boston.com News your connection to The Boston Globe
James Brown performs in 2001. Brown, the legendary singer known as the Godfather of Soul, has died of complications at the age of 73.
James Brown performs in 2001. Brown, the legendary singer known as the Godfather of Soul, has died of complications at the age of 73. (Paul J. Richards/ AFP Photo/ Files/)

James Brown, 73; 'Godfather of Soul' influenced many genres, generations

James Brown, whose hit songs such as ''Papa's Got a Brand New Bag'' and ''Cold Sweat'' helped make him one of the most influential singers of the second half of the 20th century and an icon of African-American pride, died early this morning in Atlanta. Tagged the ''Godfather of Soul,'' he was 73.

He had been hospitalized with pneumonia at Emory Crawford Long Hospital, his agent, Frank Copsidas of Intrigue Music, told the Associated Press. The cause of death was unknown, he said.

Only Elvis Presley had more records ''chart'' than Mr. Brown did.

Ninety-four of his recordings reached the Top 100, and he had more Top 20 singles than any other recording artist. Even though he had his last chart single in 1985, his popularity endured. The churning polyrhythms of such songs as "Cold Sweat" and "I Got You (I Feel Good)" imbue them with a freshness that has kept them a mainstay of classic hits radio formats and even commercials.

Mr. Brown received numerous formal honors during his lifetime. Cash Box magazine named him best pop male vocalist in 1969 (the first African-American so honored). The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame included him among its inaugural inductees in 1986. He was a Kennedy Center honoree in 2003.

Yet the greatest tributes to Mr. Brown were and are less conventional. The rhythmic intensity and daring of Mr. Brown's music made it uniquely influential. Spin a radio dial in much of the world and you are likely to hear a recording audibly influenced by him or a recording that, through sampling, includes his urgent voice.

''JAMES BROWN is a concept, a vibration, a dance,'' he declared in the liner notes to his 1991 boxed set, ''Star Time.'' ''It's not me, the man. JAMES BROWN is a freedom I created for humanity.''

Excessive modesty was not one of Mr. Brown's failings. Nevertheless, it's hard to dispute that evaluation. At least four genres of music are unthinkable without Mr. Brown. He had an enormous impact on rhythm and blues and soul. All but single-handedly, he created funk. And through his numerous recordings sampled by rap artists, he provided the rhythmic underpinnings for hip-hop.

''Using Brown's grooves as the motherlode and Brown's staccato lyrics as a starting point,'' the critic Nelson George has written, ''hip-hop embraced his legacy. With the introduction of the sampling machine in the mid-80s, Brown's actual recordings became the heart of this sound.'' Thousands of hip-hop records incorporate Mr. Brown's music.

According to the hip-hop performer Afrika Bambaataa, who recorded with Mr. Brown in 1986, ''James Brown is the most sampled artist of all time.'' His recordings assured Mr. Brown's success and influence; his live performances made him a legend.

''When I played, I gave good value for the dollar,'' he wrote in his 1986 autobiography, ''James Brown: The Godfather of Soul.'' It was no idle boast. Mr. Brown danced the way he sang, only more so. His voice was a leathery rasp, with a clenched-fist quality. Mr. Brown's dancing unclenched the fist - and then some. Impressive as were the grunts, screams, yowls, shrieks, and groans his voice made, they were not as spectacular as the gyrations he put his body through, a collection of spins, splits, slides, twists, jumps, and drops that turned anatomy into a branch of ballistics.

Dubbed ''the hardest-working man in show business,'' Mr. Brown brought to a concert stage the roundhouse energy he'd demonstrated in the ring as a young boxer. He'd lose 7-10 pounds a night and frequently require an IV after performing - and there were few nights he didn't perform.

''I worked all the time,'' Mr. Brown wrote in his autobiography, ''as many as 350 nights a year, most of them one-night stands. I played every place - arenas, auditoriums, clubs, ballparks, armories, ballrooms, any place that had a stage or a place you could put one.''

It was only fitting that Mr. Brown's single most famous album should be a concert recording, ''Live at the Apollo,'' which documents a 1962 performance at Harlem's famed Apollo Theater. It rose to No. 2 on the pop charts, a remarkable achievement for a recording that received almost no radio airplay because of its extended format. Many rock critics have called it the greatest of all live albums.

''Live at the Apollo'' did not only mark a turning point in Mr. Brown's career, taking him to a new level of popularity and renown. It affected the music industry as a whole, demonstrating the appeal of live recordings.

Previously, they had been seen as having little commercial appeal. Mr. Brown's recording company even refused to pay the cost of making the album. He personally spent $5700 to underwrite it.

Mr. Brown was famous for the explosive tightness of his backup bands, first the Famous Flames and then the JBs. Expecting strict discipline and crack timing from his musicians, he became famous for levying fines for such infractions as lateness or a missed dance step. Mr. Brown would flash his fingers during a performance to announce fines (each flash meant $5) when a violation occurred onstage.

