The Kennedy Center

James Brown


Soul Brother Number One, the Godfather of Soul, the Hardest Working Man in Show Business, Mr. Dynamite-all these titles describe just one man. James Brown is arguably the most influential African-American musician in popular music in the past half-century and one of the most dynamic, exhilarating performers of our time. Singer Bonnie Raitt has said, "You couldn't even list how many people have been influenced by him. In the Mount Rushmore of musical figures, he'd definitely be on it."

Brown, (b. 1933- d. 2006) with his impassioned vocals born of gospel and the complex rhythms of his beat, was at the forefront of not one but two major musical revolutions and has contributed invaluably to a third: In the 1960s he turned R&B into soul and a decade later reinvented his own invention when he turned soul into funk. And his music continues to be as influential as ever, as his recordings are sampled by innumerable rap and hip-hop performers. "Single-handedly, he has been the epitome of soul music," said Chuck D of Public Enemy, one of dozens of rap groups to use Brown's groundbreaking beats.

Brown is the recipient of the American Music Awards Award of Merit, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Lifetime Achievement Award of the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters.

James Brown's life is a classic show business rags-to-riches fairy tale, with the prerequisite hard times in between. Born into poverty in the South, Brown ended up singing, dancing, and playing piano, drums, and guitar on the streets to help support his family. Though his formal education ended in seventh grade, Brown learned about gospel, and by the time he was twenty he had joined a gospel group with singer Bobby Byrd, originally knows as the Avons and then as the Flames. He changed the focus of the group from gospel to R&B as the sound of rock and roll began to dominate the airwaves, and in 1956 they had their first hit, "Please, Please, Please." His mesmerizing onstage performances became instant classics. The blood curling screams, the flying splits, the dropping to the knee, the one-legged skate made him the star attraction and became his lifetime trademarks. His name had to be added to that of the band: James Brown and the Famous Flames.

Brown found his own voice in the 1960s, as he added more complex Latin and jazz rhythms on hits like "Good Good Lovin'," "I'll Go Crazy," "Think," and "Night Train." His studio recordings sold fairly well, but he knew that the excitement generated by his live performances was the key to his success and in 1962 he put up his own money to record a performance at the Apollo Theater. The industry thought he was crazy. Live at the Apollo went to Number Two on Billboard's album chart, an unprecedented feat for an R&B album. Radio stations played it nonstop, and attendance at his concerts mushroomed.

Brown scored his first Top 10 pop single in 1965 with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," and the hits just kept coming after that. Throughout the rest of the '60s he was rarely off the R&B and pop charts and his television appearances earned him an ever-expanding audience. He also traveled to Vietnam to entertain the troops, going despite his opposition to the war. American presidents invited him to the White House, including Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Reagan and George W. Bush.

His music kept getting bolder and funkier, melody taking a back seat to driving rhythms, wailing horns, and scratching electric guitars. The lyrics focused on Black Pride and sex. The Famous Flames were a thing of the past. Brown now headed a group called the J.B's and turned out soul hits such as "Make It Funky," "Hot Pants," "Get on the Good Foot, " and "The Payback."

In the 1980s he collaborated with Afrika Bambaataa on the smash single "Unity," and scored one of the biggest hits of his career with "Living in America."

Over a 30-year period, James Brown amassed an amazing total of 98 entries on Billboard's top 40 R&B singles chart, a record unsurpassed by any other artist. Seventeen of them reached number one.

When the music industry decided to create a Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, Brown was one of the first 10 musicians inducted. In the Washington Post, David Mills described Brown's retrospective four-CD boxed set, Star Time, as "A breathing, throbbing document. A submersion in sweat and tears. A definition of soul. A dissertation on funk. Listening to these discs," Mills continued, "is a spiritual experience. James Brown is an American cultural giant."

James Brown: Soul Brother Number One. The Godfather of Soul. The Hardest Working Man in Show Business. An American Cultural Giant.
James Brown