“The Godfather of Soul” was also known as the “Hardest Working Man in Show Business”. He was without doubt one of the most influential figures of the twentieth century music scene. He is remembered best for his shouting vocals, rhythmic music and of course his dancing. He began his musical career in 1953 as a singer, and skyrocketed to fame in the late 1950’s through the 1960’s. He was a pivotal force in the development of gospel music, soul and funk. He forever left his mark on jazz and blues and his influence is felt in disco, dance music, reggae, and hip hop. In the 1960’s he provided the template for go-go music. With his stunning live performances he managed to draw audiences and score hits in every decade of his career through the 1980’s. Some of his best-known hits include the “Godfather of Soul”, “The Boss” and “Mr. Dynamite”. He holds the honour of having the most Billboard top 100 hits without ever having had a number one hit.
He was born into extreme poverty during the depression in South Carolina. He had a difficult childhood, living with a string of relatives and finally leaving school in 7th grade. He taught himself to play harmonica, and learned some guitar, piano and drums from friends. In 1948 when he was 16 he was sentenced to serve 8-18 years in juvenile detention from a string of car burglaries and armed robbery. It was while he was in prison that he formed a quartet and began performing gospel music for his fellow inmates on homemade instruments.
He was released after only three years in detention and briefly tried boxing, an being a semi-pro being a baseball pitcher. He returned to music though and in the 1950’s he joined “The Gospel Starlighters”. They were eventually signed by King Records subsidiary Federal and hit #5 on the R&B hits list in 1956 with “Please, Please, Please”. His music of that time was heavily influenced by Little Richard and Ray Charles. By the 1960’s Brown had a successful solo career and broke through to have 2 top ten hits, establishing ‘funk’ music with his hit “Cold Sweat”. His vocals, not spoken, not sung had little melody or trace of pitch. They represent the beginning of modern day Rap music.
In the late 1960’s he expanded his interests with his participation in the Civil Rights movement. During this time he also he began to buy radio stations. He continued to innovate, refine his musical styles through the 1970’s and 1980’s with film soundtracks, and cameo appearances in movies such as “The Blues Brothers”. This brought him to a much more mainstream audience, and resulted in a resurgence of popularity.
He suffered run-ins with the law, and financial setbacks in the mid 1980’s ending with time in prison. This didn’t slow down his performance or recording schedule though, and he continued to perform live with his last world tour in 2006. He drew a record breaking crowd of 80,000 in Ireland.
James Brown was married four times and had 8 children, and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Much controversy surrounds the legitimacy of his final marriage to Tomi Rae Hynie, and the paternity of her son James II.
He was admitted to hospital for observation and treatment when his friend noticed he looked ‘weak and dazed’. He died two days later of congestive heart failure resulting from the complications of pneumonia.