When an artist earns the nickname “Mr. Dynamite” it says that you can expect a riveting performer who can take control on stage. When the same artist is also called “Soul Brother Number One”, “ The Godfather of Soul” and “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business” the expectations go through the roof. That was James Brown. While many contemporaries may have bettered Brown in one area or another, nobody was more exciting or exhilarating to see perform live.
Born into poverty in South Carolina, James Brown began singing after moving to Georgia. At sixteen, Brown was convicted of robbery and sent to juvenile detention where he formed a gospel group with other inmates. Singer Bobby Byrd went to hear his group after hearing about a kid nicknamed “Music Box” who was an accomplished singer. Byrd helped secure an early release for Brown, who joined his gospel group the Flames.
The Flames broke up as the focus turned more fully on James Brown. Brown also moved his musical direction from gospel to R&B, with an increasingly harder sound as the years moved along. Lyrics began to include as many chants and screams as they did words and the music included more intricate beats drawing from Brown’s early interest in jazz ensembles. The essential ingredients that would later define funk were there in Brown’s music of the 60s.
James Brown was constantly on the R&B charts in the 60s and often on the Pop charts. Known for his brilliant stage performances he was also known as a stern band leader. In 1969 his entire band walked out. Brown responded by recruiting a new group of musicians which included Catfish and Bootsy Collins. For a year they played with Brown before springboarding to launch funk in the 70s with the Parliament/Funkadelic collective.
At 71 James Brown was diagnosed with Prostate cancer which he successfully fought to remission. A routine dentist appointment two years later revealed pneumonia and within a few days Brown died of heart failure on Christmas day.
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