Brown's life history documents one triumph over adversity after another. He was born into poverty in Barnwell, South Carolina, during the Great Depression. The only child of a poor backwoods family, he was sent to Augusta, Georgia at age five to live at an aunt's brothel. He earned his keep by running errands for soldiers at nearby Camp Gordon, entertaining them with his dancing and enticing them into his aunt's establishment. At 16, he was caught and convicted of stealing, and landed in reform school for three years. While incarcerated, he met Bobby Byrd, leader of a Gospel group that performed at the prison. After his release, Brown tried his hand at semi-pro boxing and baseball. A career-ending leg injury inspired him to pursue music full time. He joined Byrd in 1952 in a group that sang Gospel in and around Toccoa, Georgia called The Gospel Starlighters. One night, Byrd and Brown attended a Rhythm & Blues revue that included Hank Ballard and Fats Domino, whose performances lured them into the realm of secular music. Eventually, The Starlighters evolved into a Rhythm and Blues outfit originally known as The Avons, then The Flames, and became a tightly knit ensemble that showcased their abundant talents as singers, dancers and multi-instrumentalists.
In November 1955, while based in Macon, Georgia, The Flames cut a demo record at radio station WIBB of an original tune titled "Please, Please, Please". While passing through Atlanta, record producer Ralph Bass heard the demo and was so impressed with Brown's impassioned lead and the group's hard harmonies that he immediately drove to Macon and in January, 1956, signed them to King Records, a Cincinnati company for which two of the Flames' favorite groups, The Midnighters and the 5 Royales, were recording. A session was held in Ohio the following week. Released on King's Federal label in March of 1956, "Please, Please, Please" reached #5 on Billboard's R&B chart. Brown's boyhood dream of escaping poverty was not immediately realized, however. Although he and The Flames continued to make records for Federal, it would be nearly three years before they again hit the national charts.
All of Brown's singles over the next two years flopped, as he sought to establish his own style, recording material that was obviously derivative of heroes like Roy Brown, Hank Ballard, Little Richard and Ray Charles. In retrospect, it can be seen that Brown was in the same position as dozens of other R&B one-shots, talented singers in need of better songs, or not fully on the road to a truly original sound. What made Brown succeed where hundreds of others failed was his superhuman determination, working the chitlin circuit to death, sharpening his band, and keeping an eye on new trends. He was on the verge of being dropped from King in late 1958 when his perseverance finally paid off, as "Try Me" became a number one R&B smash and a #48 hit on the Billboard Pop chart. Several follow-ups established him as a regular visitor to the R&B charts. Through gruelling rehearsals and barnstorming one-nighters, Brown developed his band into one of the hottest R&B units in the land. His musicians' precision timing was geared to accent every blood curling scream, every flying split, every knee drop, every one-legged skate, and every shimmy of Brown's stunning array of acrobatics, which be now had become the visual trademark of the group's stage act.
While he continued scoring hit R&B singles during the early 1960s, issued on the King label, Brown came up with the idea that if the hysteria he was generating in person could be captured on an album, people who hadn't seen him yet could at least hear and feel the excitement of him screaming and hollering until his back got soaking wet. King Records was convinced that such an album wouldn't sell, so Brown put up his own money to record a performance at the Apollo Theater in October 1962. Released nearly a year later, "Live At The Apollo" went to #2 on Billboard's album chart, an unprecedented feat for a live R&B album. Radio stations played it with a frequency formerly reserved for singles, and attendance at Brown's concerts mushroomed.
Brown rose to the fore as leader of The James Brown Revue, an entourage complete with emcee, dancers and an untouchable stage band (the J.B.'s). Reportedly sweating off up to seven pounds a night, Brown was a captivating performer who'd incorporate a furious regimen of spins, drops and shtick, such as feigning a heart attack, complete with the ritual donning and doffing of capes and a fevered return to the stage. What Elvis Presley was to Rock 'n' Roll, James Brown became to R&B: a prolific and dominant phenom. Like Presley, he is a three-figure hit maker, with 114 total entries on Billboard's R&B singles charts and 94 that made the Hot 100 singles chart. Over the years, he amassed 800 songs in his repertoire while maintaining a gruelling touring schedule. Recording for the King and Federal labels throughout the '50s and '60s, Brown distilled R&B to its essence on such classic singles like "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" (#8 in 1965), "I Got You (I Feel Good)" (#3 in 1965), "It's A Man's Man's Man's World" (#8 in 1966) and "Cold Sweat" (#7 in 1967). His group, The J.B.s, was anchored by horn players and musical mainstays Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker. Brown also recorded a series of instrumental albums, taking a break from Soul shouting to pursue his prowess as an organist.
