Personalities | James Brown | Sixties | Rock

Like many early soul stars James Brown (born in South Carolina on 3 May 1933) came to music through the singing of his local church. He had his first success as frontman of The Famous Flames with the gospel R&B hit ‘Please, Please, Please’ in 1956.

When 1958’s ‘Try Me’ hit the R&B No. 1 spot the floodgates opened for the man with more entries on the R&B charts than anyone else, and more on the US pop charts than anyone but Elvis.

Try Me

The Flames became part of the James Brown Revue: an all-singing, all-dancing spectacle which played to capacity in black venues throughout America. The Revue had its own backing band, the J.B.s, and with them Brown began to make the transition from doo-wop pop to a tougher R&B sound. It was with the Revue that he earned and adopted the title ‘hardest working man in show business’, reportedly losing 7lbs a night in perspiration through his energized performances. At the same time the J.B.s built a name as the tightest rhythm section around, a formidable live act captured on Live At The Apollo, recorded in 1962 in Harlem at Brown’s own expense; his label did not believe live albums sold. The album went to No. 2 in the US charts, an unprecedented crossover for an R&B act, selling over a million copies. It remains the first stop for anyone wanting an insight into the sheer passion and energetic professionalism through which James Brown established himself.

Brown was refining a vocal technique of chants and shouts as much as melody, and a musical form using more and more complex rhythms and riffs. The 1964 LP Out Of Sight, with its title track of jazz organ and brass groove with choppy guitar, was another R&B No. 1. With it, James Brown invented funk.

Reinvigorated by a new recording contract in 1965 and a revised J.B.s line-up (led by saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis), his next single ‘Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag’ was a worldwide hit, earning Brown his first Grammy. The follow-up ‘I Got You (I Feel Good)’ cemented the deal, reaching No. 3 and laying the foundation for frequent US pop listings and almost uninterrupted presence in the R&B charts to 1970.

Say It Loud

Brown’s success as black businessman and superstar made him a role model for the African-American community. Hits from this time such as ‘Say It Loud (I’m Black And I’m Proud)’ address the social and racial concerns of young black youth. In April 1969, when race riots broke out in 30 US cities following the assassination of Martin Luther King, James Brown made a national TV address to appeal for calm, which received a ceremonial letter of gratitude from a grateful White House.

In 1971, Brown once again revised the J.B.s. The new line-up led by trombonist Fred Wesley played a deeper funk than ever, Brown’s vocal output becoming ever more abstract and stylized. He sold millions of...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock, general editor Michael Heatley


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