On this day, May 3, “Soul Brother No. 1,” Mr. “Please, Please, Please,” and the “Hardest Working Man in Show Business” — whose music crossed all boundaries of race, creeds, and religions — would have been 79 years young. Singer, songwriter, producer, musician, and the man who put funk on the musical map James Brown was a master of his craft, creating songs that helped to define a people, because his music was not censored or modified to suit the tastes of White audiences.
Brown was born on May 3, 1933, in Barnwell, South Carolina, to Susie Brown and Joseph (“Joe”) Gardner. As an impoverished kid growing up in the rural South, Brown was nicknamed Jr. When Brown was a toddler, his mother left the family for another man, and he remained with his father until he was 6 years old. Brown’s dad sent him to live with an aunt who ran a brothel when he was in first grade. Even though Brown was surrounded by family, he was basically a loner who reportedly hung out on the streets and hustled until he reached seventh grade, when he made the decision to leave school.
Never one to not turn a dime into a quarter, Brown always kept it moving work-wise: He washed cars, shined shoes, performed maintenance work, and even danced for some troops who were stationed at a local camp at the start of World War II.
Since music was always at the foreground of his money-making stints, Brown could always be found either playing the harmonica or trying to learn how to play a musical instrument. The piano, guitar and drums were also instruments the showman learned how to play as a teen. Brown knew he wanted to become a musician but getting to that point from a one-horse town was not going to be easy.
A bad situation turned into a blessing when Brown was cuffed by the police at age 16 and convicted for armed robbery. He was sent to a juvenile detention center, and it was there that he met the Bobby Bryd who would go on to become a legendary musician and the man who founded the famed R&B group The Famous Flames, with whom Brown first became famous.
Brown and Bryd forged a bond that would remain for years. Byrd’s family helped Brown secure an early release after serving three years of his sentence. The authorities agreed to release Brown, but only on the condition that the young entertainer would find employment and never set foot in Augusta-Richmond Counties in Georgia again.
Brown never looked back.
In 1955, Brown and Bryd joined musical forces. They worked together in two singing groups, but the third time was the charm when Bryd’s gospel group went the way of R&B and the name was changed to The Flames. Chitlin’ circuit appearances eventually landed the group a record deal, and Brown’s early recordings were gospel-inspired.
Important influences like Little Richard and his rock & roll band, which had funk undertones was a genre that slowly crept into his now-renewed musical preferences. The year 1956 produced The Flames first huge R&B hit, “Please, Please, Please,” which sold more than 1 million copies. Unfortunately, Brown’s first mega-success would not be topped until four years later with the hit “Try Me,” and by then, the name of the vocal group had been changed to James Brown and The Flames.
The ’60s was a turbulent time for Blacks, with civil unrest being the order of the day. Music began to identify itself with cultural freedom, and Blacks began moving away from the music conventions of their oppressors. The “Black is Beautiful” campaign launched across America, and Blacks began to gain a new identity, both physically and mentally, and Brown was ever-present in the struggle front and center.
Watch “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag”:
In the mid-sixties Brown revamped and expanded his band and musicians, such as trombonist Fred Wesley and saxophonist Maceo Parker, became standouts. The hits during this time came on like rapid-fire: “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” became a world-class force as did “I Got You (I Feel Good0,” “It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World,” “Cold Sweat,” “I Got the Feelin’,” “Give It Up or Turn It A-Loose,” and “Mother Popcorn.”
Watch “I Got the Feelin’”:
In the late sixties, Brown’s signature song “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” was one of the most powerful black power anthems of the times. Another song that inspired black empowerment and social consciousness, “I Don’t Want Nobody To Give Me Nothing (Open Up The Door, I’ll Get It Myself” sent a direct social message.
Watch “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud”:
By the end of the sixties, Brown had become a businessman, humanitarian, a cultural hero, civil rights activist, a man of great financial means, and a symbol of having triumphed over the injustices of racism.
Watch “Papa Don’t Take No Mess”:
The early ’70s saw the end of The Flames. Brown, along with Bryd, formed a new group called “The JB’s,” which featured future funk maestro bassist Bootsy Collins. The hits again kept coming with “The Big Payback,” “Papa Don’t Take No Mess,” “Stoned to the Bone” and “Funky President.” By the mid-seventies, Brown’s popularity began to wane and band members Collins and Wesley left to join George Clinton’s rock, soul and funk group ‘Parliament-Funkadelic.’
Watch “Stoned to the Bone”:
The ensuing years would bring run-ins with the law, with several arrests for domestic violence. He also appeared in movies and on TV, while struggling with three bad marriages. Still, Brown never stopped performing, thus his nickname “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business.”
Brown produced five sons, with the eldest dying tragically in an auto accident in 1973. He also had four daughters and three alleged illegitimate children.
On Christmas day in 2006, Brown passed from congestive heart failure due to complications from pneumonia.
The Godfather of Soul’s famous grunts — “heys!” and “uhs!” and even his “alrights!” — will forever remain in our hearts….