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James Brown Part 1

Harlem 1979 NYC

No story about soul would be complete or even recognisable without the presence of James Brown. While the man will need no introduction to most, being known for the hits “I Got You (I Feel Good)”, “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag”, and “Get up Offa That Thing” among countless others, there is far more to the life and career of this extraordinary man.

Born in South Carolina in 1933, and raised in Augusta, Georgia from the age of 5, Brown sung from an early age, appearing in talent shows and entertaining troops during the Second World War. James Brown’s first inspiration was Louis Jordan, and he became entranced after hearing his rendition of the song “Caldonia”. The first group that Brown formed was a gospel quartet in the juvenile detention centre that he was detained in for robbery at the age of 16.

Upon his release, James Brown became friends with another musician, Bobby Byrd, who was to change the course of his life. Brown joined Byrd’s group which eventually became known as The Flames, and soon took over as its main vocalist. After encouragement and help from Little Richard, the band recorded its first single “Please, Please, Please”, which got them a deal with King Records’ subsidiary Federal, who issued a re-recorded version of the song. The single became an R&B hit, the first of many for James Brown, but the last with his current band. Following this, Brown attained new management, and changed the group’s name to James Brown and The Famous Flames, ensuring that audiences would be familiar with the man performing on the records.

Stylistically, James Brown’s initial sound was inspired by similar R&B groups of the 1950s, such as Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, but this changed as his band was unable to secure many hits with this sound. With the Famous Flames, James Brown joined forces once again with the man that had introduced him to his initial band, Bobby Byrd, and began issuing more material. Apart from the recordings issued under his name with the Famous Flames, Brown also began to make recordings of his band by themselves, in different combinations and under different names. This prolific behaviour was one that would continue throughout the years and would serve as a model for his commercial and critical success. The recordings made at this time produced numerous hits, beginning with “Try Me”. This convinced his label to move them to their primary imprint, King, which provided Brown with increased financial and creative support.

This period was also marked by live appearances opening for Brown’s idols such as Little Willie John, and even recordings made for other labels under pseudonyms. In the early 1960s, James Brown began to ascend into the mainstream from appealing only to R&B audiences. His first hit in the Billboard Hot 100 top 40 was “Night Train”, released in 1962, followed by several more hit singles that year. This led to Brown’s idea of a live album, recorded at the Apollo and released on King. The idea was not initially supported by Syd Nathan, the label’s boss, as live albums usually did not perform well, but Brown managed to convince him and financed the performance himself. The album was released as “Live at The Apollo” in 1963, and did extraordinarily well, reaching number 2 on the Top LP charts.

In the mid 1960s, Brown started his own label, Try Me Records, and began a production company with Bobby Byrd, Fair Deal. This angered King, which took legal action against Brown and prevented him from releasing any singles on Smash, the label that was linked to his new production company. In 1964, James Brown and the Famous Flames also appeared on the T.A.M.I. Show live concert film, appearing before the Rolling Stones and delivering a performance that blew audiences away with its energy and choreographed dancing.

1965 was a crucial year for James Brown, as he released “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” and numerous other hit singles. This period marked a significant change in what Brown was doing musically when compared to his contemporaries. “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” is widely considered to be the first ever Funk song released, and indicated the further direction that James Brown’s style and sound was about to take.

The “Live at The Apollo” album and the singles that followed it sparked an enormous wave in the world of aspiring musicians, especially around the United States. Not only did the type of music that James Brown made and the energy he transmitted influence the majority of soul and R&B bands that were making music around the same time, his music also entered the homes of largely white areas of the USA and provided a new wave of inspiration. Rock bands, as they would come to be defined, were hugely inspired by Brown’s music, and musicians started to meld their roots in Rock n’ Roll with Soul and Funk music. Bands who could said to have owed a debt to James Brown include the Kingsmen, Them (Van Morrisson), The McCoys, Mitch Ryder and The Detroit Wheels, MC5, Led Zeppelin and numerous other bands that emerged from the 1960s and 1970s.

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