Monday, December 25, 2006

James Brown (1933-2006)

James Joseph Brown, Jr was an only child born during the Depression in 1933 in Barnwell, South Carolina. When James was four, his parents separated and he grew up in the brothel of his aunt, a poor woman in Augusta, Georgia. Brown left school in the seventh grade. He paid his way by picking cotton, shining shoes and washing cars and dishes or sweeping out stores. The larrikin tearaway was however destined for trouble and aged sixteen he was convicted of armed robbery and spend three years in a juvenile detention centre. After brief stints as a boxer and baseball pitcher (a career cut short by leg injury), James Brown turned his energy toward music and by 1955 he and Sarah Byrd performed in Bobby Byrd's gospel group called "The Gospel Starlighters.

James had met Bobby in prison. Later the group became Three Swanees then Swanee Quintet and later the Swanees.

In 1955, the singer Sylvester Keels and the guitarist Nafloyd Scott where part of the Swanees and developed into the Famous Flames. In 1956, James Brown took over the direction of the Famous Flames which consisted of Keels and Scott, but also Johnny Terry and Nashpendle Knox (both vocals), Wilbert Smith and Ray Felder (both saxophone), Clarence Mack (bass) and Edison Gore (drums). The group was signed to Kings Records and their first hit single was "Please, Please, Please" (1956).

Subsequent records failed to make the grade but in 1958, at their tenth attempt, "Try Me," went to number forty-eight on the Billboard Hot 100. This was quite an achievement then for black artists. The song had gone to number 1 in the R&B charts but proved so popular that it crossed over to the predominately white charts of Billboard.

James wrote much of the group’s material and more and more his name featured as front man with The Famous Flames in the role of his backup. At first he was influenced by gospel-inspired R&B compositions and favoured the works of other contemporary musicians such as Little Richard and Ray Charles. His live show was as much theatrical as soulful and he even had his eyebrows tattooed. By the early 60s James Brown had developed his own distinctive sound and when Night Train, an instrumental featuring prominent horn with interjected vocal ad-libs from Brown.

Night Train showcased the James Brown sound and keen to bring the James Brown experience to a wider audience, the artist took the unprecedented action of self funding a recording of his live show and putting to vinyl. The resultant Live at the Apollo (1962) was a success and when he followed this up with a string of singles made the name of James Brown synonymous with funk music.

King Records sued James Brown after he recorded "Out of Sight" for rival Smash Records. The singer was still contracted to King Records but after court action was banned from releasing his recording for one year.

In 1965 he recorded his signature tunes, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" and "I Got You (I Feel Good)." This was followed by the classic "It's a Man's Man's Man's World."

James Brown surrounded himself with top class musicians and arrangers and preferred those with a jazz tradition and worked with guitarists, Jimmy Nolen and Alphonso "Country" Kellum, saxophonists Maceo Parker and St. Clair Pinckney, John "Jabo" Starks (drums), Fred Wesley (trombone) and bassist Bernard Odum. The band was led by Lewis Hamlin (trumpet) and Alfred "Pee Wee" Ellis saxophonist/keyboardist). James Brown’s sideman Bobby Byrd made up the band. James Brown’s funk developed as he incorporated a rap type vocal. By the late 60s JB was now branching into socio-political commentary which gained him an even greater position in the black community but lost him much of his white audience who could no longer relate to his lyrics. By 1970, most of the members of James Brown's classic 1960s band had quit. He and Bobby Byrd employed a new band that included future funk greats such as bassist Bootsy Collins, Collins' guitarist brother Phelps "Catfish" Collins, and trombonist/musical director Fred Wesley. This new backing band was dubbed "The JB's", and made their debut on Brown's 1970 single "(Get Up I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine".

By the mid-1970s, Brown's star-status was on the wane, and key musicians such as Bootsy Collins left the JBs. The popularity of Disco was had little room for James Brown and although he continued to records he also appeared in cameo roles in several films including: The Blues Brothers, Doctor Detroit, and Rocky IV.

In 1985 the single Living in America saw him back on top again, this time with the hip hop generation.

Despite the brief return to the limelight, by the late 1980s, James Brown met with a series of legal and financial setbacks. In 2006, James Brown undertook a work tour called "Seven Decades Of Funk World Tour. " He continued to work and record until his death on Christmas Day , 2006.

Worth a listen:
Please, Please, Please(1956)
Try Me (1959)
Night Train (1962)
Prisoner of Love (1963)
Papa's Got a Brand New Bag (1965)
I Got You (I Feel Good) (1965)
It's a Man's Man's Man's World (1966)
Say it Loud - I'm Black and I'm Proud (1968)
Get Up (I Feel Like Being Like A) Sex Machine (1970)

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