James Brown, Godfather of Soul, dead at 73

James Brown, aka the Godfather of Soul, a longtime friend of Don King who performed at the Ali-Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire, passed away on Monday, Christmas Day, at Emory Crawford Long Hospital in Atlanta. He was 73.

Along with Chuck Berry and Little Richard, Brown was one of three high priests in the church of popular urban black music in the mid-20th century, but where Berry was the father of rock ‘n’ roll and Little Richard was pulling up the roots of r & b, James Brown, with his polyrhythmic complexity, raw vocals, and sui generis dancing, was laying the foundation for everything from funk to disco to hip hop.

“James presented obviously the best grooves,” Public Enemy’s Chuck D told the AP several years ago. “To this day, there has been no one near as funky. No one’s coming even close.”

James Brown was born dirt poor in Barnwell, S.C., in 1933, where he lived in a one room shack in the woods with his parents and too many sibs. When James was four his parents split up and he was passed over to his great aunt Honey Washington, who was the madam of a whore house in Augusta, Georgia. Brown danced for money in the brothel and on the streets. He shined shoes and picked cotton. He also sang in church. “Where I grew up there was no way out, no avenue of escape, so you had to make a way. Mine was to create JAMES BROWN.” But at the age of 15 he got nabbed breaking into a car and was sentenced to between eight to 16 years. Behind bars Brown created and led a prison gospel choir, and he was befriended by a local musician named Bobby Byrd.

Upon James’ release from jail three years later, Byrd brought Brown into his gospel group, the Gospel Starlighters. With James Brown free at last and in the mix, the Gospel Starlighters changed their name to the Famous Flames. They also changed their music’s focus from singing about Jesus to singing about sex.

King Records signed the group in 1956, and four months later “Please, Please, Please,” a quintessential James Brown classic, was in the r & b Top-10. James has been a hit machine/performance artist like none other ever since.

Brown’s offstage life was often more dramatic than his performances with the Fabulous Flames on stages all across the world. There were allegations of Brown abusing drugs and alcohol and his wives over the years. There was also a well-publicized 1988 run-in with the law where Brown, flying high on PCP, carrying a shotgun, with a towel around his waist, invaded an insurance seminar, apparently concerned that someone was using his private bathroom before leading police on a half-hour high-speed chase out of Georgia into South Carolina (it ended when the cops shot out the tires of his truck) that landed Brown in the hoosegow for six years, but that dustup only served to burnish his rep as an outlaw artist to the core.

Brown won Grammys in 1965 and 1987, and was awarded a lifetime achievement Grammy in 1992. He was among the first musicians inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, along with Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, and a handful of other pioneering greats.

James Brown wasn’t being ironic when he told Rolling Stone magazine in 1989, “The music out there is only as good as my last record.”