Artist and Musician Biographies


In this video, James Brown performs a medley of his hits on the Ed Sullivan Show.

Just as Aretha Franklin was crowned "The Queen of Soul", James Brown was honored as "The Godfather of Funk" and "Soul Brother Number One". Born into poverty in Barnwell, South Carolina in 1933, as a young man James looked for any job that he could find to survive, from polishing shoes to picking cotton. Living in such dire conditions, the temptation to steal overcame Brown, which resulted in his confinement to a reform school for three years. While in jail, he met Bobby Byrd, a leader of the group, the Gospel Starlighters. Once released, James joined this gospel group who renamed themselves the Flames once they incorporated R&B into their style.

In 1955, the group recorded the single, "Please Please Please" at WIBB, a Macon, Georgia radio station. While traveling through Georgia, a talent scout named Ralph Bass heard this cut on the local radio and was so impressed with the fire in James Brown's performance that he immediately signed the group to King Records.

The song, "Please Please Please" was rerecorded and reached the R&B charts at number 5 in 1956. The group, now calling itself James Brown and The Famous Flames, did not have another hit until 1958 with the single, "Try Me" which reached number 1 on the R&B charts. Not only was Brown's voice charged, but also his dance routine was choreographed with precise timing and Brown's trademark knee drops, jumps, splits, and his wild, cutting scream.

Despite the talent of the group, Brown found it difficult to maintain his level of success until the singles "I'll Go Crazy" and "Think" (both 1960) gave them the security they needed. James had the crowds in complete hysteria during his performances, which inspired him to do a taped live performance. King Records thought that this idea would fail and therefore did not support the act. Convinced, James Brown self funded the recording of the live performance, "Live at Apollo" in 1962. As Brown thought, this recording laid down the path of his prosperity.

The performance included three classic Brown songs that would later become hit singles, "Cold Sweat" ( #1 R&B, # 8 Pop, 1965), "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" (#1 R&B, #3 Pop, 1965) and "I Got You (I Feel Good)" (#1 R&B, #7 Pop, 1967).

As Brown's music gained popularity, he became an icon for black pride and equality. Brown's music included messages pertaining to the African - American experience such as "Say It Loud-I'm Black and My Proud" (1968). The rhythm in his music was so repetitive that it sounded urgent and militant, similar to the sentiments found in the hearts of many African - Americans. In the late sixties and early seventies, James Brown began developing his groovy, funk sound. In 1971, Brown signed with Polydor Records and unveiled a new band, the JB's.

At this point in his career he replaced the gospel influence with funk. The single "Get On the Good Foot" topped the R&B chart for a month and peaked at number 18 in the Top Forty in 1972. It is this single that established James Brown as an innovative artist who influenced the development of funk, rap, and hip-hop.

James Brown's success continued during the early seventies with the release of the album, "The Payback" in 1974, which scored gold. However, as disco swept the nation, Brown's career began to slip. Similar to Aretha Franklin's comeback, Brown resurfaced as he made a cameo appearance in film, "The Blues Brothers" in 1980.

In the 1980s, rap and hip-hop artists were heavily sampling Brown's music. He also challenged the rap scene by rapping the song, "Unity" with fellow rapper, Afrika Bambaataa in 1984. In 1986, Brown found himself on the Billboard charts again with the single, "Living in America" which reached number 4 on the Hot 100 chart. That same year, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

As his career continued to develop, his personal life suffered. In 1988 as he was investigated on a series of charges that ranged from spousal abuse and drug possession to problems with the IRS. He was sentenced to prison for six and a half years but was paroled after 2 years. Though in trouble with the law several times in his lifetime, he has accomplished tremendous success, including 114 total entries on Billboards R&B singles chart, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, a R&B Foundation Pioneer Lifetime Achievement Award, and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

He also has influenced many musical artists of today within the soul, funk, rap, and hip-hop categories. Some critics believe that he has had more influence than any other African-American musician on the course of popular American music. He was one of the people most responsible for turning R&B into soul music in the 1960's and in the early 1970's turning soul music into funk. The beginnings of hip-hop can also be traced back to Brown and today his sounds and rhythms are sampled in countless hip-hop recordings.

Page author: L.C.