Born in a one-room shack in the pinewoods of Barnwell, South Carolina on 3 May 1933, James Joe Brown Jnr. was apparently stillborn and survived entry into the world only thanks to rapid mouth-to-mouth resuscitation performed by his great-aunt Minnie. His childhood did not get easier.
When he was four, his mother abandoned him, and two years later his father – who sold sap from the pinewoods to a turpentine manufacturer – handed him over to the care of Minnie.
He then went to live in Augusta, Georgia, in the care of his other aunt, Handsome “Honey” Stevenson, a brothel keeper. James shined shoes, racked pool balls, delivered groceries and worked alongside his father, Joe, in a gas station, washing and greasing cars.
Young James was to discover there was no such thing as ‘petty’ crime if committed by a black 16-year-old in post-war Georgia.
In order to have decent clothes to wear to school, James took to stealing them from parked cars, and when he was arrested in 1949 he was given an eight-to-16-year sentence for a variety of petty offences.
During his final argument the prosecutor told the judge: “Your honour, here’s my suitcase. If you let this man go free, I’m going to leave this town.” He was shipped to a hot, noisy rural facility, where his fellow inmates called him ‘Music Box’.
Redemption came with the gospel quartet he formed in prison, and upon his release (after three and a half years) he supported himself by smuggling bootleg liquor across state lines, while getting his first proper break with a group called The Gospel Starlighters.
He quickly emerged as the star attraction, and the group changed its name to The Avons before becoming James Brown and the Famous Flames. Brown’s powerful deep-throated singing soon caught on with the black patrons of the clubs and theatres of the R&B circuit, and he began to acquire a considerable following in the ghetto areas.
The Famous Flames had a surprise million-selling hit with their debut single Please Please Please (1956) and repeated the success two years later with Try Me. It was the start of a fabulous career.
By the end of the 1950s, Brown was considered to be the king of R&B. Wherever he went in the United States he could fill major auditoriums with black fans, this at a time when R&B was normally performed in colleges, small clubs or run-down theatres.
He broke every box office record at every single black venue in America while his 114 hit records – including Out Of Sight, Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag, I Got You and It’s A Man’s Man’s World – sold in millions. Not only did Brown refine the soul style to its most basic and gripping, he also contributed a dazzling stage style that was often imitated but very rarely equalled.
He displayed a hyperactive, chatterbox vocal style that forced one to sit up and pay attention: it sometimes said something worthwhile – ‘Say It Loud (I’m Black And I’m Proud)’, for example – but often it was gibberish, as in ‘I Got Ants In My Pants’.
It was 1963’s Live At The Apollo – recorded in Harlem’s shrine of soul against his record company’s wishes and at his own expense – that proved career-making for James Brown. Released in January 1963 the album spent 66 weeks on the charts and black radio stations played the sides like singles. The LP is still widely regarded as one of the best live albums ever produced.
By 1966, his fame had extended beyond the R&B boundaries and he was, at last, reaching the American white audience. Meanwhile, he was already a star in Britain and Europe. His hits continued into the late 1960s with records such as Cold Sweat, I Got The Feelin’ and Give It Up Or Turn It Loose.
A supreme showman, Brown was also a leading light in America’s black movement. Indeed, he helped dispel some of the tension during the riots of the late 60s by putting on a marathon TV show in order to keep people off the streets and out of trouble.
In 1968 police had to use tear gas to break up crowds of black youths in Washington, following false reports that Brown had been shot dead by a white man. During the next decade, Brown’s name could be found almost every month in either the top 100 singles or album charts, usually on both. His LP hits at this time included It’s A Mother, Ain’t It Funky, The Popcorn and Sex Machine.
For many years, Brown’s touring show was one of the most extravagant productions in American popular music and his performances were famous for their intensity and length. He didn’t earn the title ‘The Hardest Working Man in Show Business’ lightly.
Brown was always in control. he wrote, produced and arranged his own material, hired his own bands (50-piece no less!), and supervised almost every aspect of his career.
Ultimately he would head up a multi-million dollar enterprise that moved into film production, radio stations and fast food restaurants. He eventually would lose nearly all of it to the IRS.
He also made enemies deliberately. Not just early in his life when he picked fights over girls, but later too when he was on his way to becoming Soul Brother No. 1. He would sabotage gigs by Otis Redding and Ben E King, gatecrash their shows and – Pied Piper-like – entice the audience down the road to where he’d be performing.
In September 1988, Brown led police on a car chase back and forth across the Georgia/South Carolina border. He had become enraged when he discovered someone had been using his private bathroom. He picked up his gun and stormed into a nearby insurance seminar, demanding to know who had used his toilet.
On hearing the police sirens, Brown took off in his truck. The 100 mph chase ground to a halt when police shot out his front tyres and he ran from his vehicle – now peppered with bullet holes – into a ditch.
Brown was found to be driving under the influence of PCP, and charged with fleeing the police, carrying a pistol, and aggravated assault. Speaking at the time of the charge, Brown conceded this: “I aggravated them and they assaulted me”.
He was given a six-and-a-half year prison sentence but was granted parole after three years, and his spell in jail was not too gruelling: he spent Monday to Friday in prison and the weekends at home.
Before long he had an entourage of three or four inmates who accompanied him everywhere. He raised money for an inmates’ charity fund by posing for photographs with prisoners and relatives for $2 a time.
Naturally, he was also the choir director, lead singer and organ player in the prison chapel. His gospel group, he said, “was so good I could have recorded yesterday. I had them doing routines. I had them so sharp that the inmates wanted to get their autographs.” Hitherto sparsely attended, the prison chapel was packed. Inmates started getting visits from relatives they had not seen in years.
The Rev Al Sharpton, the flamboyant black activist, said of Brown’s incarceration: “James Brown in jail was the biggest cultural insult to a race that has ever happened.” After being released from the South Carolina state penitentiary in 1991 Brown was granted special permission by the courts to embark on a European tour, and he was to prove that prison had done nothing to inhibit his music and his boundless energy.
On 8 December 2003, during a dinner for recipients of the Kennedy Center Honours (which are awarded each year to artists who make outstanding contributions to American culture), Brown was officially appointed “US Secretary Of Soul and Foreign Minister Of Funk” by US Secretary of State, Colin Powell.
This ended a 2003 packed with acclaim for Brown: in May the state of South Carolina pardoned him for drug and assault convictions, while in November it was announced that he was to get a statue in his hometown of Augusta in May 2004. He was also appointed an Ambassador of Goodwill for the city.
The Godfather Of Soul, as he came to be known, was never reticent about his own achievements: “I changed the structure of modern music. Ninety-five percent of music has been James Brown,” he once declared.
James Brown died in Emory Crawford Long Hospital in Atlanta, on Christmas Day in 2006 from congestive heart failure resulting from complications of pneumonia. He was 73. In recent years he had battled prostate cancer to remission and he wrestled daily with diabetes but he was still performing up to his death.
The day before he was hospitalised, he was at his annual Christmas toy giveaway in Atlanta, Georgia, and looking forward to giving a New Year’s Eve concert.