BROWN (1933 - 2006)
GODFATHER OF SOUL
James Brown, who has died aged 73, was one of the great rhythm
and blues artists; a compelling performer, he was to prove a towering
influence on popular music. The Godfather Of Soul, as he came to
be known, was never reticent about his own achievements: "I
changed the structure of modern music. Ninety-five per cent of music
has been James Brown," he once declared. One of his biographers,
Cynthia Rose, described him as "the Andy Warhol of 20th-century
sound: a talent without whom it is impossible to imagine modern
music." Among those he influenced through his style of performance
were Mick Jagger, Michael Jackson and Prince; as for genres, funk,
rap and disco all owe a debt to his example. Brown displayed a hyperactive,
chatterbox vocal style that forced one to sit up and pay attention:
it sometimes said something worthwhile - 'Say It Loud (I'm Black
And I'm Proud)', for example - but often it was gibberish, as in
'I Got Ants In My Pants'.
He was admired above all for his live performance, his talent being
expressed more in his high-octane energy than in any particular
musical complexity. It was the raw, infectious beat of tracks like
'I Feel Good' that truly revealed his art. To witness a James Brown
concert was to see performance taken to its extreme. His gravely
voice extended to include every conceivable screech, scream, grunt
and moan; he wore eye make-up, his trousers were tight, his pompadoured
hair could appear to defy gravity; he would shuffle and shimmy and
perform flying splits. At the end of a song he would drag his feet
as he went to walk off stage; then, after a dramatic pause, he would
shake off the cape that had been draped round him by one of the
band members (the idea of the cape was borrowed from the act of
a famous wrestler, Gorgeous George) and walk back to centre-stage.
There he would fall to his knees - having caught the microphone
that he had dislodged with his foot - and launch himself back into
the chorus with a hoarse sob. This routine was repeated several
times. His energy appeared boundless: Brown often played 350 concerts
in a year, soon earning himself the title of "the hardest working
man in showbusiness". For his concerts he wrote all his own
songs and personally organised all the choreography and costume
design - including his own wardrobe of 150 suits and 80 pairs of
shoes. Two hairdressers attended his hair to daily. He was a strict
disciplinarian, fining his dancers or musicians if they under-performed
or were incorrectly dressed.
James Joe Brown Jnr was born on May 3rd, 1933 in a one-room shack
in the pinewoods of Barnwell, South Carolina, not far from Augusta,
Georgia. He was apparently stillborn, and survived entry into the
world only thanks to rapid mouth-to-mouth resuscitation performed
by his great-aunt Minnie. His childhood did not get easier. When
he was four, his mother abandoned him, and two years later his father
- who sold sap from the pinewoods to a turpentine manufacturer -
handed him over to the care of Minnie. He then went to live with
another aunt, who ran a whorehouse in Augusta. The young James found
respite from these surroundings in the gospel music of his local
Baptist church, and at home he would imitate the fiery performance
of the preacher. He learned to play the drums, piano and guitar,
and by the age of 13 he had formed his own group, the Cremona Trio.
He was also a good boxer, noted for his fancy footwork. In order
to have decent clothes to wear to school, James took to stealing
them from parked cars, and when he was 15 he was arrested. In 1949
he was given an eight-to-16-year sentence for a variety of petty
offences. During his final argument the prosecutor told the judge:
"Your honour, here's my suitcase. If you let this man go free,
I'm going to leave this town." Brown, who in the event served
three years in jail before being granted parole, later incorporated
this suitcase routine into his show. Once out of prison, he supported
himself by smuggling bootleg liquor across state lines, while getting
his first proper break with a group called the Gospel Starlighters.
He quickly emerged as the star attraction, and the group changed
its name to the Avons before becoming James Brown and the Famous
Flames. Brown's powerful deep-throated singing soon caught on with
the black patrons of the clubs and theatres of the R&B circuit,
and he began to acquire a considerable following in the ghetto areas.
Word soon reached the ears of King Records, based in Cincinnati;
after seeing his act they signed him up, releasing his first singles
on their Federal label. Brown had his first hit single in 1956.
'Please, Please, Please' - which was written in collaboration with
John Terry - became a big seller in the American R&B field.
However, it went unnoticed by the disc jockeys who catered for the
American mass market. In 1958 Brown again sold a million records
with 'Try Me', also an R&B hit. By the end of the 1950s Brown
was considered to be the king of R&B. Wherever he went in the
United States he could fill major auditoriums with black fans, this
at a time when R&B was normally performed in colleges, small
clubs or run-down theatres. In 1962 he performed five nights at
Harlem's Apollo Theatre, where the response of the audience reached
fever pitch. His album 'The James Brown Show Live At The Apollo'
(1963) is widely regarded as one of the best live albums ever produced.
