The Famous Flames were an American rhythm and blues vocal group founded in Toccoa, Georgia, in 1953 by Bobby Byrd. James Brown began his career as a member of The Famous Flames, emerging as the lead singer by the time of their first professional recording, "Please, Please, Please", in 1956.
On hit songs such as "Try Me", "Bewildered", "Think", "I Don't Mind", and "I'll Go Crazy", the Flames' smooth backing harmonies contrasted strikingly with Brown's raw, impassioned delivery, and their synchronized dance steps were a prominent feature of their live shows. Altogether, they performed on 12 songs that reached the Billboard R&B and pop charts, in addition to being featured on numerous albums, including the groundbreaking Live at the Apollo. They appeared in the films T.A.M.I. Show and Ski Party as well as on various television programs. Members of the Flames also contributed as songwriters and choreographers. In 2012 the Flames were retroactively inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame alongside Brown. On their Rock & Roll Hall of Fame page, they are described as "a group of singers, performers and dancers that created the complementary elements of one of the greatest stage shows of all time."
The Famous Flames are sometimes erroneously identified as James Brown's "band", a confusion partly fostered by their record companies' inconsistent labeling credit practices. Although members of the group did play instruments in some of their earliest shows and recordings, by 1959 Brown had hired a touring band and from that point on the Flames contributed primarily as backing vocalists and dancers. The band was billed separately as the James Brown Band, and later as the James Brown Orchestra.
James Brown began singing with the R&B group the Cremona Trio while growing up in Augusta. In 1949, Brown, then sixteen, was sent to a juvenile detention center in Toccoa, Georgia after committing several offenses of armed robbery. While at the detention center, he formed a group called the Swanees, which included Johnny Terry. The band made their own instruments, including a comb and paper, a washtub bass and a drum kit made from lard tubs, while Brown himself played "a sort of mandolin made out of a wooden box." This led to Brown's first nickname, "Music Box".
In 1952, Brown's reform baseball team played another team that featured Bobby Byrd and they soon became friends. Shortly after, Byrd and his family offered to be Brown's sponsors for an early prison release. Brown was paroled on June 14, 1952 on the condition he not return to his hometown. In response, Brown moved into Byrd's parents' home in Toccoa, finding work as a dishwasher and also trying short careers as a boxer and semi-professional baseball pitcher.
Around this time, Byrd had formed the gospel vocal group, the Starlighters, which included Byrd's sister Sarah. Within a year, the group wanted to perform R&B but was afraid of being confronted by church leaders for "singing the Devil's music". This led the group to perform R&B under the name, The Avons, which included members such as Troy Collins, Doyle Oglesby, Sylvester Keels and Willie Johnson. After deciding to focus primarily on R&B, they retired the Starlighters and performed in the South Carolina and Georgia areas as the Avons.
In 1954, Brown again turned his attention to music with the group the Ever Ready Gospel Singers, which included his old reform school friend, Johnny Terry, who had been paroled at approximately the same time as Brown. However, when the group failed to get a recording deal they disbanded, leading Brown to return to Toccoa. Later in 1954, the Avons faced a tragedy when Troy Collins died in a car accident. Byrd asked Brown to replace Collins. At first, lead vocals were split between Byrd, Keels and Brown. Johnny Terry was also asked to join and he brought in a guitarist, Nafloyd Scott, and Fred Pulliam replaced Willie Johnson. It was around this time that the Avons changed their name to The Toccoa Band in order to avoid confusion with two other groups also named the Avons. Under their manager, Barry Tremier, the group began playing instruments, with Brown playing drums and Byrd the piano.
Early success and initial breakup:
By 1955, after seeing a performance by Little Richard, the group left gospel behind and again changed their name, to The Flames. While performing at his club in Macon, Georgia, Clint Brantley (agent for Little Richard) advised the group to add "Famous" to their name. That year, Doyle Oglesby and Fred Pulliam left the group and were replaced by Nashpendle "Nash" Knox and Nafloyd's cousin Roy, who left before the group signed their first recording deal. When Little Richard left Macon for Los Angeles after the September 1955 release of "Tutti Frutti", Brantley included the band at every venue Richard had performed, leading to the growth of the group's success.
