James Brown

James Brown

Synopsis of Pop Music

“Ain’t no drag, Papa’s got a brand new bag…”

There are plenty of pop stars who have a colorful nickname or two, but no one has quite as many as James Brown. The Hardest Working Man In Show Business, Mr. Dynamite, Soul Brother Number One, The Godfather of Soul: these are among the countless names James Brown has gone by during his career. The only thing more amazing than this plethora of names is the fact that Brown has actually earned every one of them. No other artist has done quite as much to shape the sound of r&b, and his track record shows it: Brown has logged an unsurpassed 98 entries in the r&b Top-40 charts since his career began in the mid-1950’s. As he scored hit after hit with oft-sampled classics like “Cold Sweat” and “The Payback,” he became one of the most influential r&b artists of all time.

The James Brown story begins in Georgia. He was born into poverty and often ran into trouble with the law as a young man. Brown found his salvation in music, the one thing that offered him an outlet. He was befriended by soul singer Bobby Byrd, who steered him away from juvenile delinquency and towards the idea of pursuing music as a career. The two formed a gospel group called the Flames and began touring the South as Brown developed a raw, gospel-inspired vocal style that drove r&b fans wild. He successfully translated this sound onto vinyl with his first single, “Please, Please, Please.” This impassioned cry for love crossbred doo-wop with gospel-styled shouting to become a #6 hit on the r&b charts.

James Brown and the Flames became a headline act thanks to the success of “Please, Please, Please.” They threw themselves into a schedule of constant touring as Brown developed a unique performance style full of flashy moves like splits and spins. He also developed a unique theater-styled routine in which he would appear to grow faint during a song as an aide ran onstage with a cape. The aide would wrap him in the cape and begin to lead him offstage as the band continued to crank out their groove. Just as it seemed Brown was going to leave, he’d dash back to the microphone and continue to sing his heart out. This bit of business always drove the crowd wild and soon became one of Brown’s stage trademarks.

On record, James Brown scored a #1 r&b hit in 1958 with “Try Me,” a tender doo-wop ballad. James Brown and the Flames split up shortly after his success, but Brown soldiered on with new musicians. He scored hit after hit on the r&b charts, dividing his time between driving soul tunes like “Think” and ballads like “Bewildered.” He also scored his first pop chart entry in 1963 with the Top-20 hit “Prisoner of Love,” an intense ballad that featured string backing.

Just the same, James Brown knew he could score an even bigger hit in album form if he could translate his powerhouse live show to a vinyl format. The record company didn’t agree, so Brown financed the recording himself and was vindicated when the resulting album, Live At The Apollo, became a massive hit. It hit #2 on the album charts, something previously unheard-of for an r&b album. Meanwhile, James Brown began to experiment with a leaner, more adventurous sound that worked in jazz and Latin elements. The experiments paid off in 1964 with a massive hit called “Out Of Sight.” This Top-30 single boasted a unique arrangement with jazzy bursts of horns and a complex, stop-and-start rhythm.

In 1965, James Brown continued to pursue his new sound and scored even bigger hits. "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," a horn-driven shuffle with a cool, smooth vocal from Brown, became Brown’s first Top-10 hit on the pop charts and also won Brown a Grammy Award for Best R&B Performance. Brown followed this success with an even bigger hit, the #3 pop and #1 r&b smash “I Got You (I Feel Good)”. This classic mixed a frenzied Brown vocal with explosive horns and sudden tempo changes to create a catchy song that seemed to offer a new surprise with each listen. The next year saw another Top-10 pop smash in “It’s A Man’s World,” a string-laden, bluesy ballad with a heartfelt, almost operatic vocal from Brown.

As James Brown’s success level rose, so did his public profile. In addition to his endless touring, he began making regular appearance on television shows and in the occasional film. He also began to appear as a representative of the African-American community with various politicians, including a notable meeting with Vice President Hubert Humphrey. On record, he continued to mix stripped-down instrumentation with jazzy arrangements, hitting a new peak in 1967 with “Cold Sweat.” This classic paired an intense, hard groove with a furious vocal from Brown to become a #1 r&b and #7 pop hit. Brown also began to represent his new political consciousness in his music with hits like “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud).”

