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James Brown

James Brown, Godfather of Soul (May 3, 1933 - December 25, 2006), was an American entertainer (singer and dancer). He is recognized as one of the most influential figures in 20th century popular music and was renowned for his vocals and feverish dancing. Brown was a pivotal force in the music industry. As one of the major musical influences of the past 50 years, he remained in a rarefied league with Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan and few others.

Brown was a visionary and an innovator who pushed music to new places, originating funk and influencing the rhythms of African popular music, such as afrobeat, jùjú and mbalax. He also was a songwriter, bandleader, record producer, philanthropist and civil rights activist, who left his mark on numerous artists.

Brown began his professional music career in 1953 and rose to fame during the late 1950s and early 1960s on the strength of his thrilling live performances and string of smash hits. In spite of various personal problems and setbacks he continued to score hits in every decade through the 1980s, and continued to wow audiences with his throaty vocals and pulsating rhythms up until the last days of his life.

His musical legacy includes more than 900 songs, among them: I Got You (I Feel Good) (1965), Cold Sweat (1967), Sex Machine (1970), Hot Pants (1971) and The Payback (1973). His Say It Loud: I'm Black and I'm Proud" (1969) became an anthem during the civil rights movement.

Brown's live recording at the famed Apollo Theater in October 1962 was considered a pivotal event in his career and was declared one of the greatest 100 moments in rock music in the 1960s by Entertainment Weekly. The recording, which was released three months later, "marked the beginning of Brown's transformation from minor R&B star into soul's greatest bandleader, the magazine said in 1999.

In 1965, Brown's Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" won a Grammy for best R&B recording, and in 1987, his Living in America single, which is heard in the movie ROCKY IV, received one for best male R&B vocal performance. In 1992, he won a Grammy Award for lifetime achievement. He was one of the initial artists inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in 1986, along with Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino and Buddy Holly. In 2003, he was honored by the John F. Kennedy Center of Performing Arts.

Early in his life, Brown learned to wrestle success out of adversity. Born James Joe Brown Jr. on May 3, 1933, in Barnwell, S.C., he was abandoned by his mother at age 4. His father took him to Augusta, Ga., where he lived with an aunt who ran a brothel. As a child, he picked cotton, worked odd jobs and shined shoes. Dropping out of school by 12 to help support his family, Brown sang and danced for soldiers at nearby Fort Gordon and helped his father wash cars. He also ventured into larceny, breaking and entering and stealing cars, spending three years in reform school for his thefts. From 1953 to 1955, he turned to boxing and semiprofessional baseball.

Then with longtime friend Bobby Brown, he sang gospel in churches in Toccoa, Georgia, before forming James Brown and the Famous Flames. The group moved to Macon, Georgia, and performed during an intermission of a Little Richard show. In 1956, the group, then known as the Flames, cut its first record, Please, Please, Please, which later became Brown's signature piece. Brown, a driven bandleader and businessman, built a close-knit ensemble of singers, dancers and musicians, numbering 40 members at one point. For decades, he maintained a grueling schedule on the road, selling out theaters along the way, becoming known as The Hardest-working Man in Show Business. Brown's ascension from R&B megastar to cultural icon may have come in 1968 in the heat of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. Preparing for a concert at the Boston Garden, he took to the airwaves and urged viewers not to dishonor King's memory by turning to violence. He continued his message of self-reliance and education in songs such as "I Don't Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing (Open Up the Door, I'll Get It Myself)".

He traveled to Vietnam to perform for U.S. troops, spoke out about the importance of job opportunities and surprised and angered some by endorsing Richard M. Nixon for president in 1968.

As a businessman, he once owned James Brown Productions, three recording companies, two real estate concerns, several radio stations and publishing companies before falling into trouble with the Internal Revenue Service in the late 1970s. He was a philanthropist, sponsoring food stamps for the poor and giving money and land to those in need, especially in Africa.

In the 1980s, as he began to make a musical comeback, other problems got in the way. Among them were drug and alcohol abuse and charges of hitting his third wife. In 1988, he was high on PCP and carrying a shotgun when he entered an insurance seminar next to his Augusta office, then led police on a half-hour chase from Augusta into South Carolina and back to Georgia. Police had to shoot out the tires of his truck. Brown received a six-year prison sentence and spent 15 months in a South Carolina prison before being paroled in February 1991. In 2003, the South Carolina parole board granted him a pardon for his crimes in that state.

James Brown died of congestive heart failure in Atlanta, Georgia on December 25, 2006. He indelibly transformed 20th-century music, and continued to wow audiences with his throaty vocals and pulsating rhythms up until the last days of his life.

Note: This profile was written in or before 2009.
Read earlier biographies on this page.

James Brown Facts

Birth Name James Joseph Brown
BirthdayMay 3, 1933
BirthplaceBarnwell, South Carolina, USA
Date of deathDecember 25, 2006 (Atlanta, Georgia, USA, age 73)
Height5' 6" (1m68)  How tall is James Brown compared to you?

Selected Filmography

Legends in Concert: James Brown
Mr Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown
Get On Up
Mr. Dynamite: The Rise Of James Brown
I Got the Feelin': James Brown in the 60's
James Brown: Live in Montreux
America's Music Legacy
Gun Street
Continue » Find more details on the James Brown Movies page