The group began composing and performing their own songs during this time including a James Brown composition called "Goin' Back to Rome" and a ballad Brown co-wrote with Johnny Terry titled "Please, Please, Please". Before Christmas 1955, Brantley had the group record a demo of "Please, Please, Please" for a local Macon radio station. "Please, Please, Please" came together in two pieces, first, Etta James stated that during the first time she met with Brown in Macon, Brown "used to carry around an old tattered napkin with him, because Little Richard had written the words, 'please, please, please' on it and James was determined to make a song out of it...". The second part of the song's conception came together after Brown and Terry heard The Orioles' rock 'n' roll version of Big Joe Williams' hit, "Baby Please Don't Go", where they got the melody.
"Please, Please, Please" was played on Macon radio stations, making it a regional hit by the end of 1955. The recording was sent to several record labels, who promptly passed on the record, though two labels, owned by Cincinnati-based King Records, pursued the group. Ralph Bass of Federal Records eventually won the bidding war, signing the Famous Flames in February 1956. A month later, they re-recorded the song in Cincinnati. Upon hearing it, King Records founder Syd Nathan deemed it unreleasable due to Brown's vocals, and almost fired Ralph Bass on the spot.
"Please, Please, Please" was released in May 1956 and by September, the record had reached #6 on the R&B charts. Constant performing with the song while the group performed on the chitlin' circuit kept the record on the charts for a year, and by 1957, it had sold well over 5,000 copies. The record eventually sold between one million and three million. Most of the original Flames' releases after "Please, Please, Please" failed to generate any follow-up success, including "I Don't Know", "No No No", "Just Won't Do Right" and "Chonnie-On-Chon". The group had changed managers and were now with Ben Bart, chief of the Universal Attractions Agency. Bart advised the group to change their name to The Famous Flames with James Brown. This led to dissension in the group and Bart gave them an ultimatum of either "staying and working for $35 a night or go home". The group responded by going home. Brown and Bart hired members of the vocal group the Dominions to replace the original Flames.
After several other recordings failed to chart, the Famous Flames were in danger of being dropped by Federal in 1958. Johnny Terry gave Brown a ballad that was based on the song, "For Your Precious Love" by Jerry Butler & The Impressions titled "Try Me". The song became the Famous Flames' first number-one R&B hit in early 1959. Following the song's success, Brown suddenly fired the interim group members of the Flames, "Big Bill" Hollings, J.W. Archer, and Louis Madison. These men, along with Willie Johnson, went on to form a San Francisco-based splinter group, The Fabulous Flames. By then, Brown and Terry had asked Bobby Byrd to return, which he did, and they added new Flames members Bobby Bennett and Lloyd Stallworth. This was the longest-lasting lineup of The Famous Flames, which became a straight vocal group at this point, as Brown, with Byrd's help, had employed the old J.C. Davis outfit, The Bucketheads, as his instrumental band. The group (now James Brown and The Famous Flames) then performed at the Apollo Theater in April 1959, Brown's first performance there, opening for Little Willie John.
That year, Brown had his first solo hit, "I Want You So Bad", which peaked in the top twenty on the R&B charts. In 1960, Brown and the Flames had a string of successful songs such as "Think" and "I'll Go Crazy". By 1962, three versions of "The James Brown Show" were recorded: James with the Famous Flames, James with his instrumental band, and James as a solo act. In 1962, the Famous Flames had a hit with "Shout and Shimmy", which was their rendition of The Isley Brothers' "Shout", but the song was dismissed by at least one critic as "a truly shameless ripoff of the song... basically the fast parts of "Shout" with the gospel inflections removed and the word 'shimmy' added." Their 1963 live recording at the Apollo Theater was released as Live at the Apollo, which peaked at number-two on the pop album chart. It sold over a million copies and stayed on the charts for fourteen months. In 1964, the group reached a peak in its popularity when they appeared in the 1964 American International Pictures concert film, The T.A.M.I. Show. Brown & The Flames debuted their landmark performance of "Please, Please, Please" during that concert, where Brown would collapse on his knees, causing Bobby Bennett and MC Danny Ray to drape a cape (or towel) on him and walk him off before Brown decided to return to the microphone. This would be a trademark in Brown's shows for the remainder of his career.
In 1964, the group recorded another successful live album, Pure Dynamite! Live at the Royal, which like Live at The Apollo, reached the Top 10 of the Billboard Pop Album chart. The Flames also contributed to the recording of the 1964 studio album, Showtime. During this time, the record label's inconsistent billing on various records and albums, led many fans of Brown to believe that the Famous Flames were actually Brown's backing band, instead of the stand-alone vocal group that they actually were. In 1964, James & the Flames had another top 40 hit with the blues ballad, "Oh Baby, Don't You Weep", which reached number 23 on the pop chart, and number four on the Cashbox R&B chart. Later that year they released their last recording together, "Maybe the Last Time", which was a b-side of James Brown's recording, "Out of Sight".