Brown had a string of hit singles during the 1960s, including 'Prisoner
Of Love', 'Papa's Got A Brand New Bag', 'Ain't That A Groove' and
'It's A Man's, Man's World'. By the time this last record was released,
in 1966, his fame had extended beyond the R&B boundaries and
he was at last reaching the American white audience. Meanwhile,
he was already a star in Britain and Europe. His hits continued
into the late 1960s with records such as 'Cold Sweat', 'I Got The
Feelin'' and 'Give It Up Or Turn It Loose'.
In 1968 police had to use tear gas to break up crowds of black
youths in Washington, following false reports that Brown had been
shot dead by a white man. During the next decade Brown's name could
be found almost every month in either the top 100 singles or album
charts, usually on both. His LP hits at this time included: 'It's
A Mother', 'Ain't It Funky', 'The Popcorn' and 'Sex Machine'. By
the early 1980s Brown had 800 songs in his repertoire and had sold
some 80 million records, some of his singles selling as many as
15 million copies over the years. His songwriting skills, however,
seemed to have grown fragile, and he was failing to attract younger
black fans as they turned to new types of sound. But Brown confounded
his critics by finding new inspiration from his young white fans,
who could detect the roots of punk and new wave in his music. As
Cynthia Rose noted in her biography, he had created funk and rap
20 years before they had achieved mainstream respectability.
For a period in the mid-1980s Brown was without a record contract;
but in 1986 he returned with 'Living In America', which was his
first Top 10 chart hit for a dozen years. His newfound success inspired
Polydor to release the LP 'In The Jungle Groove' - a collection
of tracks laid down between 1969 and 1971. In the same year he also
released a new album, 'Gravity'. Brown won a Grammy for 'Papa's
Got A Brand New Bag' in 1965 and for 'Living In America' in 1987.
In 1992 he won a Grammy for lifetime achievement, and in 1986 -
the year in which he published an autobiography, James Brown: The
Godfather of Soul - he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall
of Fame. On July 6 last year he appeared at the final Live 8 concert,
performing a duet with Will Young in 'Papa's Got A Brand New Bag'.
Throughout his career Brown had brushes with the law, culminating
in a six-year jail sentence in 1988 for assault with intent to kill,
drunken driving and other traffic offences. He had burst into a
business conference at a hotel in which he had an office, toting
a shotgun and accusing someone of having used his private bathroom.
There followed a 100 mph police chase, which ended with the police
shooting out the tyres of his pick-up truck. Brown was granted parole
after three years, and his spell in jail was not too gruelling:
he spent Monday to Friday in prison and the weekends at home. Before
long he had an entourage of three or four inmates who accompanied
him everywhere. He raised money for an inmates' charity fund by
posing for photographs with prisoners and relatives for $2 a time.
Naturally he was also the choir director, lead singer and organ
player in the prison chapel. His gospel group, he said, "was
so good I could have recorded yesterday. I had them doing routines!
I had them so sharp that the inmates wanted to get their autographs."
Hitherto sparsely attended, the prison chapel was packed. Inmates
started getting visits from relatives they had not seen in years.
The Rev Al Sharpton, the flamboyant black activist, said of Brown's
incarceration: "James Brown in jail was the biggest cultural
insult to a race that has ever happened." After being released
from the South Carolina state penitentiary in 1991 Brown was granted
special permission by the courts to embark on a European tour, and
he was to prove that prison had done nothing to inhibit his music
and his boundless energy. As he had reasoned some years before:
"To get people to listen to you, you first have to get their
attention." In 2003 the South Carolina parole board granted
him a pardon for his crimes in that state.
He was still performing up to his death. The day before he was
hospitalised, he was at his annual Christmas toy giveaway in Atlanta,
Georgia, and looking forward to giving a New Year's Eve concert.
Brown, who was taken to hospital in Atlanta on Christmas Eve suffering
from pneumonia and died early on Christmas Day, was married four
times. His third wife, Adrienne Brown, died in 1996 at the age of
47; according to the coroner who investigated her death, she had
taken PCP and a number of prescription drugs while she had a bad
heart and was weak from cosmetic surgery two days earlier. His fourth
wife, Tomi Raye Hynie, was one of his backup singers; the couple
had a son, James Jr. He had two daughters by his second wife; a
son, Teddy, by his first marriage died in a car accident in 1973.
(From The Telegraph)