The Godfather of Soul. James Brown was born to lose. He refused to accept that fate.
By the time he was in his 30s, James Brown was more than a dominant musical voice: he was an outstanding African-American personality, period. Important enough to be drawn into the murky waters of national politics as an inspiration and role model, he was also feared and sometimes ridiculed. But he would not be denied.
Nearly stillborn, then revived by an aunt in a country shack in the piney woods outside Barnwell, South Carolina, on May 3, 1933, Brown was determined to be Somebody. He called his group “Famous” before they had a right to; called himself “Mr. Dynamite” before his first Pop hit; and proclaimed himself “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business” before the music business knew his name. His was a fantasy, a sweet dream. But James Brown had singular talent, and the vision to hire the baddest. In his own time, he became “Soul Brother Number ONE,” a larger-than-life Godfather of Soul.
“JAMES BROWN is a concept, a vibration, a dance,” he told us recently. “It’s not me, the man. JAMES BROWN is a freedom I created for humanity.”
Some say it was a freedom too bold. Night after night, on stage and in the studio, his blood swirled, his legs split and his body shook. But talking to a crowd stretched at his feet in the late 1960s, James Brown reassured them: “If you ain’t got enough soul, let me know. I’ll loan you some! Huh! I got enough soul to burn.”
Music was an emotional charge for the young James Brown. Raised in a whorehouse in Augusta, Georgia. Brown never knew his parents’ love or guidance. His main concern was hustling; his main outlet was sports. He liked music: gospel when he attended church; big-band swing and early rhythm & blues that he heard that he heard on the radio and on jukeboxes, particularly Louis Jordan with his Tympany Five was a special inspiration.
“Please Please Please,” though it eventually sold a million copies, was actually out of step with the times. With the rise of r&b reborn as rock ’n’ roll, and the skyrocketing careers of Little Richard, Fats Domino, the Platters and a young Elvis Presley, Nathan’s dislike for the song had some commercial validity. And while in the long run James Brown would lead the revolution, “Please Please Please” seemed doomed to forever mark him and the Flames a regional flicker.
For the next two-and-a-half years, Brown watched as every follow-up single—nine in all—failed. The other Flames, already distressed by Brown’s top billing, quit and went home; Nathan wished JB would go with them. But the fiery singer soldiered on in Southern obscurity, backed by keyboardist Lucas “Fats” Gonder from Little Richard’s band and whomever they could rustle up.
In the summer of 1958, Brown originated, adapted or was given a pop-gospel ballad that became his salvation. He recorded “Try Me”—a literal plea for acceptance—in New York on September 18, with a studio band that featured future jazz great Kenny Burrell on guitar. By January 1959, his record sat on top of the national R&B chart and snuck into the Pop Top 50.
Two decent-selling singles followed, “I Want You So Bad” and “Good Good Lovin’.” Brown and band debuted at New York’s legendary Apollo Theater. But Brown’s next big hit had to come on the sly.
Behind or in front, JB had earned the title “Mr. Dynamite.” His vastly improved live shows, helmed by trumpeter Louis Hamlin, a Baltimore schoolteacher by trade, were kicking tail. A vice president of BMI, Charlie Feldman, recalled a dramatic summer afternoon seeing such a show at Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Alabama, home of the city’s minor-league Barons baseball team.
“Everyone had on their best clothes, because JAMES BROWN had come to town, in a three-quarter-ton truck right on the field,” Feldman said slowly, savoring the memory. “I remember one woman in particular in the first row of seats, wearing a new outfit, all her attention on James.
“When he went into ‘Please Please Please,’ she was hysterical. When they pulled out a cape—goodness! James would disappear into the truck, come back out with a different cape, three or four times. When it was obvious he wasn’t coming back out again, that lady lost it. She went right over the wall. When she hit the grass her brand-new shoes fell off. She froze, took one look at the shoes, then one look at the truck and James. It was no contest. She ran after that truck, barefoot.”
James Brown was firmly convinced that that kind of fan, several thousand times over, would pay to have the JB experience on a record. But a live album seemed ludicrous to his label boss Syd Nathan. His label, after all, wasn’t in the album business, nor would a live album produce any singles. Brown paid him no mind—his inspiration, Ray Charles, had already issued two live albums—and booked a remote recording truck to capture one of his live shows at the Apollo Theater from October 19-25, 1962.
Sufficiently warmed up by the 24th—a Wednesday, Amateur Night at the Apollo, when the audience was extra hyped—JB, the Famous Flames and their well-oiled band distilled a raw, brilliantly executed live show onto tape. They found, of course, that Nathan didn’t care. And when the edited show was scheduled for a quiet release the following spring, they heard an album overdubbed with faked screams and applause.
