James Brown

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Date: Jan. 4, 2019
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Biography
Length: 4,141 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1190L

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About this Person
Born: May 03, 1933? in Barnwell, South Carolina, United States
Died: December 25, 2006 in Atlanta, Georgia, United States
Nationality: American
Occupation: Singer
Other Names: Brown, James Joe, Jr.; Soul Brother Number One; Godfather of Soul; Brown, James Joseph, Jr.
Updated:Jan. 4, 2019
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If a famous person's nicknames tell a lot about them, James Brown's nicknames must say a mouthful. He was known at one time as Soul Brother Number One, the Hardest Working Man in Show Business, Mr. Dynamite, and Mr. Sex Machine and went on to be named the Godfather of Soul. But then there is plenty to know about James Brown. He had the highest number of singles to reach the top 20, and the second-highest number of singles to reach the top 100 after Elvis Presley; he reinvented soul music at least twice; and it is impossible to know what soul music, funk, disco, or rap would sound like if not for his musical influence. He also attracted his share of both admirers and detractors among blacks and whites, Democrats and Republicans, as a political figure. Moreover, Brown made an impact on American culture, black and otherwise, that few others could equal. Brown was portrayed by Chadwick Boseman in the 2014 biographical film Get up On.

Overcame Early Obstacles to Success

James Joe Brown, Jr., was born on May 3, 1933, although various other dates have been ascribed to him over the years, near Barnwell, South Carolina, and Augusta, Georgia. He was stillborn in his family's one-room shack, and the family had given him up for dead, but he was resuscitated by his great-aunt Minnie. His father, Joe Brown, worked the area to get sap from trees, which he sold to turpentine manufacturers. The four of them lived in the area until James's mother, Susan (Behlings) Brown, left when James was four years old. In his 1986 autobiography, James Brown, The Godfather of Soul, Brown expressed his regret at not being raised by both his parents.

When Brown was six, Joe moved him and his aunt to Augusta in a search for more work. They moved in with another aunt, Honey, who ran a bordello on U.S. Highway 1. It was, to say the least, an unusual environment for a young child to grow up in, as Brown wrote in his autobiography, reprinted in Current Biography: "I guess I saw and heard just about everything in the world in that house, when the soldiers were there with the women." The family did not have much money, and James was embarrassed that he had to attend school in ragged clothes. One day Joe brought home an old pump organ, though, and James discovered that he had a natural knack for playing music. Until he could begin his career, however, young Brown shined shoes, picked cotton and peanuts, and delivered groceries to earn money.

Brown found many diversions to pique his interest during childhood. Music was one, and he learned to play the drums, piano, guitar, and to sing gospel. He also particularly enjoyed the jump blues music played by Louis Jordan and was impressed by circuses and traveling minstrel shows, the something-for-everybody philosophy of which later helped inspire his James Brown Revue. He found some early success as a boxer, using his left-handed style to confuse his young opponents. An unfortunate diversion ended his childhood freedom prematurely at age 15. To get money to buy decent clothes for school, Brown sometimes stole objects from unlocked cars. He was caught and received a sentence of eight to 16 years at the Georgia Juvenile Training Institute.

Developed Signature Sound

While in jail Brown got a leg up on his music career, forming a gospel quartet which included Johnny Terry, who would later become an original member of Brown's Famous Flames vocal group. Brown impressed the warden with his commitment to gospel music while in the facility, and when he received a promise of a job upon his release, he was paroled in 1952 after serving only three years of his sentence. Immediately upon his release Brown formed a gospel group with Terry and Bobby Byrd called The 3 Swanees. The group soon moved to Macon, Georgia--which Little Richard and The Five Royals had made into a bit of a local music mecca--began playing more rhythm and blues-oriented material and changed its name to the Flames.

Once in Macon the group hired as its manager Clint Brantly, Little Richard's manager, and he convinced the Flames to add the "Famous" adjective to their name. Early in 1956 the group cut a record, "Please, Please, Please," for King records, which released it on its Federal subsidiary. The song became a hit, peaking at number six on the rhythm and blues charts, and Brown's career was underway. The name of the group was soon changed to James Brown and the Famous Flames, although at the time Brown had yet to refine any of the distinctive styles which would later make him a legend. "Please, Please, Please," and its follow-up hit, "Try Me," from 1958, were fairly ordinary rhythm and blues songs which could have been recorded by any number of artists at the time. More distinctive during the 1950s was Brown's live act, which included a 20-piece band, four warm-up soloists, two vocal groups, a comedian and a troupe of dancers. As for Brown himself, he put forth an energy in his performances which was second to none and exceeded most. As Rolling Stone Bill Wyman would later tell Rolling Stone magazine: "You could put Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley on one side of the stage and James Brown on the other, and you wouldn't even notice the others were up there!"

