An appreciation of James Brown would be incomplete if it didn't cover the good and the bad. I won't be getting into the ugly; that came much later, anyway. So incomplete this will be, but considering it might take a million words to tell the full story of such a complex personality, so be it. Most of the time, JB was simply great, so that will be my emphasis. But first let's find out what happened when Brown met Byrd at the Alto Reform School in Toccoa, Georgia.
Growing up in the ultra-small town of Elko, South Carolina, James spent his childhood working a variety of odd jobs, but when he committed armed robbery at age 16, that lapse in judgment resulted in three years at Alto, about 170 miles away from home. In 1952, near the end of his sentence, Bobby Byrd showed up, but not to do time; when his baseball team was scheduled to play the Alto inmates, he and James met and hit it off through their mutual interest in music, and when James got out he joined Bobby's group. The Avons, who predated at least two different acts with the same name, were strictly vocal at first but later added instruments; Brown had a talent for keyboards and sometimes sat in on drums. Then came a name change to The Flames (later The Famous Flames to avoid entanglements with a previously-existing Flames group) and the varying-member lineup (with Brown and Byrd constants) started picking up regular bookings. In 1955 they opened for Little Richard (pre-"Tutti-Frutti") and the exposure led to a contract with Cincinnati-based King Records. Under the supervision of producer Ralph Bass, they were set to appear on the company's Federal label.
Who could have guessed that the very first record by this still-unpolished act would become a classic of early rock and roll and a benchmark tune that would span James Brown's entire career? Yet that's exactly what "Please, Please, Please" (written by Brown, as was the majority of his material) evolved into after its run in the top ten on the rhythm and blues charts in the spring of 1956. Within a few years an elaborate segment had been worked up, inspired by the onstage histrionics of wrestler Gorgeous George, wherein James would stagger to the side of the stage, drop to his knees, pleading 'please...' again and again while emcee Danny Ray put a cape over him and proceeded to lead him offstage only to have James throw the cape aside and begin again! Such over-the-top dramatics would continue sometimes for ten or 15 minutes, wowing the audience throughout. It became a trademark; you could expect to see the "Please, Please, Please" routine at all of his shows.
Those concerts were an increasingly hot ticket as James Brown and the Famous Flames sharpened the act, which kept them on their game during a complete disappearance from the charts following the one big debut hit. Nine singles were released over two-and-a-half years, and despite some fine if not downright top-notch efforts, not one registered on the charts or received much, if any, airplay outside of a smattering in the south. By late 1958, King-Federal owner Syd Nathan was ready to drop the act from the label's roster. James and the group dodged that bullet when single number eleven, the last-chance "Try Me (I Need You)," was released, a heartwrenchingly soulful ballad that hit top 50 pop in January 1959 and number one R&B in February. It turned out to be another career classic for James, always in demand by the fans of his live shows. But as before, it proved difficult to follow with another hit. Brown might have ended up a three-years-apart two-hit wonder, but he refused to stand for it. Determination and hard work kept him going and within a year, single releases starting showing up on the charts more regularly. Among the best in 1960 and '61 were "I'll Go Crazy," "Think" (a "5" Royales reboot) and "Bewildered."
The top-flight musicians in his band had a great deal to do with the success of James Brown. Any one of them might tell you it was JB the bandleader who was responsible for molding them into the professionals they became. A taskmaster, increasingly so as the years went by, James set a high bar for his musicians and singers. There was a strict dress code; everyone was required to be uniformly well-dressed and dapper. Musicianship had to be of the highest caliber, and much of the material was complex and challenging. Timing was essential whether one played an instrument, sang, danced, or any combination of the above; if a mistake was made, James levied a fine against the offending employee's salary. It may not have been the best approach for morale, but the two-hour-plus stage shows were a wonder to behold, and I speak as one who's seen it with my own eyes right up close to the stage at a time when JB and the FF were in their prime. Besides singer-pianist Byrd, Johnny Terry was a longtime singer with the group. Band members (billed separately from the Famous Flames vocalists) included saxophonist "Pee Wee" Ellis, drummers Clyde Stubblefield and Nat Kendrick, guitarist Bobby Roach and bassist Bernard Odum...pros all! Then there was his most popular featured band member, Maceo Parker, who could blow off the roof with his sax at the drop of a hat...or a cue from James.
As James Brown's legend grew, he started accumulating nicknames, some created by publicists, some by journalists, some by Brown himself. "Mr. Dynamite" may have been the first, followed by "The Hardest Working Man in Show Business," arguably a true statement. Danny Ray introduced him as "Mr. Please Please" at many live shows and "Butane James" became an informal subtitle in the '60s. "Soul Brother Number One" was commonplace by mid-decade and the ultimate compliment came with an appellation James most likely came up with for himself, "The Godfather of Soul." Over the years several other nicknames have been attached to 'the king of 'em all, y'all' (as Arthur Conley referred to him in the 1967 hit "Sweet Soul Music").
