Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


BROWN, James

(b 3 May 1933, Barnwell SC; d 25 December 2006) Singer, songwriter, producer/arranger, keyboards, drums: immensely influential in postwar black pop music, both stylistically and in his independence. Raised in Augusta GA; emerged from poverty and prison with a Southern synthesis of gospel music, vaudeville and the influence of R&B pioneers Louis Jordan and Roy Brown; made first records with the Famous Flames for King initially on the Federal label: first single 'Please, Please, Please' a regional hit and eventual million seller; 'Try Me' '58 a national gold disc. Signed by Universal Attractions booking agency (owner Ben Bart becoming his business mentor), he recruited a backing band initially led by saxman J. C. Davis and developed the hottest roadshow in the USA: became known as 'Soul Brother No. 1', 'Mr Dynamite'. He recorded '(Do The) Mashed Potatoes' in Florida under his drummer's name because of King's obstinacy and had a top ten R&B hit '60 Nat Kendrick and as the Swans; Live At The Apollo '62 was also his idea, an electrifying album when live albums were rare, and he did it again '65 and '71; Sex Machine '70 was also made live. He formed a publishing co. and produced himself, selling tapes to Smash (subsidiary of Mercury); 'Out Of Sight' '64 heralded the early 'funky' sound and the beginning of his international fame. Back on King with a better deal but still recording independently, he consolidated sound and success with 'Papa's Got A Brand New Bag' and 'I Got You (I Feel Good)' '65; also intense ballads, e.g. 'It's A Man's Man's Man's World' '66. Progressively further removed from mainstream rock'n'roll and already ahead of pop music, he now began to infl. jazzmen e.g. Miles Davis, Donald Byrd with records such as 'Cold Sweat', 'Mother Popcorn' and 'Ain't It Funky Now' 67--9. During '60s the band was led by Nat Jones, then Alfred 'Pee Wee' Ellis (both alto sax), also incl. notables Maceo Parker (tenor) and John 'Jabbo' Starks (drums); at the end of the decade most of this band left him, becoming Maceo and All the King's Men. Brown's image was confused by political ambiguity; after TV appearances following the Martin Luther King murder he was fˆted both by the White House and by black militants; he responded both ways with 'America Is My Home' and 'Say It Loud, I'm Black And I'm Proud' '68, with personal appearances in Vietnam and West Africa.

He returned to singleminded record success with a new young band, the JBs, at first with William 'Bootsy' Collins (bass) and his brother Phelps 'Catfish' (guitar): 'Sex Machine' and 'Super Bad' '70, 'Soul Power' '71. He signed to Polydor with a changing lineup of JBs led by Fred Wesley (trombone) and maintained frontline 'funk' status until '74: 'The Payback' and 'Papa Don't Take No Mess'. Then there were fewer hits: 'Get Up Offa That Thing' '76, 'It's Too Funky In Here' '79, 'Rapp Playback' '80, 'Unity' '84 (with Afrika Bambaata). With over 100 US hits incl. 56 R&B top tens, 17 no. 1 entries and more than 40 gold discs his influence was permanent, and he wasn't through yet: following smash hit 'Living In America' early '86, written by Dan Hartman/Charlie Midnight for film Rocky IV, the album Gravity on Scotti Brothers label was written by the same team, prod. by Hartman with guests Alison Moyet and Stevie Winwood. He became a giant encountering resistance all the way (King didn't want to release 'Please' in the first place), told all in autobiography James Brown '87 with Bruce Tucker. Compilations incl. four-CD Star Time, two-CD sets Foundation Of Funk/A Brand New Bag: 1964--69, Soul Pride: The Instrumentals 1960-- 69 and Messing With The Blues, all on Polydor; his enduring legend kept 35 CD packages in print '97. He was the most important inspiration for disco music in the late '70s and later techno musics, and one of the first to be paid the ultimate compliment of being sampled, but overuse of technology demeans his accomplishment by ruining the ears of its fans: no matter how hard James and his band worked, they were still humans, not machines.