In 1969, Brown found himself in a predicament when his band decided to walk out after a pay dispute. Brown didn’t skip a beat as he recruited a Cincinnati group called the Persuaders and taught them his act. This unit contained future Parliament bass wizard Bootsy Collins, and their youthful exuberance inspired Brown to pursue the next step in his musical development. They began creating a heavier new sound that accentuated electric guitar and fierce, hypnotic bass grooves. This new style resulted in big hits like “Get Up (I Feel Like Being A Sex Machine),” “Soul Power” and “Super Bad.” These instant classics reaffirmed Brown’s status as an innovator and defined a new sound that would soon be called ‘funk.’

Brown continued to develop his funk sound throughout the early 1970’s with classics like “Make It Funky,” “Get On The Good Foot” and “Hot Pants.” The sound that Brown carved out with these classics was earthy and beat heavy, a complete about-face from his smooth mid-1960’s sound. It was also an ideal background sound for the black action films that were popular at the time and this led to Brown's doing the scores for two such films, Black Caesar and Slaughter’s Big Rip Off. When the producers of Hell Up In Harlem rejected the guitar-driven groove that Brown proposed as a theme song for their film, he released it as a single. It was called “The Payback,” and it became another #1 r&b smash for Brown. This influential song also became the centerpiece and title track for one of his finest albums.

By the mid 1970’s, the smooth strains of disco were crowding out funk music in both r&b and pop music. However, James Brown resisted the urge to ‘go disco’ and kept cranking out funk classics left and right. Some of the best and biggest hits from this era include the swinging “Get Up Offa That Thing” and the relentless, hard-grooving “Body Heat.” As the decade ended, Brown began concentrating more effort on touring and less on recording but would still score occasional hits like the slick, bass-driven “It’s Too Funky In Here.”

In 1980, James Brown experienced a new resurgence of popularity thanks to his appearance in the hit movie The Blues Brothers. In this comedy favorite, Brown played Reverend James and sang the gospel classic “The Old Landmark” as he directed a gospel choir through a feverish display of song and dance. Brown also appeared as himself in Doctor Detroit and Rocky IV. In the latter film, he performed a song called “Living In America.” This patriotic classic harkened back to the sound of “I Feel Good” (even quoting it at the end) and became Brown’s biggest hit in years, peaking at #4 on the pop charts.

In 1988, James Brown’s star dimmed a bit when an altercation with the police led to Brown receiving a six-year prison sentence. Despite the fact that he could not record or tour, he continued to be an influence on r&b music thanks to the frequent sampling of his recordings by hip-hop artists like Eric B. and Rakim. After serving two years of his sentence, Brown was paroled and returned to music. Since then, he has released the occasional album like I’m Back but has mainly concentrated on touring.

Over forty years after achieving fame, James Brown’s touring show is still praised around the world as one of the finest concert acts a music fan can see. Meanwhile, his many classic recordings are frequently reissued and have become necessities for the collection of any true r&b fan. This continued popularity proves that James Brown’s gift for soulful sounds is truly timeless.