Mr. Brown's flair for showmanship extended beyond his dancing and singing.

He spent as much time working on straightening his hair as he did rehearsing. (The photographer Diane Arbus memorably recorded Mr. Brown in curlers.) ''Hair is the first thing,'' he wrote in his autobiography. ''And teeth are second. Hair and teeth. A man got those two things he's got it all.'' Or there was his trademark cape. Mr. Brown would end shows by having an assistant come onstage and drape it over his shoulders. Mr. Brown got the idea from the wrestler Gorgeous George, who used to fling his robe off in the ring.

Such show-biz touches are a reminder that, for all his revolutionary impact, Mr. Brown was in many ways a throwback. One of his biggest hits, ''It's a Man's Man's Man's World,'' begins with a swirl of strings. He covers Frank Sinatra's hit ''That's Life on the 1968 follow-up to ''Live at the Apollo.'' As late as 1971, he was playing New York's Copacabana nightclub.

Mr. Brown, who at one time owned several radio stations, united business and politics as a leading proponent of black capitalism. He made several overtly political records, such as ''Don't Be a Drop-Out, in 1966, and ''Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud, in 1968. Yet three months earlier, he recorded the explicitly patriotic ''America Is My Home.'' His last major hit, in 1985, was another flag-waving anthem, ''Living in America.'' In its sometimes incongruous blend of the radical and conservative, Mr. Brown's politics mirrored his music. His recordings provided much of the soundtrack for the black pride movement, yet he endorsed President Richard M. Nixon's reelection campaign in 1972.

Mr. Brown's combination of high-profile activism and enormous popularity led Look magazine to ask in a 1969 cover story, ''Is this the most important black man in America?''

A demonstration of Mr. Brown's importance came the night after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. Mr. Brown was scheduled to perform at Boston Garden. His agreeing to let the concert be televised is widely credited with helping keep much of the city calm.

James Joe Brown Jr. was born on May 3, 1933, in Barnwell, S.C. His father, Joe Brown, was a forest worker. His mother, Susie (Behlings) Brown, left her husband and son when Mr. Brown was 4. ''More than anything else in my life,'' he wrote, ''I would like to have been raised by both parents.''

He and his father moved to Augusta, Ga., where Mr. Brown grew up in a brothel run by his paternal aunt. He helped support his family by shining shoes, picking cotton and peanuts, and delivering groceries. Mr. Brown, who dropped out of school after the seventh grade, also earned money as a street-corner singer.

Mr. Brown was arrested at 15 for trying to steal a car battery. He was sentenced to 8-16 years in reform school. A warden, impressed by his musical talent, got Mr. Brown paroled after three years.

Mr. Brown met with growing success as a performer in Georgia and South Carolina, winning a reputation for his ability to cut, or outdo, any performer on the same bill. ''We cut the acts every time because we were hungrier than they were,'' he wrote in his autobiography.

''Please Please Please, Mr. Brown's first recording, was released in 1956. His popularity steadily increased, fueled by the constant touring and a string of hit records, including ''Try Me,'' ''Think,'' ''You've Got the Power,'' ''Bewildered,'' and ''Night Train.'' In 1965, Mr. Brown released ''Papa's Got a Brand New Bag.'' It proved to be a watershed.

''I was hearing everything, even the guitars, like they were drums,'' he later wrote of this period. He began stripping away melody and harmony and emphasizing rhythm. Urging a disc jockey to play ''Papa's,'' he said, ''Take any record off your stack and put it on your box, even a James Brown record, and you won't find one that sounds like this one. It's a new bag, just like I sang.'' Neither his career nor popular music would be the same.

Mr. Brown tangled with the Internal Revenue Service in 1968 and 1973, eventually having to pay a total of $6.5 million in back taxes. But a greater problem was musical. Ironically, Mr. Brown's rhythm-driven music had helped pave the way for the disco craze, though its mechanical beat was far different from the fluidity and subtly varied pulse of his music.

Mr. Brown's career rebounded in the 1980s, with his appearance in the 1980 film ''The Blues Brothers'' and the success of ''Living in America.'' Yet he ran afoul of the law in 1988. After a high-speed car chase, he was convicted of aggravated assault and failing to stop for a police car. ''I aggravated them, and they assaulted me,'' he later remarked. Sentenced to concurrent six-year sentences, he was paroled after serving 2.5 years and pardoned in 2003.

If anything, Mr. Brown's legal difficulties simply underscored just how singular his career had been: outlandish, combustible, startling. ''I don't think anybody really knew what I was doing,'' Mr. Brown once said of his music, ''but I always knew. I didn't know that I knew, but I always knew.'' Mr. Brown's first two marriages ended in divorce. His third wife, Adrienne, died in 1996.

He then married Tomi Raye Hynie, one of his backup singers, and they had a son, James Jr.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES
 
Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives