.
1968: "Say it Loud I'm Black and I'm Proud (Part 1)" Released at the height of the civil rights movement, this anthem boldly asserted pride in being black at a time when African Americans were still fighting for basic rights.
1970: "Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine (Part 1)" Despite its somewhat risque title, this frenetic groove is more of a call to move your feet. Perhaps Brown's second most-famous song, its signature is its slamming rhythm section.
1971: "Make It Funky (Part 1)" This could be the theme song of Brown's entire career. It begins with Brown saying what would become his motto: "[Whatever] I play, it's got to be funky!"
1974: "Papa Don't Take No Mess (Part I)": Brown's amazing, funky tribute to a hard-nosed, stern dad.
1974: "The Payback (Part I)": The ultimate revenge song, this song sounded as if it would fit right in with many of the blaxploitation soundtracks of the day with its blaring horns and rumbling bass lines.
1976: "Get Up Offa That Thing": A killer bass instead of horns is the real glue of this James Brown classic dance groove.
1985: "Living in America" This rousing patriotic song from the fourth installment of the "Rocky" movie franchise reestablished Brown as a hit-maker in his fifth decade.
1988: "Static, Pts. 1 & 2" (with Full Force) As Brown's music was being sampled right and left by rappers, Brown showed hip-hop heads how it should be done with this sizzling collaboration.
Formated for CROWN by Nenad Bach
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