For years Brown had been at odds with Syd Nathan, whose interest in the singer was marginal at first but became more intrusive as time passed. In early 1960, shortly before being moved from Federal to the King parent label, Brown and the band recorded "(Do the) Mashed Potatoes" against Nathan's objections. A mostly-instrumental track (with various '...potatoes' shout-outs by Miami radio personality Carlton "King" Coleman) created to describe the dance James regularly incorporated into his stage moves, the single was released on the Dade label under the name Nat Kendrick and the Swans. It hit the pop charts in February 1960 and went top ten on the R&B charts. Numerous instrumentals were recorded for King after that, including "Hold It," "The Scratch" (frequently used as a "bridge" between segments of the stage show), a remake of Jimmy Forrest's 1952 R&B chart-topper "Night Train" (with James calling the Eastern seaboard stops between Miami and Boston, then across to 'New Orleans, the home of the blues!'), "Choo Choo" (also used in the shows), The Pips' "Every Beat of My Heart" and a remake of "Try Me" (those last two with James showing off his skills at the organ).
The band's repertoire, on record and on stage, displayed a wide range of influences, venturing into blues, jazz and pop, in the process of creating what would become known as soul music (not exclusively a JB creation, but he was certainly one of the originators, hence "Soul Brother Number One"). Still, Brown's rise to the top was a gradual one, the hits coming at a more steady pace in the early '60s with eight R&B top tens by 1963 culminating in "Prisoner of Love," his first top 20 pop hit. But it was the stage show that had to be seen to be believed; few music acts, if any, could approach the sheer energy displayed by Brown and company and it was such a performance, recorded live at the Apollo Theater on October 24, 1962, that became a blockbuster seller. The James Brown Show, his first top-selling album, held high positions on the charts throughout most of 1963 and '64, helping lift James and the Famous Flames to a permanently greater level of appreciation and popularity.
Things were going so well by 1963 in the moneymaking department that Nathan allowed Brown to branch out with his own label, Try Me Records. Several acts had single releases on the imprint, the most notable being Tammy Montgomery ("I Cried"), who hit big a few years later with Motown as Tammi Terrell by way of a series of hit duets with Marvin Gaye. Try Me was short-lived, though. Conditions at King became unbearable for the independent-minded Mr. Dynamite, his shortened fuse finally fizzling as he headed to Smash Records for what he considered a "Fair Deal," which was the name of the production company he and Bobby Byrd started at that time. In 1964 and '65 he released several records for the Mercury subsidiary (as did Byrd) while fighting in court for a clean break from King. "Out of Sight" was his biggest hit for Smash. Then The T.A.M.I. Show expanded the future Godfather's audience. Videotaped at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in October 1964 and transferred to film for a December release, JB's moves set the place ablaze just before headlining act The Rolling Stones took the stage. Mick Jagger later said he regretted the decision to follow James Brown...besides being "The Hardest Working Man in Show Business" he may have also been the all-time "hardest act to follow."
Syd Nathan won the court battle and Brown headed back to King. Bad situation or not, James Brown found superstardom soon after. "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" became his first-ever top ten pop hit and first R&B chart-topper since "Try Me" more than six years earlier. Between The T.A.M.I. Show and a high-profile performance of "I Got You (I Feel Good)" in the 1965 film Ski Party, plus a Grammy Award for "Papa" in the category of Best Rhythm and Blues Recording, James had reached those high-flying goals he'd sought for a decade, unaware as of yet just how much brighter his star would shine in the future.
The hits came nonstop from this point on, occasionally showing sparks of brilliance as in the spring '66 smash "It's a Man's Man's Man's World." If the lyrics 'This is a man's world...but it wouldn't be nothing, nothing without a woman or a girl' seemed a bit banal on paper, once James laid down the track, the power of the entire production became clear. Social commentary increasingly worked its way into his music during the late '60s; songs like "Money Won't Change You" and "Don't Be a Drop-Out" were aimed straight at minorities of varying ages, while the spoken "America is My Home" pointed out the positive advantages of living in the U.S.A., no matter what color or background. "Say It Loud - I'm Black and I'm Proud," of course, was the all-encompassing statement. Clearly aimed at a black audience, its reach extended to the top ten of the pop charts while enjoying a lengthy stay at number one R&B in the fall of 1968, a bit of a latecomer to the Civil Rights movement (recorded after the April 4 assassination of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.), yet one of its preeminant anthems.
James had a sentimental side, too. Commencing in 1966 with the Mel Torme-Robert Wells chestnut "The Christmas Song" and an original composition, "Sweet Little Baby Boy," he recorded dozens of seasonal records, most of them self-penned, adding more to the collection in each of the next few years. "Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto," from 1968, mixed in a touch of social commentary and is perhaps the most notorious and popular of his Christmas offerings. The hits of the late '60s gradually increased the rhythmic intensity, with a heavier beat and more opportunities for the band to elaborate on established jazz and R&B criteria. Songs like "Give It Up or Turnit A Loose" and "Ain't it Funky Now" were prime examples of this new movement called funk, which most musicians, critics and industry people credit James and his band members with creating. As the music progressed, the length of the songs expanded, necessitating singles be divided into two parts (taken to extreme during JB's 1969 "Popcorn" phase when the largely ad-libbed "Let a Man Come in and Do the Popcorn" was split into "Part One" and "Part Two"...and released on separate singles, both of which were hits)!