In the early 1960s, Brown found his trademark sound with such hits as "I'll Go Crazy," and "Think." The characteristics of the James Brown "sound" were staccato horn bursts, a scratchy guitar, and a prominent bass guitar, all coming together to provide a kind of rhythmic excitement which contrasted sharply with the era's more traditional musical tools of verse-chorus-verse song construction and melody. It began a string of hits that would be the greatest of Brown's career, running until the end of the decade.

Brown felt he faced a problem in 1962, however. Although he had a string of hits on the rhythm and blues charts, including "Baby, You're Right," and "Lost Someone," both of which peaked at number two, and his singles had also fared respectably on the pop charts, he felt his best work was being done in concert. The energy and excitement of his live performances were not coming through on his records. Brown was convinced that in order to communicate his style to the record-buying public he needed to record a live album, an unusual step in rock music at that time and one King found expensive and impractical. Brown decided to take matters into his own hands, rented the Apollo Theater in Harlem, miked the band and the audience, produced the album himself and even put the theater's ushers in tuxedos, all of which cost him $5,700. The gamble paid off, as the album, recorded in November 1962, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, became a huge phenomenon which is to this day regarded as one of the finest live rock and roll albums ever recorded. Brown's stage style found him segueing immediately from one song to another, a practice which would ordinarily cause problems for radio stations wanting to cue up a single song. It did not matter in the end, as black radio stations took the then-unheard-of step of playing the record a side at a time, as if the two sides were 20-minute songs.

Brown's sound was now known to the public, and his tireless touring schedule, which included as many as 350 dates in a year (hence the nickname, The Hardest Working Man in Show Business), began to draw even larger audiences. Brown's dancing also became legendary: His trademark move was to grab the microphone stand, slide down into the splits, pop back up out of them and erupt into a pirouette, a move few other mortals dared attempt for fear of any number of injuries. During the mid-1960s Brown hit upon another bit of on-stage mania which became his show-stopping, show-closing trademark for several years, in which he would sing the song "Please, Please, Please," until collapsing in mock anguish and exhaustion in a heap on stage, whereupon his backup singers would drape his lifeless form with a cape, help him to his feet, and lead him toward the wings, only to have him throw the cape off, return to front-stage center, resume the song and start the whole process over again. The act was a great crowd-pleaser wherever Brown performed.

Troubles with Famous Flames Lead to Funk

While Brown's stage show was a hit with audiences everywhere, the members of his backing group differed among themselves on his qualities as a boss. While some of his band members, such as Terry and Byrd, stayed with him for many years, many found his leadership style tyrannical and unbearably egotistical. Brown levied fines for a number of offenses he found intolerable, including lateness, wrinkled uniforms, scuffed shoes, and even missed steps and notes on stage. Other accusations which band members have accused Brown of over the years included denying writing credits and record royalties, leaving musicians stranded on the road, threatening them with guns, stealing their girlfriends, and exhibiting erratic behavior due to drug abuse.

Brown kept the Flames together through 1970, though, and the group had some huge hit records, including "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag--Part 1," "I Got You (I Feel Good)," "It's a Man's Man's Man's World," "Cold Sweat--Part 1," "I Got the Feelin'," "Say It Loud--I'm Black and I'm Proud--Part 1," "Give It Up or Turnit a Loose," and "Mother Popcorn-- Part 1," all of which reached Number One on the rhythm and blues charts and most of which reached the top ten on the pop charts. Brown also became a fairly prominent voice in the black community during the most crucial days of the civil rights movement in the late 1960s, appearing on television to help quell riots in the streets of Boston and Washington, D.C. after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and was once recruited by H. Rap Brown to assist with his Black Power movement. Many blacks did not approve of Brown's public appearances with politicians such as Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon--whom Brown endorsed for president--and one of the ironies of Brown's career in this era was that he was simultaneously distrusted by both whites (for songs such as "Say It Loud--I'm Black and I'm Proud," which some found uncomfortably militant), and blacks (for endorsing Nixon, disavowing violence and proclaiming himself a Republican).

