Keywords: Black History Month
Died: Dec. 25, 2006
Background/significance: James Brown, "the Godfather of Soul," was a musician, songwriter and phenomenal performer. His influence on popular music in the 20th century cannot be overstated.
Brown is often credited with creating what’s known as funk music, and his influence today can be heard in musical genres from soul and disco to rap, hip-hop and top 40 pop songs.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame says that Brown's "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 music has been sampled in songs more than any other artist in history. He is known as "The Hardest Working Man in Show Business."
Brown was born in a one-room wooden shack without plumbing, electricity or windows in the woods outside of Barnwell. His mother, Susie, was 16 years old at the time.
Brown grew up in abject, crushing poverty and in a violent home. After his mother left the family, Brown and his father moved to nearby Augusta, Georgia. There, Brown's father left him in the care of his aunt, Honey, and James, then about 5, lived with her in the brothel she ran. He spent much of his time alone in his childhood, and he learned at a very early age to fend for himself.
As a child, Brown found solace in music. He first began singing gospel music in church, and he taught himself to play piano, guitar, and harmonica by ear.
Brown was kicked out of school at age 12 because he didn’t have sufficient clothes to wear. He began working odd jobs, including dancing for spare change. Eventually, he turned to petty crime. He was arrested and convicted of theft at 16 and was sent to a juvenile reform school.
While there, he met Bobby Byrd, a visiting gospel and R&B musician. In 1955, after Brown's release, Byrd invited Brown to join his band. They renamed themselves the Famous Flames.
In 1956, they recorded "Please, Please, Please." It reached No. 6 on the R&B charts, and the song, showcasing Brown’s soulful, strong voice, kicked off his long and wildly successful musical career. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LQdMZ1qrn6k
Brown toured almost nonstop in the late 1950s and ’60s. His electrifying live shows featured not just Brown's growing list of hits, but his incredible dancing and showmanship. His mega hit from this time, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," is considered by many to be the very first funk song every written.
In the late 1960s, Brown became active in the struggle for civil rights and social justice for African-Americans. In 1968, on the day after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, Brown famously played a live, televised concert on TV in Boston in order to head off what many feared would be violent rioting. That year, he also recorded "Say It Loud — I'm Black and I'm Proud."
Brown continued to write massive hits and tour through the 1970s. His music was heavily sampled in the burgeoning hip-hop and rap genres in the ’80s.
By the late 1980s, Brown's turbulent life became even more difficult. He spent time in jail, and his personal life for the next decades was punctuated by domestic violence, substance abuse and financial and legal troubles.
Brown died unexpectedly of pneumonia in 2006. He was 73.
South Carolina connection: Brown was born in rural Barnwell and lived there until he was about five. He returned to South Carolina later in life, and he spent his last years at his beloved riverside estate in Beech Island, across the Savannah River from Augusta, Georgia. His dream was that his home in Beech Island could one day be a museum, much like Elvis Presley's Graceland.
Discover more: Brown was one of the first people inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame when it opened in 1986. https://rockhall.com/inductees/james-brown/bio/ He also was the recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors in 2003.
In his home state, he was awarded the Order of the Palmetto, South Carolina’s highest civilian honor.