Artist Release History

1959 - Please, Please, Please
1959 - Try Me!
1960 - Think
1961 - The Always Amazing James Brown
1961 - Night Train
1962 - Shout & Shimmy
1962 - Tours The U.S.A.
1962 - Jump Around
1963 - Live At The Apollo
1963 - Prisoner Of Love
1964 - Pure Dynamite! Live At The Royal
1964 - Showtime
1964 - Out Of Sight
1964 - Grits And Soul
1964 - Unbeatable James Brown
1965 - Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag
1965 - James Brown Plays James Brown: Yesterday and Today
1966 - I Got You (I Feel Good)
1966 - James Brown Plays New Breed
1966 - It’s A Man’s Man’s World
1966 - Handful Of Soul
1966 - Mighty Instrumentals
1966 - Christmas Song
1967 - Sings Raw Soul
1967 - Live At The Garden
1967 - Plays The Real Thing
1967 - Cold Sweat
1967 - Presenting The James Brown Show
1968 - I Can’t Stand Myself When You Touch Me
1968 - I Got The Feelin’
1968 - James Brown Plays Nothing But Soul
1968 - Live At The Apollo 1968
1968 - James Brown Sings Out Of Sight
1968 - James Brown Presents His Show Of Tomorrow
1968 - Soul Party
1968 - A Soulful Christmas
1968 - Thinking About Little Willie/A Few Nice Thoughts
1969 - Say It Loud, I’m Black And I’m Proud
1969 - Getting’ Down To It
1969 - It’s A Mother
1969 - The Popcorn
1970 - Ain’t It Funky
1970 - Soul On Top
1970 - It’s A New Day So Let A Man Come In
1970 - Sex Machine
1970 - Hey America
1971 - Sho Is Funky Down Here
1971 - Hot Pants
1971 - Revolution Of The Mind
1971 - Super Bad
1971 - Soul Brother No. 1
1972 - There It Is
1972 - Get On The Good Foot
1972 - Soul Classics (compilation)
1973 - Black Caesar
1973 - Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off
1973 - The Payback
1973 - Soul Classics, Vol. 2 (compilation)
1973 - Soul Classics, Vol. 3 (compilation)
1974 - Hell
1975 - Reality
1975 - Sex Machine Today
1975 - Everybody’s Doin’ The Hustle And Dead On The Double Bump
1976 - Get Up Offa That Thing
1976 - Bodyheat
1976 - Hot
1977 - Mutha’s Nature
1977 - Strangers
1977 - Solid Gold: Thirty Golden Hits
1978 - Jam/1980’s
1978 - For Goodness Sakes, Take A Look At Those Cakes
1978 - Fabulous James Brown (compilation)
1979 - The Original Disco Man
1980 - People
1980 - Hot On The One
1980 - Soul Syndrome
1981 - Nonstop!
1981 - The Third Coming
1981 - Live In New York
1981 - Special
1981 - Can Your Heart Stand It!
1981 - The Best of James Brown
1982 - Mean On The Scene
1982 - James Brown
1983 - Bring It On
1984 - The Federal Years, Part 1 (compilation)
1984 - The Federal Years, Part 2 (compilation)
1984 - Ain’t That A Groove: 1966-1969 (compilation)
1984 - The Roots Of A Revolution (compilation)
1984 - Doing It To Death 1970-1973 (compilation)
1985 - Live In Concert
1985 - Live At The Apollo 2, Part One
1985 - Live At The Apollo 2, Part Two
1985 - The CD of JB (compilation)
1985 - Dead On The Heavy Funk 1974-1976 (compilation)
1985 - Greatest Hits
1986 - Gravity
1986 - In The Jungle Groove (compilation)
1986 - James Brown’s Funky People (compilation)
1987 - The CD of JB II (compilation)
1988 - I’m Real
1988 - James Brown’s Funky People, Part Two (compilation)
1988 - Santa’s Got A Brand New Bag
1988 - Motherlode (compilation)
1989 - Tribute
1989 - Soul Session Live
1990 - Soul Jubilee
1991 - Love Over-Due
1991 - Star Time
1991 - Greatest Hits Live
1991 - 20 All-Time Greatest Hits
1991 - Soul’s Alive
1991 - Messing With The Blues (compilation)
1992 - Love Peace Power (live)
1992 - Spank
1992 - Universal James
1992 - The Greatest Hits Of The Fourth Decade
1992 - Is Back
1993 - Soul Pride: The Instrumentals (compilation)
1994 - At Studio 54 (live)
1994 - Turn It Loose
1995 - Christmas
1995 - Live
1995 - Living In America
1995 - Live At The Apollo
1995 - James Brown’s Funky Christmas (compilation)
1995 - Tell Me What You’re Gonna Do
1995 - 70’s Funk Classics (compilation)
1996 - Try Me
1996 - Hookedonbrown (compilation)
1996 - Foundations Of Funk (compilation)
1996 - Funk Power 1970: A Brand New thing (compilation)
1996 - Make It Funky: The Big Payback 1971-1975 (compilation)
1996 - 40th Anniversary Collection
1997 - James Brown Live
1998 - Dead On The Heavy Funk: 1975-1983 (compilation)
1998 - Say It Live and Loud: Live In Dallas 1968
1998 - I’m Back
1999 - On Stage (live)
1999 - the Merry Christmas Album
1999 - 20th Century Masters – The Millennium Collection (compilation)
2000 - Center Stage: Live
2000 - James Brown’s Funky People, Part Three (compilation)
2000 - Ballads (compilation)

Pop Sub Categories


Essential Music Albums

40th Anniversary Collection (Uni/A&M)

Band Members

James Brown vocals, keyboards

Other Pop Music Links