There can’t be many artists to have overcome more dire circumstances and become stars than James Brown, who died early this morning at age 73. “I remember him coming to school barefoot in the winter,” Brown’s elementary school classmate and road manager Henry Stallings told an interviewer in 1982. As Robert Palmer writes in his profile of Brown for the Rolling Stone Illustrated Guide to Rock & Roll: “Brown was born in 1933 in [South Carolina]: he grew up poorer than poor, picking cotton, shining shoes, dancing for pennies in the streets.” By age 16 he had landed in reform school on armed robbery charges. In reform school he befriended Bobby Byrd, with whom he formed the Original (and later the Famous) Flames after an attempt at a career as a professional athlete.
Starting out as a gospel group, the Flames followed Brown’s search for a rhythm and blues style of his own. They made their own break when they seized the stage during the intermission of a 1955 Little Richard show in Toccoa, Georgia. The impression they made — “the uproard they created,” according to Peter Guralnick in Sweet Soul Music — led to a recording contract on Syd Nathan’s Federal/King label. The first song they recorded — “Please, Please, Please” — was an intense doo-wop style rhythm and blues hit that was followed by a succession of flops. Richie Unterburger briefly summarizes the period:
In retrospect, it can be seen that Brown was in the same position as dozens of other R&B one-shots; talented singers in need of better songs, or not fully on the road to a truly original sound. What made Brown succeed where hundreds of others failed was his superhuman determination, working the chitlin circuit to death, sharpening his band, and keeping an eye on new trends. He was on the verge of being dropped from King in late 1958 when his perseverance finally paid off, as “Try Me” became a number-one R&B (and small pop) hit, and several follow-ups established him as a regular visitor to the R&B charts.
He worked “Please, Please, Please” up into a 35-40 minute epic that become the cornerstone of his live show and borrowed a “wrinkle…from the realm of professional wrestling.” Brown credited Gorgeous George for his inspiration: “I thought, well, Gorgeous George had a great act as a wrestler with his capes, so I think I’ll make me some beautiful capes and I’ll use the same thing.” As Guralnick explains:
That is what he did, and it became the trademark of his act, a ritual drama of loss and redemption in which a weary James Brown, assailed with the cares, worries, and woes of the world, collapsed under the weight of his burden, then somehow found the strength to go on. Everywhere he went it created pandemonium…
In the video below, you can see the drama enacted with Brown at the peak of his powers, I believe, in 1965’s TAMI show — nine minutes of pure bliss.
By 1962 Brown fronted the money to record the live show he had perfected following 1958. Released in 1963, “Live at the Apollo” crossed over to the pop charts, reaching as high as number two and staying in the top 100 for an astounding 68 weeks. It is a remarkable document, exceeded perhaps only by the recording that resulted from his return visit to the Apollo in 1967.
In between came the hits by which we know him and that made him famous. For a man with such a troubled background, it is remarkable that when his power as a model was at it its greatest in 1968, and when he could easily have turned his power to ill use, he acted as a force for peace. He supported Hubert Humphrey for president and performed at the Nixon inaugural in 1969.
His influence on music over the succeeding years has in my view been largely deleterious, leading to an emphasis on rhythm over melody and lyrics, and his troubled youth presaged his recurring legal difficulties over the past 20 years. He was nevertheless a pioneer and one of the original soul giants. RIP.