James Brown’s rise from juvenile delinquency to Soul Brother #1 was one of the great musical success stories of the second half of the 20th Century.
As a junior high dropout, he spent most of his teenage years in reform school for petty theft, during which time he resolved to make something of himself.
Brown paroled in 1952 at age 19 and then joined a singing quartet in Toccoa, Georgia, called the Gospel Starlighters, who eventually switched to R&B and became known as the Famous Flames. Their first record, “Please, Please, Please” in 1956 was a huge R&B hit, but they had to wait nearly three years before scoring another smash with “Try Me.”
Brown spent much time performing in San Francisco, Oakland, Richmond and Vallejo during the late 1950s, due in large part to local disc jockeys who consistently played his records when those in other regions would not. In a 1980 interview with this writer for the Post, he credited Rockin Lucky of KSAN in San Francisco and Bouncin Bill Doubleday of KWBR in Oakland, as well as promoter Ray Dobard of Music City Records in Berkeley, with keeping his name in the Bay Area public during those difficult days.
By the early 60s, however, Brown was hitting regularly on the national R&B charts with such songs as “Think,” “Bewildered,” “Baby You’re Right” and “Lost Someone.” He was rapidly becoming one of the most popular live attractions in America.
Through grueling rehearsals and barnstorming tours, he developed his band into the hottest R&B outfit in the land. His musicians’ precision timing was geared to accent every flying split, every one-legged skate, and every shimmy in his awesome array of acrobatics. He screamed and hollered night after night until his back got soaking wet.
Brown gradually phased out the Flames during the 1960s. But, the gospel and blues structures of his early records gave way to open-ended vamps that emphasized his rhythmically riveting vocals and the complex funk syncopations of his band on such hits as “Cold Sweat,” and “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud,” “Give It Up or Turn It Loose,” “Super Bad,” “Make It Funky” and “Get on the Good Foot.”
Those innovations had a profound influence on popular music styles around the world, including funk, rock, Afro-pop and eventually hip-hop.
Known as the hardest working man in show business and the Godfather of Soul, Brown died in Atlanta on Christmas Day 2006 at age 73. He left behind a total of 119 amazing hits on Billboard’s R&B singles chart, an achievement unsurpassed by any other artist. Seventeen of them reached number one.