Brown had attained the status of a musical and cultural revolutionary, owing to his message of Black pride and self-sufficiency. In the late '60s and early '70s, such message songs as "Say It Loud - I'm Black and I'm Proud" (#10 in 1968) reverberated throughout the Black community, within which he was regarded as a leader and role model. During this time, he began developing a hot Funk sound with young musicians, such as bassist William "Bootsy" Collins, who passed through his ever-evolving band. By the mid-'70s, Brown was beginning to burn out artistically. He seemed shorn of new ideas, was being out gunned on the charts by Disco, and was running into problems with the IRS and his financial empire. There were sporadic hits, and he could always count on enthusiastic live audiences, but by the 1980s, he didn't have a label. With the explosion of Rap however, which frequently sampled vintage JB records, Brown was now hipper than ever. He collaborated with Afrika Bambaataa on the critical smash single "Unity" and re-entered the Top Ten in 1986 with "Living in America" (#4). Rock critics who had always ranked Brown considerably below Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin in the Soul canon, began to re-evaluate his output, particularly his Funk years, sometimes anointing him not just as Soul Brother Number One, but as the most important Black musician of the Rock era.
In 1988, Brown's personal life came crashing down in a well-publicized incident in which he was accused by his wife Adrienne of assault and battery. After a year skirting hazy legal and personal troubles, he led the police on an interstate car chase after allegedly threatening people with a handgun. The episode ended in a six-year prison sentence that many felt excessive. He was paroled after serving two years. Back home, James' troubles continued. He was arrested on October 31st, 1995, when Adrienne called 911 and told deputies that he hit her in the face. This was the third complaint about spousal abuse that she had filed against her husband. He was charged and released on a $940 bond, but in an affidavit dated Nov. 7th, Mrs. Brown said she was injured when she accidentally hit a mirror. Adrienne died of natural causes the following January at a Beverly Hills health care facility, two days after undergoing cosmetic surgery. She was 47.
Although he never made any more important recordings, James Brown continued to perform and release new material like 1998's "I'm Back". His music was probably more popular in the American mainstream than it had been in over twenty years, and not just among young rappers and samplers. For a long time his discography was mostly out of print, with pieces available only on skimpy greatest-hits collections. A series of exceptionally well-packaged reissues on PolyGram changed the situation.
In a career that has spanned over forty years, James Brown amassed an amazing total of 98 entries on Billboard's Top 40 R&B singles charts, a record unsurpassed by any other artist. Seventeen of them reached number one, a feat topped only by Stevie Wonder and Louis Jordan, and equalled only by Aretha Franklin. On the Billboard Hot 100, he charted forty-four Top 40 hits. James Brown's status as The Godfather Of Soul remains undiminished. He picked up a new generation of fans who became familiar with his Funk grooves through their frequent use as samples on Rap records. A charter member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Brown added to his collections of accolades when he received a special lifetime achievement Grammy Award in 1992. In December, 2001, Brown married his fourth wife, Tomi Raye Hynie, who had been one of his backup singers. The couple had a son, James Jr. In mid-December, 2004, James, now 71, underwent successful surgery to treat prostate cancer, after which he made a full recovery and continue touring.
Music fans woke up on Christmas morning, 2006, to hear some shocking news. James Brown had been hospitalized with severe pneumonia on December 24th and died around 1:45 a.m. ET on Christmas day at Emory Crawford Long Hospital in Atlanta, Ga. He was 73. Sadly, lawsuits over his estate and his will continued to appear for several years following his death.