Reference Entry

Brown, James (1933 - 2006), Rhythm and Blues Musician / Singer, Funk Musician / Singer

Rob Bowman

in African American National Biography

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195301731
Brown, James (1933 - 2006), Rhythm and Blues Musician / Singer, Funk Musician / Singer

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rhythm-and-blues singer, was born James Joe Brown Jr. in a country shack just outside Barnwell, South Carolina, to Joe Gardner and Susan Behlings. His father did various jobs, while nothing is known about his mother's occupation. Brown was raised in extreme poverty, and his parents separated when he was four; two years later he went to live with his great-aunt, Minnie Walker, in Augusta, Georgia.Brown's father often sang blues songs in the evening, and when Brown was four, his father gave him a ten-cent harmonica. His earliest years were spent tap dancing in the street for spare change. He claimed that his formidable sense of rhythm stemmed from such humble beginnings. A self-taught musician, Brown began to play organ at the age of eight and later acquired a rudimentary knowledge of bass, guitar, saxophone, and trumpet. At eleven Brown won his first talent contest as a singer, and a year later he formed a group he called the Cremona Trio. In those same years Brown was involved in petty crime, shoplifting and stealing car batteries and hubcaps to obtain money for school clothes and food. In 1948, at the age of fifteen, he was caught stealing cars for the second time and was sentenced to eight to sixteen years in the Georgia Juvenile Training Institute in Rome, Georgia, thus ending his formal schooling at the seventh grade. Nicknamed Music Box, Brown formed a gospel quartet in prison.James Brown, who became “The Godfather of Soul,” performing with the Famous Flames in 1964. (Library of Congress.)In 1952, Brown was paroled and went to live in Toccoa, Georgia. There he joined a group formed by Bobby Byrd, whom Brown had met during a baseball game while he was still in prison. Byrd's group originally sang gospel and was known as the Gospel Starlighters. Just before being joined by Brown, they had switched to singing rhythm and blues and consequently had changed their name to the Avons. They would soon be known as the Flames and eventually as James Brown and the Famous Flames. As word of the group's incredibly intense live shows spread throughout the South, they were summoned to Macon, Georgia, by Little Richard's manager, Clint Bradley, after Richard became a national star in 1955.A year later Ralph Bass signed Brown and the Famous Flames to Cincinnati-based King Records, their releases appearing on the subsidiary Federal label. Legend has it that upon hearing the demo recording of “Please Please Please,” King's owner, Syd Nathan, fired Bass. Nathan could not believe that anyone would want to buy a record that consisted of six straight eight-bar verses, each of which was made up solely of one bar after one bar call-and-response patterns between Brown and the Flames. What Nathan did not understand, Brown knew from playing the song night after night in concert. Audiences would go crazy over the heightened emotion Brown conveyed, using numerous gospel-derived vocal devices. It took several months, but eventually “Please Please Please” reached the number-six position on Billboard's R&B charts. Brown's debut effort and later singles, such as 1958's “Try Me” and 1960's “Think,” were, along with early efforts by Ray Charles and Sam Cooke, the first examples of what would become known as soul music.In 1962 Brown suggested that he wanted to record a live album at the Apollo Theater in New York. Long billed as “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business,” Brown was positive that a recorded version of his legendary show would sell in significant numbers. When Nathan refused to finance the recording, Brown paid for it himself. Upon its release in 1963, Live at the Apollo climbed all the way to number two on Billboard's LP charts. Such success was pretty well unprecedented for black artists and totally unheard of for live albums.As the 1960s unfolded and Brown enjoyed a string of successes, American society underwent momentous changes. The civil rights movement had successfully brought about legal desegregation, but as the end of the decade approached most African Americans still found themselves the last hired and first fired, being paid less money than white workers for the same labor, living in inferior housing and sending their children to substandard schools.As this reality slowly made itself manifest, the mood of black America began to change. In 1966 during the James Meredith march in Mississippi, Stokely Carmichael popularized the phrase “Black Power.” A year earlier the predominantly black neighborhood of Watts in Los Angeles had burned in the first of the modern-day race rebellions. In 1967 Newark, New Jersey, and Detroit, Michigan, would also burn. This new militancy no longer asked for equality, nor did it seek to achieve such equality by adopting mainstream (i.e., “white middle class”) standards of deportment. Rather, black Americans were encouraged to celebrate and embrace everything black and to assume and demand equality. Inspired by the belief that “black is beautiful,” many African Americans began to explore their historical and psychological connections to their African motherland. While some blacks adopted African names and wore African garb, many more began to sport an “Afro” or “natural” haircut.This re-Africanization of black culture was also reflected in popular music, most radically in the development of funk by James Brown. In the simplest terms, Brown, beginning in 1967 with “Cold Sweat,” de-emphasized melody and harmony (for example, by having whole sections of a song with no chord