James Brown, born May 3, 1933, in Barnwell, South Carolina (some sources list his year of birth as 1928 and his birthplace as Pulaski, Tennessee), is one of the most important figures in twentieth-century music and the prime mover in the evolution of gospel and rhythm-and-blues into soul music and funk. As a singer, dancer and bandleader, he has influenced popular musicians since the 1960s. He has been cited as an influence by jazz musicians such as Miles Davis, and, with the advent of rap music and hip-hop, has seen his rhythmic innovations used as samples in countless songs.
James Brown's musical innovations, developed in tandem with the many skilled musicians who passed through Brown's bands, used the basic building blocks of earlier African-American music; his career is a case study in change and self-determination. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, his irresistible sound spawned countless imitators. By the mid- '70s, several of his key band members (Bootsy Collins, Fred Wesley, and Maceo Parker) had left his employ and joined forces with George Clinton, whose so-called P-Funk groups (Funkadelic, Parliament, Parlet, the Brides of Funkenstein) were a looser, wilder and more self-consciously countercultural version of Brown's bands. With the advent of hip hop in the late '70s, James Brown's grooves became the foundation for rap music and breakdancing, as DJs such as Grandmaster Flash looped and extended the drum breaks from earlier JB favorites like "Give It Up Or Turn It A Loose." In the late 1980s, James Brown's music experienced a renaissance with the rise of sampling by Hip Hop producers. Snippets of his songs were recycled into hundreds of rap songs and continue to appear in electronic music to this day.
Brown grew up in Augusta, Georgia in a poor family. As a teenager he turned to petty crime and was eventually sent to prison. Securing an early release after three years, under the condition that he not return to Augusta or Richmond County, Brown turned his considerable energy to music, transforming the vocal band The Gospel Starlighters into the first generation of the Famous Flames.
He began to tour relentlessly (Brown often calls himself The Hardest Working Man In Show Business) and the band built a following with their live shows. Brown's early hits, such as "Please Please Please", recorded 1956, and "I'll Go Crazy," recorded 1959, were fairly straightforward gospel and R&B compositions marked by a rhythmic acuity and sharpness of vocal and instrumental attack that would later become even more pronounced and would lead to the style called "funk". Brown's trademark screams and melodramatic stage act (which, though stylized, nonetheless communicated real emotion) whipped crowds into a frenzy. While these early singles were local hits, and performed well on the R&B chart, the band was not nationally successful until this live show was captured on record, on Brown's self-financed Live at the Apollo in 1963. During this time Brown recorded for the Cincinnati, Ohio-based King Records, presided over by Syd Nathan.
Brown followed this success with a string of singles that, along with the work of Allen Toussaint in New Orleans, essentially defined funk music. The 1964 "Out of Sight" was a harbinger of the new James Brown sound, and "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag" and "I Got You (I Feel Good)," both 1965, featured the deceptively simple riffs of guitarist Jimmy Nolen, which played off the bass guitar and drums. In addition, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" saw Brown utilizing technology: the released version of the single was sped up to make the song more commercial. The 1967 "Cold Sweat" marked a radical departure into more abstract music, and critics have come to see this recording as a high mark in the music of the 1960s, although at the time the innovations of Brown were overshadowed by the less soulful work of the Beatles. Brown employed musicians and arrangers who had come up through the jazz tradition, and his genius as a bandleader and songwriter was to marry the simplicity and drive of R&B to the rhythmic complexity and precision of jazz music, something other musicians were doing, to be sure, but not as aggressively and single-mindedly as Brown. Mixed in with his more famous rhythmic essays of the era were ballads and even Broadway show tunes. As the 1960s went on, Brown would refine this style further on "Licking Stick-Licking Stick" (recorded 1968), "Funky Drummer" (recorded 1969) and add socio-political comment on the 1968 "Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)."
By 1970 and his "Get Up (I Feel Like Being) a Sex Machine" (recorded in Nashville, Tennessee), his "classic" '60s band, featuring guitarist Jimmy Nolen, saxophonist Maceo Parker, and trombonist Fred Wesley, had left him, and he employed a new band that included Bootsy Collins, and later, Fred Wesley (as trombonist and musical director). As Brown's musical empire grew (he bought radio stations in the late 1960s), his desire for financial and artistic independence grew as well. In the early '70s he began recording for Polydor Records, and many of his sidemen and supporting players, such as Fred Wesley (and the JB's, Brown's backing group), Bobby Byrd, Lyn Collins, Myra Barnes and Hank Ballard, released records on Brown's subsidiary label, People, which started up in 1971. These recordings are as much a part of Brown's legacy as those released under his own name, and most are excellent examples of what might be termed James Brown's "house" style. The early '70s marked the first real awareness, outside the African-American community, of his achievements; Miles Davis and other jazz musicians began to cite Brown as a major influence on their styles.
By the mid-'70s Brown's star was on the wane. His '70s Polydor recordings were a summation of all the innovation of the last twenty years, and while some critics maintain that he declined artistically during this period, compositions like "Funky President", "The Payback", and "Stoned to the Bone" are among his best. Still, the hits dried up and key musicians such as Bootsy Collins left his band, not least due to the wearing effect of Brown's ego. Ironically, the disco movement, which Brown anticipated, found relatively little room for Brown; his 1979 The Original Disco Man LP is nonetheless a worthy late addition to his ouvre, containing the song "It's Too Funky in Here," which sports the line "Need some air freshener under the drums." In 1986 he managed another hit single, "Living In America", but in 1988 he was arrested following a high-speed car chase through the streets of Augusta. Imprisoned for firearms and drugs offences, as well as for the repercussions of his flight, he was released in 1991 to find the sampled rhythms and drum beats from his records almost ubiquitous in rap music; a 20-second drum solo near the end of the song "Funky drummer" is perhaps the single most sampled piece of music in history. Brown still makes his home in the Augusta area, and is one of the most prominent figures in that community.
Brown was a recipient of Kennedy Center Honors for 2003, and a scheduled 2004 unveiling of a statue of Brown in Augusta was delayed because of James Brown's ongoing legal problems.
The 1991 four-CD retrospective Star Time is a brilliant synopsis of his great career; nearly all his earlier LPs have been re-released on CD, often with additional tracks and informed commentary by Brown scholars. In short, James Brown's reputation as an innovator is now a critical commonplace, and his personal appearances still draw crowds, a testament to his stature as both musician and entertainer.