During the late 1960s the Famous Flames underwent numerous personnel changes as the fallout from Brown's tough discipline found members leaving the band more frequently. Brown finally decided to disband the group, and in 1971 his new group, the JBs, made its debut with a song called "Hot Pants." The new band had a sound markedly different from the old band, a sound that would come to be called funk. It was a sound he had been gradually moving toward over the late 1960s, but with the JBs the style was realized in full. In his autobiography Brown explained, "I had discovered that my strength was not in the horns, it was in the rhythm. I was hearing everything, even the guitars, like they were drums. I had found out how to make it happen." The JBs would go on to have about five more years' worth of hits before the disco era began to see their popularity wane.

During this period, however, Brown's music began to feel the scorn of rock critics, who called it repetitive and monotonous. A typical Brown album of this period would feature a handful of songs, each consisting of a single riff which would be sustained for several minutes, while Brown spoke his mind about any number of topics over top of the music. Robert Palmer, writing in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, was one who argued against this verdict. "Attacking him for being repetitive is like attacking Africans for being overly fond of drumming," he wrote.

Experienced Personal and Professional Difficulties

Things in Brown's personal life began to take a turn for the worse in the mid 1970s. In 1973 his son, Teddy, was killed in an auto accident, and Bobby Byrd quit the band to pursue a solo career. Also that year, the Internal Revenue Service stepped up its attempts to collect back taxes from Brown. In 1968 the IRS claimed he owed nearly $2 million; now they added another $4.5 million to the tab. A few years later his second wife Deirdre left him (his first marriage, to the former Velma Warren, fell apart in 1968). All the while his relationship with his record company since 1971, Polydor, steadily deteriorated, as Brown felt the label did not understand his music or his market.

Brown had built himself a formidable business empire over the first two decades of his career. He had a large house, a fleet of cars, several radio stations (including one in Augusta in front of which he had shined shoes as a youngster), a booking agency, 17 publishing companies, a record label, a production company and a Lear jet. But with his tax problems mounting, the government began taking bites out of his empire. The radio stations, which were also having union problems, became the target of a government investigation, and the government also took possession of many of Brown's properties, including his jet and his home. In 1978 he was arrested on stage at the Apollo for defying a government order not to leave the country during the investigation of the radio stations.

The late 1970s and early 1980s were a sort of rebuilding period for Brown's career. He severed his ties with Polydor, hired well-known lawyer William Kunstler to handle his legal affairs, renewed his religious faith, and hit the rock club circuit around New York. He also found a vehicle for his music on celluloid, appearing in The Blues Brothers and Doctor Detroit, and singing the theme song for Rocky IV, "Living in America." That song hit number four on the pop charts in 1985, his first top ten pop hit in 17 years.

In 1984 Brown embarked on a union that dramatically shaped the next decade of his life when he married Adrienne Modell Rodriguez, a hairstylist on the syndicated music television program "Solid Gold." The pair would go on to have a stormy relationship, as Brown had with many of the women in his life. At one time Adrienne appeared beaten and bruised in the National Enquirer, allegedly from a Brown beating; she would later claim it was a publicity stunt, but beating women was an activity Brown had already garnered a reputation for in the past. Drug use, particularly PCP, was also reportedly a major factor in the marriage, although both parties would vociferously deny it. On a happier note during this decade, Brown became a charter member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at induction ceremonies in 1986. "That night, while I was being inducted," he recalled in Current Biography, "I think I felt for the first time that the struggle was over."

Brown, though, sank deeper and deeper into his drug use until, according to an April 1989 article in Rolling Stone, his band members feared he would die. His rendezvous with rock bottom began October 24, 1988. There has been some disagreement about exactly what happened that day, but this much seems to have been confirmed: Brown, high on PCP, burst into an insurance seminar in the building next to his office in Augusta. He carried a shotgun that did not work and complained that people from the seminar had been using his private bathroom. The police were called, and Brown fled in his truck. The police chased him into South Carolina, shooting out his tires. Brown circled back, and the police chased him back to Augusta, before he drove the truck into a ditch. Police claimed that Brown was incoherent and attempted to sing and dance while being given a sobriety test, but he was later acquitted of driving under the influence of PCP. Brown claimed that he had actually pulled over at one point during the chase, but police had riddled his truck with bullets, and he drove off on the rims in fear for his life when they stopped to reload. He claimed his truck had 23 bullet holes when the incident was over. At any rate, Brown was released on bail, and the very next day was again pulled over and arrested for driving under the influence of PCP.

