Stocky but lithe, like a street-brawling puma, James Brown, who has died aged 73 of congestive heart failure, was a dominant force in the emancipation of African-American music and culture from the 1960s onwards.
He was still performing up to his death. The day before he was hospitalised for pneumonia, he was at his annual Christmas toy giveaway in Atlanta, Georgia, and looking forward to giving a New Year’s Eve concert.
Not that Brown was ever comfortable with such a politically correct notion as African-American. He was first and foremost of, and for, the US. Secondly, he remained defiantly a southerner. And, although he was unashamedly black, he had a lot more Cherokee Indian and, by his own admission, Mongol blood in him than any special connection or empathy with Africa – despite being hailed as some kind of homecoming hero when touring that continent. Latterly he saw himself as Universal James.
From the degradation and apparent hopelessness of an apparently stillborn delivery in a rural shack in the segregated southern US – he was resuscitated only when it was noticed that his body had stayed warm – he fiercely drove himself to become an internationally renowned, massively influential icon of his own invention, the Godfather of Soul.
Like other sobriquets – the Hardest Working Man in Showbusiness was an earlier claim, Minister of New Super Heavy Funk a later pitch – GOS was OTT, but it was the one that stuck and most befitted the nature of the man and his Taurean charge at life.
His career thundered or faltered more in accordance with the strengths and pitfalls of his relentless ego and determination to be somebody than any believable script. The fallout of his monumental drive “to the bridge” is a persistently resonating pulse that informs the dance of opportunity for all of us, of any creed or colour.
Brown’s professional recording career lasted more than 40 years, but it was the decade from 1965 to 1974 that circumscribed his most extraordinary achievements. During that turbulent era of civil rights upheaval and war in Vietnam, he exploded from the launch-pad of “chitlin circuit” stardom (named after the characteristic dish of boiled pigs’ intestines), playing the chain of “safe” black venues in the south and east, to become a national spokesman for black America.
By then independently controlling his own affairs, he hob-nobbed with politicos and cultural luminaries, was feted by the White House and was credited with helping greatly to calm the streets immediately following the assassination of Martin Luther King on April 4 1968. He bought three of the then five black-owned US radio stations, launched his own soul food restaurants and food stamps programme, entertained in Africa and for US troops in Vietnam. He commanded attention. He was on an unprecedented, socially provocative roll while all the while maintaining a punishing schedule with his frenetic stage show.
By the mid-1970s, his political and business naivety had backfired. Nonetheless, it was during those 10 years that he and, just as importantly, the changing ensembles of talented musicians he employed, inspired and bullied, created music that was challenging, exhilarating, fuelled with passion and a rhythmic intensity unlike anything before. Of the moment and of the man, it is a substantial legacy of work that remains wholly idiosyncratic and yet is repeatedly echoed around the globe.
A later defining moment in Brown’s career came in January 1986, when he was inducted as one of the 10 charter members into the US music industry’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall Of Fame. The other worthies were either dead or well beyond their “best before” date. Brown was concurrently riding his biggest international hit for more than a decade (Living In America, appropriately soundtracked in the bullish movie Rocky IV) at the very time his back catalogue was being plundered by an entire new international generation.
Few bravehearts have attempted to replicate organically a James Brown recording as he and his musicians spontaneously created them. But with the advent of computerised sampling technology, all and sundry were suddenly able to swipe his card into a soundtrack for their own aspirations. The beats and rhythms, screams and hollers; the energy and badassness; the catharsis and charisma; the unorthodoxy; all there for the taking. What Brown had emoted as personal expression came back around as a worldwide display of scattershot sound bites.
Whether later disciples from Tokyo to Tooting Bec fully understood where James Brown was coming from in the first place is another matter entirely. He wasn’t always entirely lucid on that score himself.
Brown was born in the pine woods outside Barnwell, South Carolina, to parents who soon separated, leaving him in the care of an “aunt” who ran a brothel across the Savannah river in nearby Augusta, Georgia. A raggedy-assed waif with limited education but street nous, his early focus on sport and music was interupted by four years in jail for petty theft.
