James Brown was one of the most popular blues singers of the 20th century. He is known as the “Godfather of Soul” and was the pioneer of the “funk” genre. He was born James Joe Brown Jr. on May 3, 1933 in extremely abject surroundings. Brown recalled his childhood as a miserable time in his life, where he did not even have proper clothes to wear and was dressed in rags and sacks. His parents divorced when he was very young and he was raised by an aunt in Augusta, Georgia who ran a brothel. This was the era of the Great Depression and jobs were scarce. Brown began working from the age of 3; he polished shoes, picked cotton, washed cars or did any other odd jobs he could get his hands on for a few pennies. He attended school for a short period but was kicked out at the age of 12 because he was dressed in a sack, which was considered inappropriate attire.
Despite his unfortunate beginnings, Brown had the determination to prove himself and be somebody better. He began to sing at his church choir which helped him to develop his unique voice and singing style. However, several negative influences won him over during his teenage and he was arrested for stealing a car at the age of 16. During the 3 years he spent in prison, Brown formed and led a prison gospel choir. Here he met the R&B singer Bobby Byrd, and the two formed a close friendship. When Brown was released, he first turned his attention to sports and participated in baseball and boxing as a semi-pro. In 1955, he joined Bobby Byrd’s group, which he renamed “The Famous Flames”. Their first famous song was “Please Please Please” which reached No. 6 on the R&B charts.
Brown then moved to New York where he worked with new musicians and produced his second hit titled “Try Me” which reached No. 1 on the R&B charts and shot Brown on the road to stardom. He followed through with a string of successful singles such as “Night Train” and “Prisoner of Love”. He toured extensively during the 1950s and 1960s and became famous for his signature dance moves, pitch perfect performances and flashy costumes. He was a demanding musician and expected no less than perfection from his musicians and back up performers. At a performance in October 1962, Brown recorded a live concert album at the Apollo Theater in Harlem which became his bestselling album to date, and reached the No. 2 spot on the pop charts. He also released some of his most well known songs during the 1960s, including “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” and “I Got You (I Feel Good)”.
Brown, however, had a tumultuous personal life and often got into trouble with the law. As his career began to wane during the 1970s and 80s, he sunk into depression and became heavily addicted to drugs. He was first jailed for 15 months in 1990 and then in 1998 he was sentenced to a 90 day drug rehabilitation program after firing a rifle and fleeing from the police. He married four times, had six children and was accused of domestic violence by his fourth wife although he denied the charges. Brown was a social activist and works for many good causes such as education and non-violence. In 1968, after the murder of Martin Luther King Jr., Brown helped to prevent riots in Boston by airing a special live televised performance on the same night to occupy the youth. He also advocated rights for blacks and released the song “Say It Loud: I’m Black and I’m Proud” as an anthem of black pride.
James Brown died in December 2006 at the age of 73. He received numerous honors and awards such as induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 3 Grammy Awards and a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 34th annual Grammy Awards and celebration of “James Brown Day” on December 22nd every year. His music has influenced countless singers, including renowned singers such as Michael Jackson, Mic Jagger and Jay-Z.