There are countless famous people in the music world. There are even a handful of legends. But there are precious few seminal forces - artists whose talents and contributions revolutionized thinking and opened doors. People who immediately come to mind are Elvis Presley, John Lennon andů James Brown. He had an immeasurable impact on Rock. But his greatest legacy was as a driving force behind Soul and a key influence in the development of Funk, Hip-Hop and Rap.
"The Hardest Working Man In Show Business," "Mr. Dynamite" and "The Godfather of Soul" were three terms used to describe James Brown. Born May 3rd, somewhere between 1928 and 1933, in Barnwell, South Carolina Brown was raised by an aunt (after his mother deserted him) in Augusta, GA. Quitting school in the 7th grade Brown formed his first group. As a solo he began his recording career in 1955.
Songs like '62's "Night Train" and '64's "Please, Please, Please" did well on the R&B charts but failed to make an impression on the pop charts.
Building a reputation as a performer, Brown's '63 release "Live At The Apollo" (recorded at the legendary Harlem venue) became a million seller. The song that launched Brown into superstar status came in '65, "I Got You (I Feel Good)." It peaked at #3 on the pop charts and #1 on R&B. With a tight sax riff and Brown's gritty vocals and trademark squeal, the song had an innate groove and was incredibly influential to both R&B and Rock.
While Brown's records were high-energy blasts what he is best remembered for his electrifying stage shows. It's no wonder his first breakthrough was a live album. On stage Brown went through a collection of animated dance steps, twirls and splits, perfectly timed to the music. He used the mike stand like an instrument bending it over and casting it aside until it looked like it was going to fall over only to grab the chord and pull it back into place just a moment before starting the next verse. During a song Brown would "break down" and hobble on his knees away from the microphone. A band member placed a cape over Brown's shoulders and appeared to comfort him. It looked as though the song, if not the show, was over. Then, at the last possible moment, Brown jumped up and cast the cape aside and charge back to sing another verse. This collapse and return could happen two or three times in a single song. It all was precisely timed and a great piece of theatre. Many Rock bands took notice including the Rolling Stones. While not blessed with Brown's grace, Mick Jagger started doing scissor kicks and other moves. Creating theatrical "set pieces" became the norm. The Doors' Jim Morrison employed the collapse and return motif - though sometimes he just collapsed.
On top of that, Brown's band was a well-oiled machine. Musicians were fined if they made a mistake (like missing the backbeat). Since they weren't paid all that well to begin with, these fines hurt. So they learned early not to err.
"Live At The Apollo" proved the viability of concert recordings. Since then, record labels have consistently spewed out live albums by Rock and R&B performers, even though most woefully lacked Brown's stage dynamics. While Brown's style was soon at odds with Rock's late 60s/early 70s laid-back jams, his showmanship was mimicked by his contemporaries.
Brown later picked up on black pride ("Say It Loud - I'm Black and I'm Proud") and dance music ("The Popcorn"). He even managed another pop hit in '84 with "Living In America" from the Rocky IV soundtrack.
Brown's later life was marred by run-ins with the law for drugs and domestic violence. And when he wasn't in jail or court he was working. In fact, when Brown was hospitalized with pneumonia, just prior to Christmas 2006, his manager was confident Brown would be well enough for a scheduled New Year's Eve gig a week later. But it was not to be. Brown passed away in Atlanta on December 25th. Heart failure was listed as the official cause.
"He was a whirlwind of energy and precision, and he was always very generous and supportive to me in the early days of the Stones," said Mick Jagger. "His passing is a huge loss to music." Amen to that.
1963 Live At The Apollo
1986 In The Jungle Groove
1990 Star Time
1994 20 All-Time Greatest Hits!
"20 All-Time Greatest Hits" does an excellent job of covering James Brown's explosive career. From early R&B to Funk to Dance, it's all there. Even the tracks from the late '70s, which are probably the weakest, have an undeniable groove.
"Live At The Apollo" is one hot recording. Brown is at the peak of his powers and pushes it all the way - an incredible performance. The set also features instrumental bridges (Brown had recorded a handful of instrumental albums), many of which were later sampled by DJs and Rap artists.