Paroled in 1952 in Toccoa, Georgia, he was taken in by the Byrd family, initially “wrecking the church” as a fervent gospeller with Sarah Byrd (an innate gift he later parodied in the 1980 movie, The Blues Brothers), then joining brother Bobby Byrd’s group, the Gospel Starlighters. With their secular heads on, known as the Avons, they bounced from the early inspiration of Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five to perform the jump-jive of Joe Turner, Roy Brown and Wynonie Harris, the closeknit harmonies of groups like the Ink Spots and Orioles, and the newly emergent rhythm and blues sounds of Billy Ward’s Dominoes, Clyde McPhatter and The Drifters, The Clovers and suchlike. Byrd’s Avons became the Famous Flames with Brown at the forefront and relocated to Atlanta, Georgia, in pursuit of local tearaway Little Richard.
In late 1955, Richard had a hit with Tutti Frutti and decamped to Los Angeles for an incandescent, if brief, eruption of some of the greatest rock and roll records ever made. Brown temporarily emulated Richard on stage, but eschewed rock and roll when it came time for the Famous Flames to record in February 1956. Instead they cut a tortured, gospel-derived personalisation of an Orioles version of the Big Joe Williams’ blues, Baby Please Don’t Go. They called it Please, Please, Please. Syd Nathan, the myopic owner of Cincinnati-based King Records, to whom they were signed by the producer Ralph Bass, called it “the worst piece of shit I ever heard”, but released it anyway. It has sold millions over the years and remained Brown’s cape-flourishing, knee-dropping homage to his past throughout his career.
Despite their initial territorial success, Brown and a changing vocal group struggled in southern obscurity until a second hit in late 1958 (Try Me, a more romantic supplication) convinced Ben Bart, the owner of Universal Attractions booking agency, to become Brown’s personal manager, business mentor and surrogate “pops”. Recruiting his first small band of regular musicians, and with his teeth, hair and wardrobe made over, by 1962 Brown was breaking box office records in major black venues throughout the US with a whirlwind revue of his own creation that synthesised all of his roots into a shockingly unique new persona. Live at the Apollo,the resulting LP recorded at the top New York venue, smashed him into the face of white recognition.
What followed did not go according to anybody’s plan. Brown formed his own independent company, Fair Deal Productions, and rebuilt his band into a sizeable orchestra with the intention of crossing the tracks at Tuxedo Junction. The prevailing social climate in the US, Brown’s responses to the situation, and the fact that his new recruits were mostly restless young jazzers, sparked them all off into uncharted territory. It was Out of Sight, Papa Got a Brand New Bag. A Man’s World bathed in Cold Sweat. He Said it Loud, was Black and Proud and danced the Popcorn. In a New Day it was Funky Now. He was Super Bad, a Sex Machine with Soul Power. He had his Thang and Papa Didn’t Take No Mess, he demanded Payback. This litany of just a few of his more familiar titles does little justice to the underlying tour de force, involving three effectively different bands over 10 years, that changed the direction of black American music.
By 1975, James Brown was showing the first signs of insecurity since the 1950s. In the charts he was being outflanked by many of the younger acts he had inspired, he was on shaky ground with his record company, Polydor (a dispassionate international corporation, unlike the seat-of-the-pants operation with which he had grown strong), some of his leading musicians left him, and the Internal Revenue Service was on his case.
It was then that he apparently began smoking something rather more confusing than the occasional menthol and began rehashing his old hits; following trends instead of creating them. Nevertheless, he soldiered on, still toured the world regularly to great acclaim, came up with a hit from time to time, and seemed to be settling into his establishment-honoured role as a living legend, until 1987. That year saw him back in a southern jail again – this time for throwing a drug-fuelled tantrum brandishing a shotgun and nearly getting himself shot to death in a Keystone Cops chase around state borders.
Released in 1991, a lesser man might have deemed it prudent to retire gracefully with his multifarious awards on the sideboard. Brown dusted himself off, ordered a new spangle suit, assembled another band and charged forth once again. It was never the same as his heyday, but it was never less than an audience with a formidably dominant personality. Letting off another rifle and another car chase in 1998 led to a drug rehabilitation programme, and in 2004 he was arrested on charges of domestic violence against his fourth wife, Tomi Rae Hynie, a former backup singer. She survives him, as do their son and at least three other children.
Honours came in the form of a Grammy lifetime achievement award (1992), a Kennedy Centre Honour (2003) and entry into the UK Music Hall of Fame when he was in London for an energetic appearance in the BBC Electric Proms at the Roundhouse last November. With the spirit of one of his 1973 million-sellers, James Brown kept on Doing It To Death.
• James Brown, musician, born May 3 1933; died 25 December 2006
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