Let's Do It on the One!
On October 24, 1962 at the Apollo Theatre in New York City, James Brown spent his own money - $5,700 - to pay for the recording of a live performance that his recording company refused to pay for. The resulting album, James Brown: Live at the Apollo sold a million copies and stayed on the rhythm and blues chart for 66 weeks. Brown had rented the Apollo for one full week, a procedure called four-walling, which meant he had to pay for everything, including the security and popcorn sales. Brown did this so the promoters, or "the Man" as he called them, wouldn't reap all the profits. Unfortunately, Brown didn't make much money. But, a few months later, Brown did the same thing and this time made lots of money!
That was James Brown, always doing something nobody had done before.
James Brown was born on May 3, 1933. At one point, the attending doctors pronounced the infant dead. Brown's mother Susie left young James when he was only four, and then his father had to raise him.
As a kid, Brown would dance for pennies and shine shoes for nickels. His education ended at 10. Then, at the age of 12, Brown formed a gospel group. Along the way, Brown learned to play harmonica, guitar, piano and drums.
In 1949, at the age of 16, Brown was arrested for theft - stealing hubcaps and the like - and sentenced to three and a half years at the Alto Reform School in Toccoa, Georgia. While incarcerated, Brown did lots of singing and dancing, acquiring the nickname Music Box.
Once released from the junior joint two years later, Brown, while trying to make it to the Major Leagues as a pitcher, married Velma Warren in 1953. (They eventually had three boys.) But when Brown hurt his knee and his back he had to abandon his baseball aspirations.
Then Brown joined Bobby Byrd's Ever Ready Gospel Singers, which soon expanded its repertoire to rhythm and blues.
Brown and the band eventually hit the so-called Chitlin Circuit in the South. One night in Toccoa, Georgia, R&B star Little Richard saw the group perform and urged them to move to Macon, Richard's home base. Bobby Byrd, agreeing to the move, then changed the name of the group to the Famous Flames.
While on the Chitlin Circuit, which had a lawless Wild West feel about it, Brown kept a list of white promoters who wouldn't book him on an integrated card and later refused to allow any of them to book his shows. Brown wrote, "In those days you didn't dare confront them (white people) directly, because it meant someone was going to die and that someone was likely to have dark skin."
(All quotes in this article come from James Brown's autobiography I Feel Good: A Memoir of a Life of Soul, published in 2005.)
Brown was inspired by artists such as saxophonist/arranger/lyricist Louis Jordan, who would play while a pretty woman sat atop a piano. He was also influenced by comic books, tough guy actors such as James Cagney and Robert Blake, and the professional wrestler Gorgeous George, who carried his signature towel, which Brown, imitating, replaced with his famous cape.
Using all that he learned, Brown's performances were a verve-filled, sweat-drenched spectacle of him screaming, squealing and howling, while doing jumps, spins, splits and various dance steps such as the "mashed potato," all of which drove audiences wild with enthusiasm. At times, Brown used his renowned cape routine, where the MC, often Danny Ray, would drape the cape over Brown's shoulders as he walked back and forth, tearfully lamenting his lost love; then Brown would fling away the cape and bolt back to the microphone and sing some more.
By the middle 1950s, the group had become known as James Brown and the Famous Flames. In early 1956, the group was signed to a recording contract with King Records. Their first single was "Please Please Please," which quickly shot to number five on the R&B chart.
"Please" came out about the same time as Elvis Presley's "Hound Dog." About Elvis, Brown wrote, "I loved Elvis. He was a friend of mine, even though I knew he had copied about 75 per cent of what he did from me: going with the gospel-type sound in ‘Heartbreak Hotel,' to the hip-swiveling dancing, to the jumpsuits, right down to the cape, which I have to say flattered me so very much."
Brown said that Elvis never tired of discussing gospel music and, at times, they sang it together. Elvis also wanted to learn to sing Brown's style of soul music, which he eventually did, performing it before small audiences.
Brown's "Try Me" came out in 1958. It was the first of 17 chart topping R&B singles.
In 1959, Brown changed managers and became a solo act. His first gig as such was at the Apollo Theatre in New York City.
Brown said that publishing rights were where the big money was in the music business. But in the late 1950s disk jockeys such as Alan Freed got most of that. Brown wrote, "And a lot of the so-called media heroes, including the DJs - the trusted parent-substitute ‘friends' of the teenagers who claimed to understand kids the way their folks didn't - were the biggest rip-off artists. They'd hire us to play shows at the holidays, eight or nine continual rotations, around the clock, with a cheap movie in between, pulling in millions at the box office and paying us next to nothing for it."