As Brown danced on the rougher edges of African-American music, most commercially successful black artists had “gone pop.” Again, it was Ray Charles who led the way, scoring several heavily orchestrated bits in 1962. At Ben Bart’s urging, Brown attempted to duplicate his success.
JB entered New York’s Bell Sound Studios on December 17, 1962, with master jazz and pop arranger Sammy Lowe to record several well-known ballads: “These Foolish Things,” “Again,” “So Long” and “Prisoner Of Love.” It was Brown’s first multi-track session, and his first recording with strings and a full chorus. Jazz drummer David “Panama” Francis doubled on drums and tympani.
It was an unusually long session. “Prisoner Of Love” took 15 takes, all live with the band. But its final version had the desired effect. By the following spring, “Prisoner Of Love” was James Brown’s first top 20 Pop hit.
Brown kicked off 1967 like all the preceding years: back on the road. He added a three-piece string section to the Orchestra, which was absolutely unheard of for any working artist at the time, black or white. In mid-January he recorded several shows during a weekend engagement at the Latin Casino nightclub in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, tapes of which were doctored with echo and later released as Live At The Garden.
Despite the strides taken by the entourage, there was momentary trouble. Nat Jones quit the first night of the Casino gig, suffering from mental health problems. Moved up the ranks in his slot was Alfred “Pee Wee” Ellis, who had been handling arrangements for Jones on the side. Ellis was a skilled jazz tenor saxophone player out of Rochester, New York, who had paid little attention to Brown’s career before joining the troupe in February 1966. He caught up fast, however, his first week on the job, at the Howard Theater in Washington, D.C.
“I was flabbergasted, “ said Ellis. “Blown away. I stood there in the wings and I thought, I should have bought a ticket. It was that much of a privilege to be that close to James Brown and that band.”
By the second night of the Latin Casino engagement, he and Brown had worked up “Let Yourself Go,” a song that musically signaled changes taking place. Brown still called the shots—after a few takes he replaced drummer Stubblefield with Starks, then stopped the recording to suggest a last-minute ad-lib—but the band was developing into an unrivaled powerhouse.
No one really noticed the new brew until the summer, when the mind-blowing single “Cold Sweat” blasted through the hot air.
It was just rhythm—barely any chord changes—with jazz intervals in the horn section inspired by Miles Davis’ “So What.” It contained another first—a “give the drummer some” solo by Clyde Stubblefield. And Brown shaped it in the studio in only two takes.
“’Cold Sweat’ deeply affected the musicians I knew,” said Jerry Wexler, who was then producing Aretha Franklin and other soul stars for Atlantic Records. “It just freaked them out. For a time, no one could get a handle on what to do next.”
James Brown kept going. He made his Tonight Show debut and recorded a set at the Apollo Theater in late June for future release. His next single was “Get It Together,” a monstrous two-parter in which JB gave each band member “some.” And Brown’s sign-off at the end—“fade me on outta here ’cause I got to leave anyway”—wasn’t just an ad-libbed cue for the engineer. He literally rushed out the door to set up advance promotion for the next night’s gig in Richmond, Virginia.
“So many things that were done weren’t written, because you just couldn’t,” “Jabo” Starks has said. “You couldn’t write that feel. Many, many times we’d just play off each other, until James would say, ‘That’s it!’”
Throughout this transitional year, James Brown had more than just a unique sound and road show. While there were further recordings with Sammy Lowe and, for the first time, with the Dapps, a white group from Cincinnati, Brown was also emerging as a spokesman and role model.
JB struggled with his role. Patriotically, he accepted an appointment to co-chair a Youth Opportunity Program with heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali. He found it swiftly canceled when Ali refused the military draft.
Yet in the face of modern soul music, embodied by Aretha Franklin and the Stax Records label, strutting into the mainstream, and Stax’s Otis Redding being embraced by the acid-rock generation at the Monterey Pop Festival, Brown moved to embrace the Las Vegas market, performing such supper-club standards as “That’s Life” and “I Wanna Be Around,” even as “Cold Sweat” was turning heads.
Then, in 1968, Brown lost his dream weavers: the boss Syd Nathan, a respected adversary; singer Little Willie John, a deeply personal inspiration; Ben Bart, his business mentor and father figure; and the whole of King Records, sold twice in two months.
But JB’s personal troubles dimmed beside other tragedies. Assassins’ bullets felled Martin Luther King, Jr. and Presidential candidate Robert Kennedy in a two-month span, adding heat and rage to an already-smoldering African-American nation. The Vietnam War ramped up as nationwide protests gained steam.
Brown stepped to the fore. The day after King’s assassination, he was televised in concert at the Boston Garden to calm the rioting. He was flown to Washington, D.C. to speak on the radio and urge brotherhood. Brown and his wife were also invited to a White House dinner with President Johnson.