changes and by delivering the lyrics in a voice closer to speaking than singing) while privileging rhythm (by employing more complex syncopated figures and using several different rhythmic patterns simultaneously, creating interlocking grooves). This reconstruction of Brown's music could be interpreted as de-emphasizing parameters favored by white American society while highlighting sub-Saharan African characteristics; this was, in effect, re-Africanizing the music, thus paralleling the re-Africanization of African American society at large at the time.Brown could be a temperamental and demanding bandleader—his trombonist Fred Wesley once noted that “James was bossy and paranoid.” But when it came to performance, Brown was often able to submerge his ego in pursuit of a more democratic, communal sound. Notions of community and solidarity are connoted in “Cold Sweat” in a number of ways. Throughout the performance Brown utters any number of vocables judiciously placed within the rhythmic matrix. In doing so, he projects himself as part of the band rather than as a separate, somehow special, more important front man. Similarly, he can be heard during the performance calling out such things as “Maceo, Maceo,” “Give the drummer some,” “Bernard, come on and help him out; play that thing.” In this way, Brown conveys a sense of community. He explicitly names those who are contributing, recognizing their intrinsic value as individuals and the equality implicit in collectively unleashing the spiritual magic of the performance. “Cold Sweat” ends after seven and a half minutes with an extraordinary section in which Brown seems to be shredding his larynx while singing, “I can't, I can't, I can't, I can't stop, I can't stop, I can't stop singing.” The effect is cathartic. Brown thus demonstrates an exceptional level of commitment that is not lost on his audience. It is as if he has no choice in the matter.Within a year Brown had connected funk lyrically to the newly emergent black consciousness, specifically with the song “Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud.” Around that time he made clear that he was “totally committed to black power, the kind that is achieved not through the muzzle of a rifle but through education and economic leverage.” Brown believed in the bootstraps philosophy of Booker T. Washington, and like the 1960s civil rights activists James Forman and Floyd McKissick, in 1972 he supported Richard Nixon, whose presidential platform advocated “black capitalism,” in the form of federal loans to small black businesses.Significantly, “Black and Proud” would be Brown's last Top Ten pop hit until 1985's “Living in America.” Conversely, this was the beginning of his greatest success on the R&B charts. Between 1968 and 1974 Brown had forty-one R&B hits, thirty-two of which went to the Top Ten. This is extraordinary testimony to the meaning he held for the black community in the United States at the time. It would appear that as Brown's music became understood as more African, it was encoded or at least decoded by blacks and whites as having a value and aesthetic system that was largely outside the experience of most white Americans. Consequently, most white Americans found little they could relate to while, in direct contrast, black Americans embraced funk as one of the most meaningful expressive forms of the time. Brown's music also found a huge audience in Africa in the late 1960s and early 1970s, influencing the Nigerian star Fela Kuti, among other exponents of Afrobeat.At the same time that Brown was personally dominating the R&B charts in the United States, he built up a stable of artists in his revue whom he recorded for King, Polydor, and his own People label. Among the most successful of these side projects were Vicki Anderson, Lyn Collins, Bobby Byrd, and his backing group, the JB's. Brown seemed to be an endless source of funky grooves, writing hits for himself and his stable of artists while developing legendary bands that included such luminaries as Bootsy Collins, Fred Wesley, Maceo Parker, Pee Wee Ellis, and the drummers Melvin Parker, Jabo Starks, and Clyde Stubblefield.In the 1980s Brown and funk music fell out of fashion, only to be resurrected and revered by decade's end, owing to the inordinate number of times his earlier hits were sampled by many prominent rap artists. Despite a troubled personal life, Brown endured. He was married three times and rumors of spousal abuse were frequent. So too were his run-ins with the law, for drugs or gun possession, tax evasion, and assault. In one incident, in September 1988, police pursued Brown through South Carolina and Georgia and arrested him on a count of arrest and battery with intent to kill and a series of traffic offenses. Sentenced to six years in prison, Brown was released on probation in February 1991. In 1998 Brown was convicted of another drug-related offense and arrested for domestic violence in 2004.Brown continued to tour, record, and earn the numerous accolades that might be expected of an elder statesman. He received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1992 and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. In 2003 he received a Kennedy Center Honor for his achievements and influence in popular music. He was even, in March 1997, recognized by the State Legislature of Georgia, a body not hitherto known for its funkiness. A joint House and Senate resolution declared him “the minister of the new super heavy funk,” and credited James Brown with bringing “a spark of energy and excitement to an otherwise listless U.S. music scene.” He died of congestive heart failure after being hospitalized for pneumonia, in Atlanta, on 25 December 2006.

Reference Entry.  1862 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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