James Brown changes R&B forever

Published: Sunday | December 22, 2013 Comments 0
Danny Ray holds James Brown's cape at the 49th annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles, February 11, 2007.
Danny Ray holds James Brown's cape at the 49th annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles, February 11, 2007.
James Brown in performance.-File
James Brown in performance.-File
In this 1993 file photo, singer James Brown is shown at the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles.-FILE
In this 1993 file photo, singer James Brown is shown at the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles.-FILE

Roy Black, Gleaner Writer

While Christians were celebrating the birth of Christ, millions were mourning the passing on Christmas morning 2006 of perhaps the earliest and most important catalyst in the development of Soul music - James Brown.

Disciples like Sam Cooke, Solomon Burke, Otis Redding, and soul queen Aretha Franklin continued the development with a slew of hits during the 1960s that awakened the consciousness of the lighthearted.

The music that caused this awakening did so by touching the moral, emotional, spiritual and immaterial side of human beings.

Brown, 'The Godfather of Soul', as he became known, was, however the man who revolutionised Rhythm and Blues (R&B), taking it from doo-wop to soul.

One classic example of this was his irrepressible, second millions selling single - Try Me, in 1958. Although cast in the R&B/doo-wop mould, it's hard to resist the soul-tingling effect that engulfs one's body when Brown and The Flames sing:

Try me, try me, Darling tell me, 'I need you', and your love will always be true.

Hold me, hold me, I want you right here by my side

And your love, we won't hide.

Walk with me, talk with me, I want you to stop my heart from crying.

And your love will stop my heart from dying.

Brown was born into poverty in America's rural south, during the depression years of 1929 through 1934, at a place called Barnwell in South Carolina on May 3, (some sources give his birth year as 1928, while others claim it was 1933).

As a child, Brown picked cotton, shined shoes, and danced for tips in the streets of Augusta, Georgia, where he grew up. His was a life of truancy and waywardness after the divorce of his parents, which forced him to live with an aunt.

Arrested several times during his teens for petty theft, Brown served a three-year jail sentence for car breaking.

The incarceration turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as he met a visiting family gospel group, who were performing for inmates. Brown himself at times sang for guards, which augured well for an early release.

One such performance seemed to have impressed group member Bobby Byrd who, along with his family, obtained Brown's release and took the youngster in, and got him a job.

attempt at sports

Although enamoured with the entertainment industry, Brown at first flirted with boxing and semi-professional baseball, but was derailed in that latter ambition by a leg injury. He had by now dropped out of school and worked with his father as a gas station attendant, before teaming up with Byrd in a gospel group that performed under a succession of different names, at the Mount Zion Baptist Church in Toccoa, Georgia.

On other occasions, he performed with the group at talent shows, while teaching himself to play music on a pump organ.

At the time, the New Orleans blues was in full swing, and although the city was not known for producing practitioners in the soul movement, it has made its contribution with the likes of Ernest Kador, better known as Ernie K-Doe.

K-Doe romanticised soul music in the early 1960s with his immortal blues-based recording, Tain't It The Truth, which highlights the New Orleans-derived piano-driven rhythm.

This New Orleans-type soul, which tended to be found at the more light-hearted, romantic end of the soul spectrum, saw ladies like Barbara George, Betty Harris, Irma Thomas and Barbara Lynn providing very tasteful examples.

Brown, although not hailing from the blues city, still belonged to that exclusive fraternity of soul singers.

After touring the south for two years, and seeing acts like Fats Domino and Hank Ballard, Brown and Byrd decided to move away from gospel, renaming the group The Famous Flames. The new group immediately landed a contract with Federal Records in 1956.

Brown's soul-tinged, groundbreaking, million-selling single, Please Please Please, literally changed the course of R&B.

Brown followed up with Try Me, and several others in that style.

By the turn of the decade, Brown created The James Brown Review, featuring The James Brown Band, a special attraction at his shows in which the R&B crooner played piano and drums.

The show featured Brown, pumping his hips, twisting on one foot, and splitting to the floor, moves which experts claimed influenced Michael Jackson's stage manoeuvres.

At times, Brown would feign heart failure, before returning for an encore. According to author Edward Kiersh, "Brown played the fire-breathing, sinners-be-damned preacher, whipping audiences into a frenzy with his hip-swinging, leg-flailing contortions."

box office records

Breaking box office records in almost every major venue in America, Brown earned the titles 'Mr Dynamite', 'The hardest working man in show business', and 'Soul brother No.1'.

Brown was constantly on the charts with a plethora of instrumentals by his band, and vocal recordings, including his first million-selling album, Live At The Apollo, and his first top-20 pop hit, Every Beat Of My Heart.

Writing most of his material, Brown hit hard in the mid-1960s with I Got you (I Feel Good) (1965), It's A Man's World (1966), Cold Sweat Pt 1 (1967), and the revolutionary Papa's Got A Brand New Bag Pt 1 (1965).

As an influential member of the black community, Brown appeared on public television to appeal for calm in the aftermath of Dr Martin Luther King's assassination, while releasing the black pride anthem, Say It Loud - I'm Black And I'm Proud.

Brown followed up with other direct social messages in recordings like Don't Be A Dropout and I Don't Want Nobody To Give Me Nothing in the late 1960s.

Sponsoring programmes for ghetto youth and performing for troops in Vietnam were among some of Brown's other humanitarian efforts.

Brown's later years were dogged by financial difficulties, occasioned by outstanding back taxes and declining record sales. He was, however, still active up to the time of his death. The Try Me singer was booked to perform at New York's Times Square on New Year's Eve of 2005, but that was never to be, as he died at 1:45 a.m. Christmas morning, due to complications from pneumonia.


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