Alternately -- and justly -- tagged as "The Godfather of Soul," "The Hardest Working Man in Show Business," "Soul Brother No. 1," and "Mr. Dynamite," James Brown launched himself into the musical spotlight as a multi-talented R&B powerhouse with revolutionary gifts not only in the arena of vocal performance, but in those of songwriting, instrumentation, and dance. In the process, Brown -- unapologetically raw, ear-splitting (given his trademark scream), rambunctious, explicit, and dark-skinned -- not only obliterated stereotypes of what black musicians had to be, but paved the way for later African-American artists as disparate as Prince and Snoop Dogg.
Generally believed to have been born in Barnwell, SC, on May 3, 1933, and christened James Joseph Brown Jr., Brown grew up on the proverbial wrong side of the tracks. Abandoned by his parents at a tender age and raised by relatives and in the ghetto streets, he drifted into crime as a youngster, and was quickly shuttled off to the Alto Reform School outside of Tocoa, GA, for car theft. At Alto, Brown met and forged a lifelong friendship with aspiring musician Bobby Byrd (born Bobby Day), who later became an integral fixture of Brown's stage act. Byrd's family sympathized with Brown's family plight and brought the youngster into their household; Brown and Byrd then forged a gospel group that evolved, by turns, into Brown's R&B backup band, the Flames, with Brown covering vocals and Byrd on keyboards. Gigs at local venues followed over the next few years, until a demo tape of the group's electrifying single "Please, Please, Please" landed on the desk of Cincinnati's King Records. The label signed Brown immediately, first on its spin-off label, Federal, then -- in 1961 -- on King proper. One of that label's LPs, a live album, truly worked magic for Brown's career: 1962's James Brown: Live at the Apollo. This now-legendary, oft-mythologized effort spanned only 30 minutes but sold millions of copies and put Brown on the cultural map.
Brown continued to issue gold and platinum singles and LPs over the years, landing an unprecedented number of hits. These included "Night Train," "I Got You (I Feel Good)," "Mashed Potatoes U.S.A," the seminal "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," and "Shout and Shimmy." Brown's musical popularity continued unabated through the 1970s, before he reinvented himself in the '80s as a motion picture star.
Brown made his most enduring cinematic impact during this period, with two A-list features: John Landis' anarchic musical road comedy The Blues Brothers (1980) and Sylvester Stallone's jingoistic Rocky IV (1985). In the former, Brown pulls from his gospel roots to play "jive-ass preacher" Reverend Cleophus James, the caped, microphone-wielding, arm-swinging minister of the Triple Rock Baptist Church, whose screamed admonition to Jake and Elwood Blues (John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd) -- "Have you seen the light?!" -- sends Jake hand-springing and back-flipping down the church aisles. In the fourth Rocky installment, Brown comes billed as "The Godfather of Soul" and, in a truly bizarre beat, performs a musical "warm-up" of "Living in America" with fighter Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) on a Las Vegas stage, before that pugilist's fatal exhibition match with Russian monstrosity Drago (Dolph Lundgren). Roger Ebert wrote of that moment, "this scene sets some kind of a record: It represents almost everything that the original 1976 Rocky Balboa would have found repellent." The public, however, did not concur. Consumers sent "Living in America" (the centerpiece of the movie soundtrack) to the top of the R&B charts and Rocky IV soaring over the 127-million-dollar mark.
Brown's other two feature-film appearances include the outrageous Dan Aykroyd/Michael Pressman comedy Doctor Detroit (1983) -- as a bandleader -- and the lesser sequel Blues Brothers 2000 (1998), reprising his turn as Rev. Cleophus James. Brown also headlines a myriad of concert films, such as James Brown: Live in Concert (1979), James Brown: Soul Jubilee (1984), James Brown: Live at Chastain Park (1985), and James Brown: Live from the House of Blues (2000). Brown appeared, as well, on numerous TV programs, including Married...with Children (as himself) and King of the Hill (as the voice of Digby Wilkins). He also composed the scores for two 1973 blaxploitation flicks, Black Caesar and Slaughter's Big Ripoff.
Cinematically, Brown's singles are, of course, omnipresent on hundreds of movie soundtracks -- everything from Jonathan Demme's Something Wild (1986) to Christopher Crowe's Off Limits (1987) to James Orr's Mr. Destiny (1990) to Adrian Lyne's Jacob's Ladder (1990) to Ron Howard's Apollo 13 (1995), with his "I Got You (I Feel Good)" the most common inclusion.
In addition to his musical and film success, Brown suffered some negative publicity in the late '80s (and became a never-ending source of celebrity gossip) when he burst into an Augusta, GA insurance seminar wielding a shotgun. He subsequently jumped into a car, hit the interstate, and was chased by troopers down the freeway -- across two states. Upon apprehension, Brown faced a number of serious charges, including assault on a law officer and possession of angel dust. Brown was then sentenced by a judge to six years in prison, but paroled after only three. He returned to performing immediately thereafter. Meanwhile, the tabloids swirled with allegations of spousal battery as well.
Brown remained thoroughly active on the musical scene during the last 15 years of his life, touring constantly, before he succumbed to pneumonia in the early hours of Christmas Day, 2006. A notorious ladies' man, he was survived by four wives and at least four children. In addition to his career as an entertainer, Brown was also a fervent social activist.