411 Music Hall of Fame Class of 2009: James Brown
JAMES BROWN’S MAJOR ACCOMPLISHMENTS:
• A record 98 hits on Billboard’s Top 40 R&B charts and 116 Top 100 hits. Only Elvis charted more singles.
• Lifetime Achievement Grammy (1992) and a Best R&B Male Vocal Performance (“Living In America” – 1987)
• Toured almost nonstop from the late 1950’s until his death in 2006, earning the nickname, “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business.’
• Responsible for the emergence of soul music from R&B in the 1950’s
• Instrumental in creating the genre of funk music in the late 60’s.
• Influenced several generations of musicians, including Prince, 70’s funk icons like Parliament, the Ohio Players, Kool and the Gang, and many early hip-hop and rap acts.
• The Godfather of Soul
James Brown was instrumental in two musical revolutions. He led the initial shift from traditional R&B songs into the grittier, realistic sounds of soul. A few short years later, he pushed soul music further, creating what eventually became known as funk. After taking part in two of the most important musical revolutions after rock and roll, Brown faded a bit in the mid 70’s and became as well known for his financial and drug problems as his music. In the late 80’s he made a comeback, winning a Grammy for his song, “Living In America.” Hip-hop and rap has also been kind to Brown, as his music has been sampled on a vast array of recordings. As is often the case, after Brown’s death in 2006, critics also reevaluated his musical output and granted him the recognition he seldom received in his lifetime.
Brown, despite his later financial problems, often said he was proof of the truth of the American dream. He was born in Augusta, Georgia in poverty and was arrested in the 40’s for armed robbery. Brown managed to straighten his life out with the help of gospel singer Bobby Byrd. After non-stop touring, the band changed its name to the The Flames and, like many touring acts of the era, began to feature R&B songs instead of gospel. “Please Please Please” was released on a small Georgia record label in 1956 and became Brown’s first hit. The name of the band was changed to James Brown & the Famous Flames to reflect Brown’s increasing charisma and emergence as the group’s leader.
After the initial success, however, Brown found a second hit difficult to achieve. He continued to tour what was then called The Chitlin Circuit, which other R&B singers such as Roy Brown and Ray Charles. Brown and his band sharpened their skills and worked on their show. He finally found his second hit, “Try Me,” which went to number one on the R&B charts and also charted Pop. Several follow-up hits followed, establishing him as a hitmaker.
By the start of the 60’s, Brown added more diverse influences into his music, as songs like “Good Good Lovin'” and “I’ll Go Crazy” incorporated jazz and Latin rhythms, which was unheard of at the time in R&B. In 1963, his live act was recorded on the landmark album Live at the Apollo. The live album was the first of many released during his career, but is notable for capturing the essence of Brown as a performer and singer. Live climbed all the way to the second spot on the album charts, which was something no R&B album had ever accomplished until that time.
Brown continued to move the sounds of soul toward funk, with songs such as “Out of Sight” in 1965, which topped the R&B charts and made Top 40 in the Pop charts. The beats were complex, the horns were meant to invoke the spirit of jazz improvisation and the words were more chants and screams than lyrics. Other pre-funk tunes of the time released by Brown included “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag” and “I Got You (I Feel Good)”. The songs crossed over in the Top 40 and the groundwork for funk music had been established. For the rest of the 60’s, Brown produced hit after hit on both the R&B and Pop charts.
At the beginning of the 70’s, Brown left the pop, mostly white audience and focused almost solely on funk with such hits as “Make It Funky” “Hot Pants” and “Get On The Good Foot.” Around this time, Brown also was attacked by critics as becoming too safe, too predictable and merely repeating things he had already done. By the mid 70’s, after an ill-advised attempt at disco, Brown seemed to be finished. In 1980, James didn’t even have a label to release records, although his concerts were still well-attended and as enthusiastic as ever. Thanks to the sampling of his work by hip-hop and rap artists, however, Brown still managed to stay relevant, even re-entering the Top 10 with “Living In America” in 1986 and winning a Grammy for the same song in 1987.
In the 90’s and up to his death in 2006, Brown continued to record new material and tour. James Brown died at the age of 73 of heart failure and was buried in his hometown of Augusta.
Why James Brown Was Selected:
Musicians often adapt nicknames and personas to increase their mystique and sell more records. Seldom are these nicknames deserved. However, James Brown, who was known as “Soul Brother Number One”, “The Godfather of Soul”, “The Hardest Working Man In Show Business” and “Mr. Dynamite”, among others, earned each and every nickname he ever had. Brown was never the most popular, nor the most skilled musician, but few have been as influential to generation after generation of musicians. His stage shows alone make him one of the greatest performers of all time.
Without James Brown, music would be in a far different place than it is right now. Modern R&B, soul, funk and hip hop all owe a great deal to Brown and his legacy.