James Brown, 'Godfather of Soul,' dies at age 73
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The Philadelphia Inquirer
James Brown, the dynamic performer and incomparable bandleader who changed the shape of popular music in America and the world, and was known as the "Godfather of Soul" and "The Hardest Working Man in Show Business," died yesterday.
Mr. Brown, 73, was admitted to Emory Crawford Long Hospital in Atlanta on Saturday with pneumonia, and he died Christmas morning of congestive heart failure, according to his agent Frank Copsidas.
Among the iconic figures of 20th-century popular music, from Louis Armstong to Bob Dylan, Mr. Brown was a true titan. As the inventor of funk and progenitor of rap, the self-proclaimed "Mr. Dynamite" is far and away the most important figure in shifting modern pop music's emphasis from melody to rhythm.
The electrifying singer and songwriter's scores of hits include "Please, Please, Please," "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag," "I Got You (I Feel Good)," "Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine," "Say It Loud -- I'm Black and I'm Proud," and "Living In America."
Full of guttural grunts and shrieks and precise polyrhythms, Mr. Brown remade rhythm and blues in his own rugged, intensely physical image. Along the way, he changed the way pop music sounded, and also what it looked like, which in his case was a sharply dressed, solidly-built, pompadoured black man sweating up a storm on stage as he executed a series of daunting spins and splits.
The funk breaks in Mr. Brown's songs like "Get Up Offa That Thing" and "Funky Drummer" formed the foundation of hip-hop, and Mick Jagger, Michael Jackson and Prince all copped his stage moves. His influence is incalculable.
One of the first performers to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, alongside Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry, Mr. Brown won a lifetime achievement Grammy award in 1992, as well as Grammys in 1965 for "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" and in 1987 for "Living in America." Last year, Mr. Brown published his autobiography, "I Feel Good: A Memoir of a Life of Soul."
Born James Joseph Brown in Barnwell, S.C., in the midst of the Depression, he moved to Augusta, Ga., as a youth and got into frequent trouble with the law, eventually winding up in reform school for armed robbery. Inside, he met Bobby Byrd, who would become a longtime Brown sideman, along with such other illustrious employees as bassist Bootsy Collins and saxophonist Maceo Parker.
Mr. Byrd's family helped Mr. Brown secure a release after he served three years. After trying his hand as a boxer and baseball player, Mr. Brown devoted himself to music full-time, joining Mr. Byrd's group, the Gospel Starlighters, who soon evolved into James Brown & the Famous Flames. Recording for Cincinnati's King Records, the group scored its first hit with "Please, Please, Please" in 1956.
Tirelessly working the "chitlin' circuit" of roadhouses and dance halls in the segregated South, Mr. Brown sharpened his band and toughened up his muscular sound, which was then heavily influenced by his idol, Little Richard. He acquired a reputation as a fastidious bandleader and unforgiving disciplinarian, and often fined musicians for missed notes.
His declamatory vocal style, more spoken than sung, prefigured rap and was developed further in early hits like "Try Me" in 1959 and "Out of Sight" in 1964. Mr. Brown's music grew more aggressive as the '60s progressed and he asserted more artistic control over his productions and incorporated more complex rhythms.
A steady stream of R&B hits won him an enthusiastic black audience, who recognized the ecstatic screams of Southern gospel music in Brown songs such as "Think" and "Night Train" -- heard on his great 1962 album "Live at the Apollo." And he first broke though to the white mainstream in 1965, with the electric "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag."
Mr. Brown's music was always uncompromising, and he became a voice of empowerment and pride within the African-American community as well.
He was never a protest singer, but always an advocate of education and increasing black economic clout. He purchased a string of radio stations in the mid-1960s, and in 1966 approached Vice President Hubert Humphrey to propose using his "Don't Be a Dropout" hit as the centerpiece of a stay-in-school campaign for urban youth.
Encouraged by activist H. Rap Brown to become more prominent in the black power movement, the next year he released "Say It Loud -- I'm Black and I'm Proud," a watershed moment in America's racial conversation. And his trademark holiday song didn't bother with maudlin sentiment, and instead focused on the needs of the urban poor. Its title: "Santa Claus, Go Straight To the Ghetto."
James Brown's encounters with the law were not limited to his youth. In 1988, high on PCP and carrying a shotgun, he was arrested after a car chase in Georgia and South Carolina that ended when police shot out the tires of his vehicle. He spent more than two years in prison in South Carolina on charges of aggravated assault, and failing to stop for a police officer.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Mr. Brown was repeatedly arrested on charges of drug possession and beating his third wife, Adrienne. She died in 1996, following plastic surgery, and after taking PCP and prescription drugs. In 2002, Mr. Brown married his backup singer Tomi Rae Hynie. The couple has a son, James II. Mr. Brown is survived by at least four children.
Working with his band the JBs in the 1970s, Mr. Brown developed harder and more expansive music, stretching out in jazzy, polyrhythmic directions, and making its influence felt on such far-flung artists as Nigeria's Fela Kuti. Albums like the 1973 double-LP "The Payback" showcased the efforts of sidemen like Mr. Parker and Fred Wesley.
Even as his career declined, the advent of hip-hop assured his relevance. DJs like Afrika Bambaataa made Mr. Brown's beat the foundation of the new sound, and rap pioneer Kurtis Blow called the drum break on Mr. Brown's "Give It Up or Turn It Loose" the "national anthem of hip-hop."
Though Mr. Brown had become an oldies act by the 1980s, appearing in movies such as "The Blues Brothers" and "Rocky IV," he wasn't done yet and scored a hit in the mid-'80s with the epic "Living in America."
Though more than 70 years old, Mr. Brown still toured regularly, appearing robust on stage and still capable of doing spins, if not splits.
On Friday, he appeared at his annual toy giveaway in Atlanta, and was scheduled to perform at B.B. King Blues Club & Grill in New York City on New Year's Eve.
"I've been able to do it for over 40 years, and I'm still doing it," Mr. Brown told The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2001. "Like Bob Hope or Frank Sinatra, James Brown is one of the things you don't want to see stop."Kevork Djansezian, Associated Press
The Hollywood Walk of Fame star for pop music legend James Brown is covered with candles and flowers placed by fans of the "Godfather of Soul," in the Hollywood section of Los Angeles yesterday.Scott Applewhite, Associated Press
In a file photo singer James Brown, left, walks with his then-agent Rev. Al Sharpton from the White House in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 15, 1982. They met with President Reagan to advocate making Martin Luther King's birthday a national holiday. .
Click photo for larger image.
First Published December 26, 2006 12:00 am