During the same year Brown bought his first two radio stations, WJBE in Knoxville, Tennessee, and WRDW in Augusta, Georgia. He entertained on the African Ivory Coast and for the U.S. Troops in Vietnam; collected innumerable citations; and wound up the year touring with the Count Basie Orchestra as his support act.
James Brown was proving to be a man of considerable influence. But gestures to the U.S. government didn’t endear him to black militants. To them, Soul Brother No. 1 was siding with “The Man.” James Brown felt he was doing no such thing. He was reacting to individual situations with no sophisticated philosophy except advancement for himself—and, by example, the African-American nation.
After all, he could reason, wasn’t the presence of a seventh-grade dropout from South Carolina at the White House dinner table enough of a message?
Brown instead focused his musical message. The new tunes were powerful, if lyrically ambiguous: “I Got The Feelin’” and “Licking Stick-Licking Stick,” the latter recorded just a few days after King’s death. But by the summer of riots, JB recorded his most profound anthem, “Say It Loud – I’m Black And I’m Proud.”
It’s not clear whether Brown bowed to militant pressures to record it, or whether he simply thought it was time. Whatever the source, JB listened. In fact, between takes, he stage-whispered to everyone present, “About 50 million people waitin’ to hear this one.”
The entourage felt a sense of urgency throughout the rest of the 1960s. Led by Ellis, the band sharpened under constant rehearsals; the final touches engineered by a supremely confident JB. “Hit me!” he cried, and they did, like no one else.
“Man, we used to cut, like Sherman tanks coming down the aisles, “ said drummer Clyde Stubblefield of Chattanooga, Tennessee, remembering what it was like to be in the eye of the hurricane. “One time, at Soldier’s Field in Chicago, we were on the grass with little Vox PA systems—no monitors. I looked way up at the top and I tried to figure out, ‘How are they going to hear us?’ But they were up there rockin’!”
Of course, with such a punishing schedule the band wasn’t always tight like that. They literally paid for their mistakes, as Brown would fine them for bum notes or a dull finish on their shoes. JB, however, through subtle gestures or an ad-libbed phrase, could make even the worst mistakes work on the fly.
His No. 1 hit “Give It Up Or Turnit A Loose” offers two examples: during the intro the horns offer a weak riff to JB’s cue; he says, right on the finished record, “start it over again.” When Charles Sherrell, the bass player, walks up to the bridge of the tune a bit early, Brown doesn’t stop the song, he intercepts and corrects the error with a rhythmic cascade of “no-no-no-no-no’s.” Other times, Maceo was called upon to solo—“Maceo, I want you to blow”—when JB himself ran out of rhymes. And every drummer new or old trained their eyes on the back of the boss’ head and shoulders, ready for a body cue to pop the snare.
It was why Fred Wesley would say later, “The first rule when you went to work for James Brown: watch James Brown.”
Soul Brother No. 1 began 1969 on a furious roll. His funk and the message got heavier: “I Don’t Want Nobody To Give Me Nothing,” a personal anthem, preceded a slew of “Popcorn” records. They pumped up the stage show, while Brown continued to court the mainstream. He recorded cocktail instrumentals with Cincinnati’s Dee Felice Trio, and appeared for an entire week on The Mike Douglas Show in June, performing with Felice as well as his regular ensemble.
Yet Brown was in danger of being upstaged. He found serious competition from funk-rock bands, among them Sly & the Family Stone and the revamped Isley Brothers, as well as Motown’s Norman Whitfield productions. To top it off, a few key players in the JB Orchestra had left.
In March 1970, Brown suffered another blow: the guts of the 1960s band, including Maceo and Melvin Parker, Jimmy Nolen and Alofonzo “Country” Kellum, walked out, leaving only Byrd, who had recently returned with vocalist Vicki Anderson from an 18-month stab at independence, and Starks, an old-school loyalist.
Enter the Pacesetters, a band of eight Cincinnati teenagers who leaped suddenly from King studio fill-ins to Soul Brother No. 1’s swaggering front-liners. Prominent among them were the Collins brothers, William, a.k.a. “Bootsy” on bass, and Phelps, a.k.a. “Catfish” on rhythm guitar.
“James Brown and his band were our heroes,” said Bootsy. “We knew all the tunes, but we couldn’t imagine actually playing with them. I mean, one night with a guy like Jabo would have been it. To tell the truth, I don’t think I ever got used to the fact that I was there.”
Brown’s “New Breed”—their name before he settled on The J.B.’s—had a profound effect on his sound, stance and future. Through them Brown shifted emphasis from the horns to guitar, taking the whole of African-American music with him. The J.B.’s got JB back to basics.
Their catalog, in just eleven months together: “Sex Machine,” “Super Bad,” classic remakes of “Sex Machine” and “Give It Up Or Turnit A Loose,” “Talking Loud & Sayin’ Nothing,” “Get Up, Get Into It And Get Involved,” and “Soul Power.” Staggering. They defined a new order.
