James Brown

Soul legend James Brown, once known as the "Hardest Working Man in Show Business," has had a great influence on many of today's soul, funk, rap, pop and rock stars.

He was born May 3, 1933, in Barnwell, S.C. Brown picked cotton as a youth, but he was convicted of armed robbery at age 16 and spent three years at a juvenile detention center. He then spent time in semi-pro boxing and baseball, but an injury led him to music.

After singing gospel in churches, Brown and gospel singer Bobby Byrd put together a gospel group that performed under a succession of names until Brown renamed the group the Flames. Their first record, Please, Please, Please, became a million-seller. By 1958, when "Try Me" became a #1 R&B hit, Brown began to perfect his wild gyrations and hip-twisting.

Brown began concentrating on dance music after leaving the Flames. In 1963, he released The James Brown Show Live at the Apollo. Widely considered one of the greatest albums ever made, it showcases Brown's incredible stamina as a performer and featured a great deal of audience interaction. It set the stage for the prime of Brown's career: 1965–75.

In 1965, Brown renegotiated his contract with King Records, getting complete creative control. Beginning with that year's "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" (RealAudio excerpt), he became R&B's biggest star and creative force. Concentrating on rhythm, Brown's music dispensed with verses and choruses, setting a precedent with its reliance on tempo, groove and energy.

A long streak of R&B chart-toppers followed, including "I Got You (I Feel Good)" (RealAudio excerpt), "It's a Man's, Man's, Man's World," "Give It Up or Turn It A-Loose" and "Super Bad."

In addition to founding programs for poor black youths, Brown began recording songs with social messages, such as "Don't Be a Drop Out" and "America Is My Home." In 1971, he became his own manager and parted with most of his then-backing band, the J.B.'s. His music became even more unconventional, relying on stream-of-consciousness lyrics, and his style became of less interest to the pop world.

By the '80s, Brown was without a record label, although his energy in concert ensured that he could still attract an audience. The emergence of rap later in the decade reawakened music fans to Brown and he enjoyed a top-10 pop hit in 1986 with "Living in America."

Last year, Brown played Woodstock '99. This week, he's been in the news because of a suspected arson fire Friday that damaged his Augusta, Ga., business headquarters and destroyed much of his professional memorabilia.