The electrifying performer known as "The Godfather of Soul" died early Monday, Dec. 25, in Atlanta, Georgia, of unknown causes after being hospitalized Sunday with pneumonia. VOA's Ed Kowalski has more on music legend James Brown.
With his 1965 signature hit, "I Got You (I Feel Good)," James Brown went from rhythm-and-blues fame to pop music stardom, capturing a huge white as well as a black audience. For the millionaire singer and songwriter, the success was a far cry from the poverty of his early years. He was born on May 3, 1933 in a one-room shack near Barnwell, South Carolina. His father, Joe Brown, tapped pine trees in the surrounding woods, and sold the sap for making turpentine. After his mother left the family, seven-year-old James and his father moved to Augusta, Georgia.
Blessed with musical talent, young James learned to play the guitar, piano and drums - all the while, working in the fields and shining shoes to earn money to survive. He loved gospel music. Brown's future style was shaped by the heartfelt singing and the dramatic moments when the preacher, with emotional shouts and screams, dropped to his knees, electrifying the congregation. James Brown was also captivated by the sound of popular jazz and R&B performer Louis Jordan.
"My influence was Louis Jordan, who recorded a song by the name of "Caldonia" and other things that were very big in the '50s and the late-'40s," he said.
By the age of 13, James Brown had formed his own trio. He later joined The Flames, a local group which played at Carolina bars, colleges, roadhouses - wherever they could find work. For the most part, the youthful performers emulated the sounds of successful R&B groups. But they included in their shows an original song, co-written by James Brown, "Please, Please, Please," a tune that launched his career.
"'Please! Please!' was probably the tune because it got me away from being a janitor. It got me away from doing menial work. And I had a chance to have some of the things I couldn't even dream of having because there was no way."
Recorded in 1956, "Please, Please, Please" was a million-seller that made James Brown a national figure, and became a highlight of his spectacular stage act. Backed by an 18-piece band and a group of dancers, his rough-edged, emotional vocals were punctuated by grunts and screams and accompanied with frenzied, intricate footwork and flying splits. James Brown created musical as well as performing styles. For example, this 1965 hit song:
"'Papa's Got a Brand New Bag' will probably be one of the most important things I've ever done in the way of changing the music [rhythms] around from two and four to one and three, which is 'funk,'" he said.
With "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag," James Brown originated funk, which later came to be called "soul" music. He followed it up a few months later with "I Got You (I Feel Good)," an even bigger hit.
While turning out a succession of hits, Brown became known as "The Hardest Working Man in Show Business." He performed in city after city with his charismatic show, touring virtually non-stop in the U.S. and abroad. At the same time, James Brown was working for civil rights - promoting black business ownership as the key to "real black power," encouraging black pride and urging young people not to drop out of school. In turbulent times, his message was positive rather than angry.
"Hostilities have been accented a lot, and it would probably be better if we accented love, and make things a lot easier," he said. "Troubled minds don't need to have fuel to make them more troubled."
Over the years, James Brown encountered business setbacks, tax difficulties and problems in his personal life. During the 1970s, when disco dominated the music scene, his popularity waned. But he made a comeback in the early-1980s, with several film roles and "Living in America," his first hit in years.
In 1986, James Brown was one of the first performers inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. With the exception of Elvis Presley, no pop artist had appeared more often on the music charts: 94 songs in the Top 100, and more Top 20 singles than any other recording artist to that time.
But in 1988, Brown fell afoul of the law. He spent two-and-a-half years in prison for aggravated assault and failing to stop his vehicle for police. He was pardoned of his crimes in 2003.
James Brown also received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and later talked about how he had tried to convey an uplifting message throughout his career.
"I've tried to teach through my music," he said. "I thought it was very important to build pride and motivation. And say one thing - that life is really a hard thing, but you can make it a lot better if you try to prepare for it, and try to make your young part of your life mean something. I had no choice. I didn't have anything. So whatever I got was more than what I had. And that's what I try to tell the kids. 'Hey, make your life count. Do something for yourself.'"
James Brown left an indelible mark on the music of his time, and influenced a host of other performers. His charisma, energy and originality were embodied in his joyous trademark shout.
"If you are an American or you're just a human being and got any blood going through your veins - AHHHOOWWW! I feel good," he said.
Brown, performed to the very end, giving back to his community. Three days before his death, Brown joined volunteers at his annual toy giveaway in Augusta. He planned to perform on New Year's Eve at B.B. King's Blues Club in New York.
"The Godfather of Soul", James Brown, who made generations of music fans feel good, dead at the age of 73.