James Brown, born on May 3, 1933, was an American singer, composer, dancer, musician, record producer, and bandleader. He’s known as the ‘Godfather of Soul’ since he is the developer of funk music and a prominent performer in 20th-century popular songs and dance. He impacted the development of various music genres throughout his 50-year career. His unique voice and musical approach inspired many musicians. Brown expressed his social activism through songs like ‘America is My Home’ and ‘Black and Proud,’ advocating for the benefits of education for kids.
On May 3, 1933, James Joseph Brown was born in a one-room house in the woods of Barnwell, South Carolina, just east of the Georgia border. His parents divorced when he was a child, and his father was an alcoholic and an aggressive man who once nearly killed his wife in a rage. Brown was four years old when she left the household. The young man wore rags and walked around barefoot as he grew older. When he was four, Brown was moved to Augusta, Georgia, to live with his Aunt Honey, a brothel mistress. During the Great Depression, Brown grew up in terrible poverty, working whatever side jobs he could find for cents on the dollar. He picked cotton, washed automobiles, and shined shoes for the soldiers at neighboring Fort Gordon.
Brown dropped out of school at 12 due to limited clothing and worked full-time at various random jobs. Brown turned to religion and music to escape the hard realities of having to grow up Black in the rural South. He learned to sing in the church choir, where he honed his powerful and expressive voice. Brown, however, became involved in crime as a teen. He was caught stealing a car at 16 and sentenced to three years in prison. Brown formed and managed a prison choir while jailed. Brown met Bobby Byrd, an emerging R&B singer, and pianist, while detained, and the two formed a bond and musical partnership that would go on to become one of the most successful in music history. Brown, who had always been a gifted athlete, returned to sports after his release from prison in 1953, focusing on boxing and semi-professional baseball for the next two years.
Then, in 1955, Byrd invited Brown to join his R&B vocal group, the Gospel Starlighters, which was rebranded as the Famous Flames, and then traveled to Macon, Georgia, where they debuted at local nightclubs. Their band made a demo recording of the song ‘Please, Please, Please’ in 1956 and presented it to Ralph Bass, a King Records talent agent. Bass was blown away by the piece, particularly Brown’s impassioned and soulful crooning. He signed the band to a record deal, and the song peaked at number six on the R&B charts just a few months later.
Brown insisted on funding an album of his band’s musical concert at the Apollo Theater in 1962 after he’d had several hits, including ‘Night Train’ and ‘I’ll Go Crazy.’ King Records decided to release the album despite doubts about its success. Still, then it was a massive success. Brown began dedicating even more time to societal issues in the mid-1960s. He recorded ‘Don’t Be a Dropout’ in 1966, an expressive and passionate call to the Black community to put more emphasis on education. During the mid-1960s, Brown recorded many of his most famous and enduring singles, ‘Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,’ being hailed as the first song of a new genre, funk, a branch of soul, and a progenitor of hip-hop. Brown consistently performed endlessly throughout the 1970s, recording several more hits, including the “Sex Machine” album. Although his career stalled in the late 1970s due to financial constraints and the emergence of disco, he made a brilliant comeback with a wide-ranging performance in the classic 1980 film “The Blues Brothers.” His biggest hit in decades was the 1985 song ‘Living in America,’ which was used notably in “Rocky IV.”
Sadly, after being one of the first artists honored into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, the year of its founding in the late 1980s, Brown descended into drug abuse and depression. In 1988, he invaded an insurance seminar high on PCP and armed with a shotgun before leading cops on a half-hour car chase from Augusta, Georgia, to South Carolina. The cops had to shoot out Brown’s tires to end the hunt. Brown was imprisoned for 15 months due to the incident before being granted parole in 1991. In 1998, he had another encounter with the law after firing a gun and leading police on another car chase. He entered a three-month drug rehabilitation program after the incident.
Brown was arrested again in 2004 on domestic abuse allegations against his wife Hynie, although claiming in a statement that he would never harm her. Brown died on December 25, 2006, at the age of 73, after a week-long struggle with pneumonia. Brown was in a 24 karat gold casket, brought through the streets of New York in a glass-encased carriage carried by white horses. The Apollo Theater in New York and the James Brown Arena in Georgia both hosted public memorial ceremonies for him. In South Carolina, a private ceremony was held. Aside from millions of supporters, Michael Jackson, Little Richard, and Stevie Wonder were among the superstars that came to pay respect to ‘Soul Brother No. 1.’
Brown accepts Bobby Byrd’s invitation to join the Gospel Starlighters.
He wins ‘Best Rhythm & Blues Recording’ for ‘Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.’
While dealing with issues that lead to his arrest, Brown turns to drug addiction and falls into depression.
He wins a star on the Walk of Fame at 1501 Vine Street.
At the BET Awards, Michael Jackson surprises James Brown with a Lifetime Achievement Award.
Brown is first in the Top 500 Artists, from the analysis of the Billboard R&B Charts from 1942 to 2010.
Why We Love James Brown
He was a peacemaker
With riots spreading across the country the day after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, Brown delivered a televised live concert in Boston on April 5, 1968, to avoid rioting there. His efforts were successful, as young Bostonians stayed at home to watch the event on television, and the city avoided bloodshed.
He valued education
The ‘I Feel Good Trust’ received the majority of Brown’s estate. Since his will has not been handled yet, no scholarships have been awarded since his death.
He was hardworking
Brown, known as the “Hardest-Working Man in Show Business,” was still touring and performing a few weeks before his death. When he went in for dental implants, his dentist noticed he looked ill and suggested seeing a doctor. Brown died in the hospital two days later, on December 25, 2006, from pneumonia and heart failure.
5 Surprising Facts
Brown took a variety of jobs
He picked cotton and coal, was a shoeshine, danced, and sang to boost his aunt’s business.
He had a tattoo
In 1991, Brown had his brows tattooed.
Michael Jackson was his fan
Jackson, through tears, stated that Brown was the entertainer he looked up to as a child.
Brown couldn't read music sheets
He could tell, however, when one of his bandmates played a wrong note.
Music was not his passion
He wanted to be a professional baseball player or a boxer when he was little.
James Brown FAQs
Was James Brown married at the time of his death?
Brown married for the fourth and final time to Tomi Rae Hynie.
Did James Brown own his publishing?
Inaudible Productions manages Brown’s music publishing catalog licensing.
How many number one hits does James Brown have?
There have been 17 number one hits and more than 50 million records sold.
James Brown’s birthday dates