However, in defense of Alan Freed, Brown noted, "But under the umbrella of Alan Freed, to the listeners it all became more or less the same thing: rock and roll. He took a lot of different voices of the pop culture and brought them together on one wave-length, out of which came a stronger sense of sound that couldn't have been accomplished by the artists individually. And that just can't be overlooked."
Brown wrote that the essence of his soul music was on the upbeat, the ONE and the THREE (of four beats per measure,) as opposed to the downbeat on the TWO and FOUR used in most blues music. About this, Brown penned, "The upbeat is rich. The downbeat is poor." Brown had grown up poor and wanted no part of any music that expressed it. He continued, "The One was not just a new kind of beat; it was a statement of race, of force, of stature, of stride. It was the aural equivalent of standing tall and saying Here I am, of marching with strength rather than tiptoeing with timidity."
Brown's mega hit "I Feel Good" contained elements of the "One" and came to exemplify the so-called James Brown sound. It took Brown many months to produce the song because he had to get the beat just right - DUM dum DA dum - before he went to the recording studio.
In November 1964, Brown performed at the TAMI show in the Santa Monica Civic High School Auditorium. The performance was filmed off TV cameras or kinescoped, as they called it. The Rolling Stones were to appear after Brown, but after lead singer Mick Jagger saw Brown's spell-binding act, particularly his unbelievable rendition of "Please Please Please" - he changed the band's order of appearance. It seemed nobody wanted to follow James Brown!
At mid decade, Brown released the decidedly funky "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." This revolutionary tune had no melody, just plenty of beat, 4/4 time and two chords. Brown didn't even know what the words meant. But he knew what the music meant: Funk it! In addition, "Cold Sweat" was a decidedly funky tune that came out about the same time.
Brown wrote that he invented funk about 1965. He pointed out that funk is similar to soul because both came from the black rural South, where its feeling and inspiration were born. And both had, of course, the emphasis on the "One," as Brown referred to it. This music was indeed "Papa's new bag."
In late 1965, Brown divorced his first wife after 13 years of marriage. While on tour in 1966, he met Deidre Jenkins, who soon became his second wife. Deidre eventually gave Brown two daughters.
In November 1967, Brown purchased radio station WGYW in Knoxville, Tennessee. The call letters were changed to WJBE, signifying Brown's initials. The station broadcast a rhythm and blues format with the slogan: "WJBE 1430 Raw Soul."
At the time, a joke going around went like this: "Why is James Brown like a tampon?" Answer: "They're both uptight and out of sight!"
About this time, Brown became involved in issues relating to the black experience in America. He performed for free to support the March Against Fear, an organized reaction to the shooting of civil rights activist James Meredith, the first black student admitted to the University of Mississippi back in 1962. Brown also created a series of scholarship funds for poor black kids. Additionally, he donated to charities such as the Congress of Racial Equality.
After the Assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968, Brown urged the black community to stay calm and not commit acts of violence. At a concert shortly after King's death, he told an audience of mostly black people: "Let's not do anything to dishonor Dr. King. You kids, especially, I want you to stay home tonight and think about what Dr. King stood for. Don't just react in a way that's going to destroy your community." In a similar vein, he once told black activist H. Rap Brown, "I'm not going to tell anybody to go pick up a gun."
Just a month later, Brown took a USO tour through Vietnam, where the war was raging. Brown thought this move, in general, was not popular with black leaders; some thought he was being an Uncle Tom. Brown told a journalist, "No one who serves his president and entertains his country's troops can be an Uncle Tom. Unless a man is willing to fight for his country he has nothing else to fight for, and those men deserve to know we are thinking of them back home, and supporting them."
After Brown's tour in Vietnam, he recorded the anthem, "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud." Brown called the song a "wake-up call" for the black community. Brown said that the white community took the song the wrong way. "They found it hostile and provocative," he wrote, "and used it as proof that even though I had endorsed a moderate for president (Hubert Humphrey), I had turned militant. Of course I hadn't at all. Just the opposite was true. The song was meant as my rallying cry for peaceful self-pride."
Around 1970, Brown left King Records and signed with Polydor, an international company. Unfortunately, Brown’s relationship with the company didn’t go well. His first album with Polydor was Hot Pants. Brown thought he had creative control of his works with the company, but Polydor’s executives began remixing his records when they decided they hadn’t sold as well as they would have liked. Brown also suspected that the company wasn’t paying him all the money they owed him.
While creating the music for Black Caesar, labeled as a “blaxploitation” film about the black mafia, somebody called Brown the “Godfather of Soul,” and the nickname stuck. Brown had many other nicknames, including “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business” and “Soul Brother Number One.”
