Each month, the editors of the Oxford African American Studies Center provide insights into black history and culture by offering specially commissioned featured essays, photo collections, and a selected list of articles to further guide the reader. In this series, we’re exploring the people and musical styles that influenced the development of hip hop. Twice a week we’ll offer additional articles that expand on that topic. Here is a biography of the one-and-only James Brown, taken from Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African-American Experience, Second Edition:
James Brown (1933–2006); African American soul and funk singer who has been called the Godfather of Soul, Soul Brother Number One, Mr. Dynamite, and the Hardest Working Man in Show Business.
James Brown was born and raised in Augusta, Georgia, where he picked cotton, shined shoes, danced, and served time for armed robbery. For a while Brown boxed and even played professional baseball, until an injury made him turn to music. After dabbling in gospel, he changed the name of his singing group from the Swanees to the Famous Flames. The group’s local popularity attracted the attention of Federal Records, which signed them to a contract in 1956. Their first record, “Please Please Please,” did well, and “Try Me” topped the Rhythm-and-Blues charts in 1958.
As the group’s fame spread beyond Georgia, Brown’s ambition grew. He staged elaborate dances, formed the James Brown Revue, and created a carnival atmosphere at his live shows. An emcee worked the crowd into a frenzy before the singer came onstage, and Brown reportedly lost seven pounds each night through his energetic dancing. He soon had a backup band (the J.B.s) in addition to the Flames, which was largely a vocal group. Although Brown wanted to record with the J.B.s, Federal Records rejected the idea.
In response, Brown recorded the hit instrumental “Mashed Potatoes” under a pseudonym, attracting the attention of Federal Record’s parent company, King Records. King allowed Brown and the J.B.s to record together. The group began a long and fruitful relationship with King Records. Their album Live at the Apollo, Volume 2, released in 1962 sold one million copies.
In 1965 Brown gained artistic control of his records, a move that was unprecedented in popular music. Under his own tight direction, he produced one hit after another. The music was notable for irresistible grooves, precision timing, and Brown’s impassioned vocals. Brown specialized in an insistent dance music that was deeply charged with sexual electricity. In many ways, he pioneered the sound that evolved into Funk and Disco. Starting with “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” Brown’s string of hits continued through the 1960s with songs such as “I Got You,” “Cold Sweat,” and “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.”
Through the late 1960s and into the 1970s, Brown became a spokesman among African American youth, and he targeted more of his songs toward disaffected ghetto youth. Not only did he preach personal responsibility in songs like “King Heroin,” “Funky President,” and “Don’t Be a Drop-Out,” but he also invested in black businesses, bought several radio stations, and inspired young people with his tough but uplifting message. His activities included traveling to Africa and writing music for several films.
Brown’s success has been accompanied by personal difficulties. He faced legal trouble for failing to pay taxes and for allegedly assaulting his wife. Despite reorganizing his bands many times, Brown has had relatively few hits since the mid-1970s. Nevertheless, as he nears his fifth decade in music, Brown remains an inspirational performer who has influenced countless younger musicians. Hip-hop bands have extensively appropriated funky grooves from his 1970s records in the sampling practices of the 1980s and 1990s.
He received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the thirty-fourth annual Grammy Awards in 1992, and a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993 from the Rhythm Blues Foundation Pioneer Awards. In 2003 James Brown was among those honored by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts for his unique and extremely valuable contribution to the cultural life of the nation. He died of congestive heart failure after being hospitalized for pneumonia, in Atlanta, on 25 December 2006.
Featured Image Credit: ‘James Brown, 1973’, Photo by Heinrich Klaffs, CC by SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.