Brown's ascension and the group's decline:
In 1964, James Brown and Bobby Byrd formed their own production company, Fair Deal, in an attempt to promote their recordings to a crossover audience. As a result, Brown signed a contract with Smash Records, a subsidiary of Mercury to distribute the records. After the release of "Out of Sight", however, King Records stopped Brown from releasing any more recordings since he had not obtained the label's consent. This resulted in Brown not releasing any recordings for a year. In 1965, King released Brown's "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag", which became Brown's first #1 as a solo artist on the R&B charts, as well reaching the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100. The song also provided one of the first glimpses into a new sound cultivated by Brown and the James Brown Band that would later be labeled as funk.
The group found themselves performing in Hollywood movies such as Ski Party and appearing twice on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1966 (where The Flames were uncredited). The group also began to perform overseas and became a major attraction. Brown's solo obligations led to the further dissension in the group, who felt they weren't being compensated properly. Dissension continued to grow throughout 1966 and 1967, and in 1968 the rest of the members of the Famous Flames decided to go on with their own separate careers, and the group quietly disappeared. In 1968, King released the group's Live at the Apollo, Volume II but edited the Famous Flames' introduction, since the group had left Brown by then. The 2003 CD re-release of the album corrected that by restoring The Famous Flames' name credit.
Although Byrd reunited with Brown on several occasions in the ensuing decades, the Famous Flames never again performed with him. Brown wrote dismissively of them in his 1986 autobiography, claiming that though "they were a good stage act, they couldn't really sing all that good." However, elsewhere he referred to them favorably as "a bunch of real fine quartet singers".
In 2003, Byrd and his wife, Vicki Anderson, sued Brown and Universal Records (which now owned the King Records catalogue), claiming they were cheated out of royalties from samples of Byrd's 1971 hit, "I Know You Got Soul". Despite rumors of bad blood, Byrd contended he "still loved" Brown and felt the matter was more due to issues with Universal than with Brown.
Lloyd Stallworth died in 2001, followed by Johnny Terry in 2005 and Brown in December 2006. An emotional Byrd performed at Brown's public funeral in Augusta, singing "Sex Machine" and "I Know You Got Soul". Byrd would die only nine months later, in September 2007. Bobby Bennett, the last living member of The Famous Flames, lived long enough to see the group inducted into the 2012 class of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, before dying on January 18, 2013.
Rock & Roll Hall of Fame controversy and 2012 Induction:
In 1986, the first committee of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame announced that James Brown would be one of the Hall of Fame's first charter members to be inducted. However, Brown's former group, the Famous Flames, were not included. The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame's criteria states that only artists whose first recording had been out for more than 25 years were eligible for induction. Brown's first solo recording did not meet that criteria. Rock & Roll Hall of Fame president and chief executive officer Terry Stewart contended that Brown was indeed eligible for induction but as a member of The Famous Flames. Stewart went on to say: "There was no legislative intent why they weren't included; somehow they just got overlooked."
In 2011, a special committee was set up to correct exclusions which might have occurred during the first two years of Rock Hall inductions (1986 and 1987) due to the impact of the bands' lead singers/front men. The Famous Flames (Byrd, Bennett, Terry and Stallworth) were inducted in April 2012 alongside other "backing groups" such as The Midnighters (Hank Ballard), The Comets (Bill Haley), The Crickets (Buddy Holly), The Blue Caps (Gene Vincent) and The Miracles (Smokey Robinson). Since all these lead singers were actually members of these groups, these were not really "backing groups" at all. This was highlighted by Smokey Robinson, who did the induction honors for all of the groups, including his own Miracles, who stated, "These are not backing groups. These are the groups." Bennett, as the Famous Flames' only surviving member, accepted the honor in person. Bennett further stated the induction was not only a correction for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame committee's mishap in 1986 but also a reunion: "For years, I felt like we were all separated," said Bennett. "I feel like we're whole again, I wish we could all be here as one group. Yes, James Brown was the most famous of the Flames, but we were all Famous Flames."
Backstage, during the ceremony, Miracles lead singer Smokey Robinson, said, "If James Brown was the Hardest Working Man in Show Business, The Famous Flames were the hardest-working group".
The Famous Flames will appear in the upcoming James Brown biopic, "Get on Up", which will be released in U.S. theatres nationwide on August 1, 2014 .
"Baby Lloyd" Stallworth,