Brown kept his momentum, but he was also in a tenuous position. Another desertion would have left him with no support. In response, Brown lightened his discipline to give the J.B.’s room to grow—and he respected their budding talent.
“James never went off on us,” “Catfish” said. “He never fined us, like he did with Maceo and those guys. We just got the job done.”
The original session tape of “Super Bad” reveals Brown acting the encouraging teacher as well the exacting leader.
“That’s hell of a groove, fellas,” Brown exclaimed after the song’s first run-through, but he grew testy with questions about the song’s intro.
“Do anything you wanna, man,” he snapped. “Don’t bug me. OK? Just play what you play. Don’t be a drag.”
By the next attempt, however, Brown was thoroughly pleased, and he was careful to reassure his new crew. “Play as hard as you want, I don’t care, ’cause you know where you’re going now. Just go for yourself. You’re doing fine.”
Brown also undermined the group’s spirit. On the road he substituted local musicians for the young horn players. And once his Orchestra veterans—saxophonist St. Clair Pinckney, drummer Clyde Stubblefield and trombonist Fred Wesley—returned to the fold, the J.B.’s Mark I band looked elsewhere. Following a tension-filled gig at New York’s Copacabana, Bootsy and Catfish said “See Ya,” and eventually hitched a ride on George Clinton’s P-Funk Mothership.
James Brown grooved on with the new J.B.’s, directed by the Alabama-born, jazz-bred Wesley.
“They were totally green,” Wesley said. “[Hearlon] ‘Cheese’ Martin was so used to playing rhythm, just scratching behind James, that I had to teach him to play lead guitar. And at first Fred Thomas wasn’t much of a bass player. We rehearsed for two weeks in the basement of the Apollo Theater just to get the show together.”
Within two months they had recorded the hits “Escape-ism,” Bobby Byrd’s “I Know You Got Soul” and “Hot Pants.” Brown placed each with his new label, People. It was his last fling with King Records, now owned by Lin Broadcasting and soon to be purchased by the Tennessee Recording and Publishing Co.
But the TRPC ended up with little: on July 1, 1971, Brown, and his extensive, lucrative back catalog, signed to Polydor Records, which had been distributing him internationally since January 1968.
Polydor was a firmly established international music corporation that at the time had a relatively low profile in the U.S. They got their major shot of street credibility via the main man. In return James Brown received more money, artistic freedom and stronger international representation, not to mention his own office and promotion team at Polydor’s New York headquarters on Seventh Avenue. The company also picked up the People label, offering Brown an outlet for releases from the J.B.’s, Lyn Collins, a returning Maceo Parker and other JB productions.
To kick off his signing, Brown cancelled the already-mastered King album, Love Power Peace, a triple-LP set recorded live in Paris during the final days of the first J.B.’s. To substitute, he recorded in July alone a brand-new live album, Revolution Of The Mind: Live at the Apollo Vol. III, plus a new version of “Hot Pants” and the single “Make It Funky.”
It was a prolific time. From the summer of 1971 through the winter of ’72, Brown scored 10 top ten R&B/Soul chart hits in a row, against a backdrop of new music from Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, the Isley Brothers, Al Green, the Philadelphia International label, and a new generation of funk groups. Approaching 40, he transformed from an aging “Soul Brother No. 1” into a venerated “Godfather of Soul.”
Brown faltered briefly in 1973, crushed by grief. Teddy, his oldest son, died in a car accident in June. JB pressed on. He scored two films, Black Caesar and its sequel, Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off. He was to record a third soundtrack, centered around a stinging track “The Payback,” but the film’s producer rejected it, and JB retained it as the title track for his own double-LP.
Brown again looked to play funk and (what he saw as) more sophisticated arrangements, working with Dave Matthews, an ex-symphony player from Cincinnati, as a contemporary replacement for Sammy Lowe. JB often preferred to his own band Matthews’ favorite New York session players, who included the cream of the new fusion stars, among them David Sanborn, Joe Farrell, Billy Cobham and Hugh McCracken. Their collaboration produced the potent hits “King Heroin”—featuring a spoken word rap written by ex-con Manny Rosen, who waited tables at Brown’s favorite New York deli hangout—“Public Enemy #1” and “I Got A Bag Of My Own,” a fresh re-write of “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag.”
At this time James Brown, bolstered by Polydor’s marketing might, became an album seller. Hot Pants, Revolution Of The Mind, There It Is, Get On The Good Foot, the two film soundtracks, and 1974’s two-record sets, The Payback and Hell, proved he was still in the vanguard.
But even James Brown had no guarantees the hits would continue. In 1975, after the single “Funky President,” from the album Reality, had run its course, Brown saw the end of a historic commercial streak.