The legal trial that followed the police chase was a source of almost as much disagreement as the chase itself. Apparently, the judge and Brown's lawyer advised him to plead guilty and accept a 90-day jail term, but Brown insisted upon his innocence and went through with the trial. He was convicted of aggravated assault and failing to stop for a police car with its blue lights on, and received concurrent six-year sentences from Georgia and South Carolina. Some, including Brown, have claimed that racial bias had much to do with the severity of the sentences.

Experienced Career Resurgence

Brown's time in prison was a very bad time for him in some ways, very good in others. He was shocked to discover that many of the young black inmates at the prison had no idea who he was, and was disappointed that some of his powerful friends did not attempt to gain his release or even visit him. Having had several friends in presidential administrations, Brown did not think he would do much time of his six-year sentence, but it took about two years for him to finally be paroled. However, Brown heard much of his own music in prison, although it took some doing to convince his fellow inmates that it was his music. He heard it in the samples on the rap and hip-hop records the prisoners listened to. Brown did not like his music being used on so many records he did not approve of, but hearing how much his music was being used--he is universally acknowledged as the most-sampled performer of all time--renewed his determination that his music was still as immediate and fresh as ever and convinced him his career would take off again upon his release.

Indeed, Brown's career did experience a resurgence upon his release. There were several factors as to why James Brown was so "hot" upon his release from prison. One was certainly the publicity he had received for his legal troubles. Another was the popularity of hip-hop and the obvious lineage leading back to Brown's music. Another was that Brown's music was known by the white community more than ever before, as in his heyday his American audience was almost exclusively black. Also, Brown's music had undergone a sort of critical reappraisal in the late 1980s, as rock writers reconsidered the criticisms they had made in the 1970s and concluded that his music had been groundbreaking and extremely influential, after all. Yet another reason was the release of Star Time!, the boxed set retrospective of Brown's career, and Love Over-Due, his new studio album, both of which were released in 1991. Amazingly, considering the decade-long slump that preceded his incarceration, James Brown had come back as hot as ever.

Tragedy struck Brown's life again in 1996, however, when Adrienne died from taking PCP while using prescription medicine. She also had a bad heart and was weak from having undergone liposuction surgery. But it was clear that Adrienne's death would not prevent Brown from doing what tax problems, imprisonment, controversy, and even disco already had failed to prevent him from doing: performing. Brown maintained a rigorous touring schedule over the next decade, and eventually remarried.

While on tour in 2006, Brown was diagnosed with pneumonia on December 23. The illness brought his musical career to a stop; he was hospitalized and died of heart failure on Christmas Day. Augustus, Georgia, honored him with a seven-foot-tall bronze statue. As in life, Brown experienced controversy in death. A legal battle over his estate ensued, delaying his burial and the construction of a Graceland-like mausoleum in his honor. Yet it is Brown's "music that really matters," wrote Michael Kohlenberger of Take Pride! Community Magazine, adding "The music is what makes the man and what makes the legend." As the 1992 edition of the Rolling Stone Album Guide said, "James Brown may never have captured the zeitgeist as Elvis Presley or the Beatles did, nor can he be said to have dominated the charts like Stevie Wonder or the Rolling Stones, but by any real measure of musical greatness--endurance, originality, versatility, breadth of influence--he towers over them all."

In 2014, the biographical drama Get on Up premiered. The film chronicled the Brown's life, charting his origins in poverty and his rise to musical fame. In the film, Brown was portrayed by actor Chadwick Boseman.


Born James Joe Brown Jr. on May 3, 1933, near Barnwell, South Carolina, and Augusta, GA; died on December 25, 2006, in Atlanta, GA; son of Joe Brown, a turpentine worker, and Susan Behlings; married Velma Warren 1953 (divorced 1969); Deidre Jenkins 1970 (divorced 1981), Adrienne Lois Rodriguez 1984 (died 1996); and Tomi Rae Hynie, 2001; children: six.


Recording and performing artist, mid-1950s-2006.


44 Gold Records; Grammy Awards, 1965, 1986; Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, charter member, 1986; Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, 1992; Rhythm & Blues Foundation Pioneer Awards, Lifetime Achievement Award, 1993.


