James Brown, the explosive, inventive “Godfather of Soul,” whose signature beats and stop-on-a-dime live shows made him an icon for more than 50 years, died on Monday morning (December 25) at the age of 73.
According to an Associated Press report, Brown was hospitalized with pneumonia at Emory Crawford Long Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia, on Sunday and died around 1:45 a.m. Christmas morning. The cause of death was congestive heart failure, his agent told CNN.
Brown, whose many nicknames — Mr. Excitement, the Hardest-Working Man in Show Business, Mr. Dynamite, Soul Brother #1 — were a testament to his status as one of the most dynamic performers in the history of popular music, made his name in the studio with such iconic #1 R&B hits as “I Got You (I Feel Good),” “Cold Sweat – Part 1,” “Super Bad (Part 1 & Part 2)” and “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag Part 1.”
But it was onstage where the pompadoured, flashy-suit-wearing Brown cemented his reputation as the consummate performer, shimmying across the boards as if on a conveyor belt, whipping his mic stand around in time to his mercilessly tight band’s rhythms and yelping out lyrics that mixed sensuality, political awareness and positivity with a Baptist church fervor.
As hard as he worked onstage — where his band had to keep a close eye on his hand gestures, which indicated time changes, or risk being fined — Brown was an equally harsh taskmaster in the recording studio. A piano player as well as a singer and arranger, Brown produced a huge catalog of work that not only formed the foundations of funk, but is also responsible for serving as the bedrocks of disco and hip-hop.
From the release of his first R&B hit in 1956, “Please, Please, Please,” Brown served notice that he was a different kind of performer than the world had ever seen, one who looked not only backward at the music that had influenced him, but also forward to a new kind of sound that did not yet even have a name.
Born into poverty in Barnwell, South Carolina, on May 3, 1933, during the Great Depression, Brown picked cotton as a child, shined shoes and danced for spare change.
After a leg injury ruined his hopes of playing baseball or being a boxer, Brown began pursuing music full time and joined a gospel group fronted by Bobby Byrd, who he’d met while incarcerated on a robbery charge. After playing on a bill with Hank Ballard and Fats Domino, Byrd and Brown decided to switch to secular music in 1953 and renamed themselves the Flames (and eventually James Brown & the Famous Flames). Two years later, with Brown as frontman, the Flames recorded the yearning R&B ballad “Please, Please, Please,” which landed them a recording contract with Cincinnati’s King Records. The song became a #5 R&B hit and Brown began honing an explosive stage persona that he worked well into his 70s.
His constant touring and revue-style live shows — during which he legendarily shed several pounds due to his raw, gymnastic performance style — earned him the “Hardest-Working Man in Show Business” nickname. Among the highlights of his shows were his famous spins and splits, and a bit near the end of the set where he would pretend that he couldn’t go on any longer and be draped in a cape by an assistant, only to throw it off and tear off some more funk. The shows also earned him legions of admirers, from Michael Jackson to Prince to the innumerable funk players and hip-hop beatmakers who used Brown’s syncopated rhythms and wild, falsetto screams to build their tracks from the 1970s to today. Brown often referred to himself, fittingly, as the most sampled man in the history of recorded music.
As much as he toured during the 1960s and ’70s, Brown was a dynamo in the studio and on the charts as well, rivaling Elvis with 114 entries on Billboard’s R&B singles charts, with 94 songs making the Hot 100 singles chart and more than 800 songs in his repertoire.
Given his live prowess, it is fitting that among his dozens of albums, the LP held up as one of his finest recorded works is 1963’s Live at the Apollo, which was released against the wishes of his record-label boss, who believed that no one would want to hear a live album of previously released tunes. The album hit #2 in the summer of 1963 and its airtight versions of songs such as “I’ll Go Crazy” and the propulsive “Think” are among the finest examples of Brown’s genius at melding the early swing of rock and roll with a horn- and beat-driven mix of gospel frenzy and funky soul. Over the years, Brown’s legendarily tight live bands featured a galaxy of stars, including such horn players as Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker, as well as bass-guitar funk pioneer Bootsy Collins.
In the 1960s and early ’70s, as the civil rights movement was reaching its peak, Brown used his stardom to help preach for self-sufficiency, recording such songs as 1968’s “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud).” On April 5 of that year, as rioting broke out across America in the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination, Brown insisted on playing a show in Boston that Mayor Kevin White had wanted to cancel. Brown dedicated the show to King, and it was broadcast on local television at the mayor’s urging in an effort to keep people off the streets. (The show was released on DVD in 2004.)
However, Brown’s career began to lose momentum in the mid-1970s. His cameo in a wild gospel church musical number in 1980’s “The Blues Brothers” movie helped him back into the spotlight and soon his voice and signature “funky drummer” beat were fueling innumerable samples in hip-hop tunes like Ice-T’s “New Jack Hustler” and Public Enemy’s “Don’t Believe the Hype.” In songs by artists like the Beastie Boys, R. Kelly, Sinéad O’Connor and Audioslave, Brown’s music continues to be an inspiration that crosses genres and musical styles.
In 1986, Brown was among the initial group of artists inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but two years later he began a string of personal misfortunes that would overshadow his musical feats for several years. Brown was investigated for tax issues, alleged spousal abuse of his third wife, Adrienne, and drug possession. He spent more than two years in a South Carolina prison for aggravated assault and for failing to stop for a police officer after a September 1988 incident in which, while high on PCP and carrying a shotgun, he entered an insurance seminar near his Augusta, Georgia, offices and demanded to know if participants were using his private bathroom. Brown fled and was chased by police for a half hour, driving even after police shot out the tires of his truck.
Brown returned to the stage soon after his release for a pay-per-view concert from Los Angeles’ Wiltern Theatre that was watched by millions, which helped kick-start a productive decade during which his recorded legacy was thin, but he continued performing for a new generation, including the mosh-friendly crowd at the ill-fated Woodstock ’99 festival.
In addition to a Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 1992, in December 2003, a few months after his 70th birthday, Brown received the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors. Just days before his death, Brown joined volunteers at his annual toy giveaway in Augusta, according to the AP, and was scheduled to perform on New Year’s Eve at B.B. King Blues Club & Grill in New York.
[This story was originally published at 9:48 a.m. ET on 12.25.2006]