James Brown

By TED DROZDOWSKI  |  December 28, 2006

Brown started singing in jail and, when he was released, joined the Gospel Starlighters, a group led by future Famous Flame Bobby Byrd. As the Starlighters evolved into a pop band, Brown, who played drums and swapped lead vocals with the other members, came to the fore. As the Flames, with Brown providing ignition, they cut “Please Please Please” in a basement studio in Macon in 1955. A talent scout heard the tune on local radio and signed them to a contract with King Records, who recut the song and released it nationally in 1956.

“Please Please Please” sold a million copies, and when “Try Me” hit the top of the rhythm and blues charts two years later, Brown’s stardom was concrete — at least in the realm of “race” artists. In 1963 he crossed the color line with the elegant “Prisoner of Love,” a sweet, soaring ballad that offset his raspy croon with an orchestra. It reached number 18 on the pop charts and was followed into the mainstream by Live at the Apollo, which became the number two album in America.

During these early years of his career Brown was still formulating his style. As the late musician and journalist Robert Palmer explained in his entry on Brown in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, his blend of clarion voiced gospel harmonies, driving horns, and exaggerated shuffles wasn’t unique. Ray Charles had crystallized the sound of soul music in 1953 with “I’ve Got a Woman.” But Brown began incorporating Latin cross-rhythms, and his guitarist Jimmy Nolen had invented a choked style of playing chords that amped up the group’s rhythmic thrust. By 1964, the bass and horn lines of Brown’s band had become so percussive under his direction that the entire unit had morphed into, essentially, a giant drum kit. All rhythm.

On his own, Brown had reached back to his roots and pursued his musical vision to distill a style that embraced the fundamental qualities of African music, but with a distinctly Western pop-, blues-, and gospel-informed spin. Many of his compositions began to be based on a single chord, offset by one-, two-, or three-note bursts from the horns, staccato guitar riffs, and bass lines of two- or three-notes. It was mesmerizing, hypnotic, and at its best — in tunes like “Cold Sweat” and “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” — almost heart-stopping. Riding this raft of rhythms, Brown’s dancing became even more physical and percussive.

With his razor wire voice, Brown might’ve become the most popular artist in America if the British Invasion hadn’t nudged him out of the limelight. He was arguably the only rock and roll era performer to equal Elvis Presley in vocal authority, charisma, stage presence, song interpretation, and sexual magnetism.

As it was, Brown opened the locks of the mainstream for Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Joe Tex, Al Green, and other soul testifiers who followed him up the charts. More than seeding an audience for the artists who recorded for labels like Stax and Goldwax in the 1960s, Brown continued to influence the direction of popular music in the ’70s. His chiming, choked guitar chords, terse bass patterns, and hypnotic one-chord foundations became the building blocks of disco and spread throughout the world to embed themselves in reggae and African music, from the Afro-beat pioneered by Fela Kuti to the juju exemplified by King Sunny Adé. And when hip-hop arrived, he became the most sampled man in show business. The beats of “Funky Drummer” alone have been used more than 100 times by rappers.

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Related: Fela Kuti | The ’69 L.A. Sessions, Flashbacks, January 27, 2006, The 40 greatest concerts in Boston history: 2, More more >
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Spin patrol:The essential James Brown
1 | JAMES BROWN LIVE AT THE APOLLO THEATRE | Expanded Edition | Polydor | One of the all-time greatest live albums caps Brown’s early career and finds him — in 1962 — in absolute control.
2 | STAR TIME | Polydor | The nearest-to-definitive collection: four CDs span the Federal years to the rap era, including Brown’s “Unity, Pt. 1” with Afrika Bambaataa. “Living in America” is missing.
3 | SAY IT LOUD — I’M BLACK AND I’M PROUD | Polydor | Musical and cultural history meet in the title track of this groove-obsessed 1969 album, available only as an import.
4 | IN THE JUNGLE GROOVE | Polydor | A compilation of Brown’s funk and soul jams from 1969 to ’71, capturing a transitional era in his music — and the great playing of bassist Bootsy Collins and supremely funky drummer Clyde Stubblefield.
5 | THE T.A.M.I. SHOW | Hunt for a bootleg of 1965’s “Teen Aged Music International” concert movie, which also includes the Rolling Stones — who are cursed with following Brown — and the Beach Boys, Chuck Berry, and other popular acts of the day. It’s worth it for Brown’s breathtaking stage artistry alone. Beware of available T.A.M.I. DVDs. Some, incredibly, omit Brown’s earth-scorching “Please Please Please.”

The 40 greatest concerts in Boston history: #1 - James Brown | Boston Garden | April 5, 1968

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