Selected worksAlbums

  • Please, Please, Please, King, 1959.
  • Thing, King, 1960.
  • James Brown Presents His Band, King, 1961.
  • Excitement Mr. Dynamite, King, 1962.
  • Live at the Apollo, King, 1963.
  • Prisoner of Love, King, 1963.
  • Pure Dynamite! King, 1964.
  • Papa's Got a Brand New Bag, King, 1965.
  • I Got You (I Feel Good), King, 1966.
  • Mighty Instrumentals, Smash, 1966.
  • James Brown Plays New Breed (The Boo-Ga-Loo), Smash, 1966.
  • It's a Man's Man's Man's World, King, 1966.
  • Handful of Soul, Smash, 1966.
  • James Brown Sings Raw Soul, King, 1967.
  • James Brown Plays the Real Thing, Smash, 1967.
  • Live at the Garden, King, 1967.
  • Cold Sweat, King, 1967.
  • I Can't Stand Myself (When You Touch Me), King 1968.
  • I Got the Feelin', King, 1968.
  • James Brown Plays Nothing But Soul, King, 1968.
  • Live at the Apollo, Vol., II, 1968.
  • Thinking About Little Willie John and a Few Nice Things, King, 1968.
  • Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud, King, 1969.
  • The Popcorn, King, 1969.
  • It's a Mother, King, 1969.
  • It's a New Day--Let a Man Come In, King, 1970.
  • Sex Machine, King, 1970.
  • Super Bad, King, 1971.
  • Hot Pants, Polydor, 1971.
  • Revolution of the Mind (Live at the Apollo Theater, Vol. III), Polydor, 1971.
  • There It Is, Polydor, 1972.
  • Get on the Good Foot, Polydor, 1972.
  • The Payback, Polydor, 1974.
  • Hell, Polydor, 1974.
  • Hot, Polydor, 1976.
  • Get Up Offa That Thing, Polydor, 1976.
  • Solid Gold, Polydor UK, 1977.
  • Take a Look at Those Cakes, Polydor, 1979.
  • The Original Disco Man, Polydor, 1979.
  • People, Polydor, 1980.
  • Hot on the One, Polydor, 1980.
  • Soul Syndrome, Polydor, 1980.
  • Nonstop! Polydor, 1981.
  • Bring It On! Churchill/Augusta, 1983.
  • The Federal Years, Part One, Solid Smoke, 1984.
  • The Federal Years, Part Two, Solid Smoke, 1984.
  • Ain't That a Groove, Polydor, 1984.
  • Doing It to Death, Polydor, 1984.
  • The CD of JB (Sex Machine and Other Soul Classics), Polydor, 1985.
  • Gravity, Scotti Bros., 1986.
  • James Brown's Funky People, Polydor, 1986.
  • In the Jungle Groove, Polydor, 1986.
  • The CD of JB II (Cold Sweat and Other Soul Classics), Polydor, 1987.
  • I'm Real, Scotti Bros., 1988.
  • James Brown's Funky People (Part 2), Polydor, 1988.
  • Motherlode, Polydor, 1988.
  • Soul Session Live, Scotti Bros., 1989.
  • Roots of a Revolution, Polydor, 1989.
  • Messing With the Blues, Polydor, 1990.
  • Star Time, Polydor, 1991.
  • Love Over-Due, Scotti Bros., 1991.
  • 20 All-Time Greatest Hits, Polydor, 1991.
  • The Greatest Hits of the Fourth Decade, Scotti Bros., 1992.
  • Living in America, Scotti Bros., 1995.
  • Funk Power 1970: A Brand New Thang, Polydor, 1996.
  • Dead on the Heavy Funk, Polydor, 1998.
  • James Brown's Funky People (Part 3), Polydor, 2000.
  • James Brown The Next Step, Fome, 2002.
  • I Feel Good, New American Library, 2005.
  • (With Bruce Tucker) James Brown, The Godfather of Soul, Macmillan, 1986.



Danielsen, Anne, Presence and Pleasure: The Funk Grooves of James Brown and Parliament, Wesleyan University Press, 2006.

Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History, Macmillan.

(With Bruce Tucker) James Brown, The Godfather of Soul, Macmillan, 1986.

Rolling Stone Album Guide, Random House, 1992.

Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, Random House, 1992.

Who's Who in Soul Music, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1991.


Atlanta Journal-Constitution, December 31, 2006, p. A14.

Augusta Chronicle (GA), December 31, 2006, p. A6.

Current Biography, March 1992, p. 18.

Jet, October 15, 1984, p. 38; February 26, 1996, p. 18.

Rolling Stone, April 6, 1989, p. 36; August 23, 1990, p. 98; June 27, 1991, p. 60.

Take Pride! Community Magazine, February 2007, p. 14.


"Get on Up," IMDb, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2473602/?ref_=ttawd_awd_tt (January 4, 2018).


James Brown: The Man, The Music, and the Message (documentary), re-release 2007.

Soul Survivor: The James Brown Story (film), 2004.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|K1606003618