The fixation on perfection that Brown had took its toll on the group, still counting several members who'd been with the act since the 1950s among its ranks. Similar to the way Nathan was with Brown, so was he with them; in 1969 all but Byrd left together, forcing James to hire a new band (later named, appropriately, The JB's), and the result was a surprisingly fresh approach that upped the funk ante into the next decade. Bassist Bootsy Collins and trombone player Fred Wesley were just two of the creative cats key to moving the music of James Brown to the next level, though not all of his longstanding fans were buying into it One thing was obvious: the quality of the live shows didn't suffer and, if anything, became tighter and more focused, particularly after Maceo Parker returned to the lineup a few years later.
By the close of the 1960s James had racked up more than 50 hit singles, nine of which were R&B number ones. Only Louis Jordan (in the '40s) and Ray Charles had comparable track records, and James would soon leave them both in the rear view mirror. So this is where I'll stop, at the beginning of the funkier 1970s. Of course, there's much more to the life and career of the legendary James Brown, whose eventual run of more than a hundred chart hits together with his many years of auditorium-stuffing concert triumphs have established him as the most successful black music act of all time, as well as one of the ten biggest artists in any genre. Perhaps at a later date I'll attempt to fill in the gaps and extend the story to cover his entire life. Only 997,534 words to go!
- Please, Please, Please - 1956
- I Feel That Old Feeling Coming On - 1956
- Just Won't Do Right - 1956
- Chonnie On Chon - 1957
- Messing With the Blues - 1957
- Try Me (I Need You) - 1958
- I Want You So Bad - 1959
- Good Good Lovin' - 1959
- (Do the) Mashed Potatoes - 1960
as Nat Kendrick and the Swans
- I'll Go Crazy - 1960
- Think /
You've Got the Power - 1960
with Bea Ford
- This Old Heart - 1960
- The Bells - 1960
- Hold It /
The Scratch - 1961
- Bewildered - 1961
- I Don't Mind - 1961
- Baby, You're Right - 1961
- Just You and Me, Darling - 1961
- Lost Someone - 1961
- Night Train - 1962
- Shout and Shimmy - 1962
- Mashed Potatoes U.S.A. - 1962
- Three Hearts in a Tangle - 1962
- Every Beat of My Heart /
Like a Baby - 1963
- Prisoner of Love - 1963
- These Foolish Things - 1963
- Signed, Sealed and Delivered - 1963
- Oh Baby Don't You Weep - 1964
- Again - 1964
- Caldonia - 1964
- The Things That I Used To Do - 1964
- Out of Sight /
Maybe the Last Time - 1964
- Have Mercy Baby - 1965
- Devil's Hideaway - 1965
- Papa's Got a Brand New Bag - 1965
- I Got You (I Feel Good) - 1965
- Try Me - 1965
- Ain't That a Groove - 1966
- It's a Man's Man's Man's World - 1966
- Money Won't Change You - 1966
- Don't Be a Drop-Out - 1966
- Bring It Up - 1967
- Kansas City - 1967
- Think - 1967
by Vicki Anderson and James Brown
- Let Yourself Go - 1967
- Cold Sweat - 1967
- Get It Together - 1967
- I Can't Stand Myself (When You Touch Me) /
There Was a Time - 1968
- You've Got to Change Your Mind - 1968
by Bobby Byrd and James Brown
- I Got the Feelin' - 1968
- Licking Stick - Licking Stick - 1968
- America is My Home - 1968
- Shhhhhhhh (For a Little While) - 1968
- I Guess I'll Have to Cry, Cry, Cry - 1968
- Say It Loud - I'm Black and I'm Proud - 1968
- Goodbye My Love - 1968
- Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto - 1968
- Tit For Tat (Ain't No Taking Back) - 1968
- Give It Up or Turnit A Loose - 1969
- Soul Pride - 1969
- I Don't Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing (Open Up the Door,
I'll Get It Myself) - 1969
- The Popcorn - 1969
- Mother Popcorn - 1969
- Lowdown Popcorn - 1969
- World - 1969
- Let a Man Come In and Do the Popcorn - Part One - 1969
- Ain't it Funky Now - 1969
- Part Two (Let a Man Come In and Do the Popcorn) - 1969
- It's a New Day - 1970
- Brother Rapp - 1970
- Get Up I Feel Like Being Like a Sex Machine - 1970
- Super Bad - 1970
- Soul Power - 1971
- Hot Pants (She Got to Use What She Got to Get What She Wants) - 1971
- Make it Funky - 1971
- Talking Loud and Saying Nothing - 1972
- Get on the Good Foot - 1972
- I Got Ants in My Pants and I Want to Dance - 1973
- The Payback - 1974
- My Thang - 1974
- Papa Don't Take No Mess - 1974
- Get Up Offa That Thing - 1976
- Living in America - 1986