Then tragedy struck the life of James Brown. In June 1973, Brown’s son Teddy, lead singer of the R&B group Teddy Brown and the Torches, was killed in an auto accident. Teddy and two other men had been drinking heavily and the driver had fallen asleep at the wheel, causing the accident. Brown was devastated. His chip off the old block was gone.
During the so-called Decade of Disco, Brown recorded in 1975 what he considered the first disco tune, “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a Sex Machine).” He said the song became part of every hip DJ’s play list. Ironically, many critics thought disco ended Brown’s career. But he proved them wrong.
Then Brown got into trouble with IRS. The federal agency claimed that Brown owed $4 million in taxes. It attached his bank account, took away his radio stations, his private jet and one of his homes.
This trouble led in part to the end of Brown’s second marriage.
Seemingly in constant trouble because of legal actions of one sort or another, Brown needed the counsel of the famous attorney William Kunstler, who had defended the notorious Chicago Seven, among others. Nearly broke, Brown had to play in small clubs that could barely seat a hundred people. It appeared Brown was re-starting his career at the bottom.
Enter actors Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi who offered Brown a part in their new movie, The Blues Brothers. In the film, Brown plays a gospel preacher who inspires the congregation, as well as the Blues Brothers, who then realize they are on a mission from God. Brown also began appearing on TV shows such as Saturday Night Live, Tomorrow and the Mike Douglas Show.
In 1985, Brown left Polydor and signed with the Scotti Brothers, Johnnie and Vin and their label, a subsidiary of CBS. Later that year, Brown appeared in the movie Rocky IV, in which he introduces a new song “Living in America.” Brown thought the song was an anthem for the 1980s.
Even though Brown’s career was on the upswing, Brown began drinking heavily and, for the first time, began using hard drugs. In December 1988, Brown drove his pickup truck while intoxicated on PCP. When stopped by the police, Brown said the police, after talking to him, began firing bullets into his vehicle. Afraid for his life, Brown sped away in the truck and crashed it. He was given a six-year sentence in the Georgia State Penitentiary. Brown served 2.5 years and was paroled.
Two years after leaving prison, tragedy once again struck the life of James Brown when his third wife, Adrianne Rodriguez, died while having cosmetic surgery. Their marriage had been a tempestuous one, judging from the numerous times Brown was arrested for committing acts of domestic violence against Adrianne.
During the 1980s and ‘90s many people gravitated toward rap music or hip-hop. But Brown had mixed feelings about the genre. He liked the power in it but not the bad language and anti-female imagery. Brown also thought the Federal Communications Commission allowed rap music to be played so that black people could discredit themselves. “Listen to your Godfather!” he wanted to tell black people.
Nevertheless, in 1988 Brown worked with the production team on the album I’m Real, which generated the hip-hop hit single “Static.” And the drum break for a version of Brown’s 1969 hit “Give It Up Or Turnit A Loose” became a kind of national anthem for hip-hop.
In the early 21st century, Brown, having gotten over the death of his third wife, went looking for another one. He met chanteuse Tomi Rae Hynie, who had a Janis Joplin tribute act going in Las Vegas. Although Tomi Rae was 30 to 40 years younger than Brown, they still found enough common ground to fall in love and get married.
In the beginning of 2003, Brown temporarily separated from Tomi Rae and, about the same time, developed diabetes. Brown then worked hard to lose weight and exercise regularly and get down to what he called fighting weight.
In December 2003, Brown was given a lifetime achievement award by the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C. And, in 2004, Rolling Stone magazine voted Brown number seven on its list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.
About the importance of music, Brown wrote, “The world is still at war and there are strong, sometimes hostile political feelings in the air. However, there is one thing that remains as positive as ever, something that I know unifies people everywhere and can possibly even save this planet. That thing is music. Music remains the mother of the children of the world.”
At the end of Brown’s autobiography, he wrote, “So get up with me and let’s all hit it on the ‘One’!”
Considering the spirit, courage and peace-loving nature of James Brown, he probably had the “One” in mind when he passed away with pneumonia-induced, congestive heart failure on December 25, 2006.
Please click on the link below and listen to James Brown's funk:
Lots of James Brown . . .
© 2008 Kelley Marks
Kelley Marks (author) from Sacramento, California on May 30, 2012:
Thanks for the comment, Carlos Catatonia, and yes I do love James Brown, the Godfather of Soul. Hey, somebody finally left a comment for this hub - I thought it would never happen! Later!
Carlos Catatonia from new orleans, louisiana on May 30, 2012:
This was extremely informative....you must really like James Brown because most of this isn't common knowledge. I am glad you wrote this. Vote up