Splitting his legs, bouncing his knees, shaking his body, profusely sweating and at times seemingly screaming off the top of his lungs – they didn’t call James Brown Mr. Dynamite or The Hardest Working Man In Show Biz for nothing. I was reminded of his incredible performances recently, when my music streaming platform served up one of Brown’s great live albums at the storied Apollo Theater in New York’s Harlem. And voila, an idea for a new blog was triggered!
Brown was born James Joseph Brown on May 3rd, 1933 in Barnwell, S.C. to a 16-year-old mother and a 22-year-old father. The family lived in extreme poverty, and from a young age, Brown essentially took care of himself with hustling to get by. He dropped out of school after sixth grade and began singing at talent shows as a nine-year old. In 1954, Brown joined a gospel group that had been founded by singer Bobby Byrd, which evolved into The Famous Flames. By 1957, they called themselves James Brown and the Famous Flames.
In 1956, The Famous Flames signed a deal with Federal, a Cincinnati-based subsidiary of King Records. In March that year, they released Please Please Please, which eventually became their first hit single reaching no. 6 on the Billboard R&B charts. Co-written by Brown and Flames backing vocalist Johnny Terry, it also was the title track of their debut album from December 1958. A series of follow-up singles went nowhere, and it wasn’t until October 1958 that Brown and his band stroke again with the ballad Try Me – the first of 17 singles topping the R&B chart. According to Wikipedia, Brown has the distinction to be the artist with the most singles on the Billboard Hot 100 without hitting no. 1 – not only do I wonder who comes up with these stats, but I also find this hard to believe, given all the music Brown prolifically released over his 50-year recording career, including so many well-known tunes!
During the late ’60s, Brown started to move away from gospel and soul and became instrumental in shaping funk music. Often referred to as The Godfather of Soul, perhaps a more appropriate title would be “The Godfather of Funk.” In fact, some music critics consider his 1967 tune Cold Sweat to be the first real funk song. Brown continued to record and perform through the 70s, 80s, 90s and early 2000s. He passed away on December 25, 2006 at age 73 from congestive heart failure, resulting from complications of pneumonia.
Let’s hit it with footage from some of Brown’s legendary performances. This clip of Please Please Please is from the T.A.M.I. Show, a concert held in Santa Monica, Calif. on October 28 and 29, 1964. It featured top artists from the U.S. and the U.K., who in addition to James Brown and the Famous Flames included The Beach Boys, Chuck Berry, Gerry & the Pacemakers and The Rolling Stones, among others. The concert was captured in a movie that appeared in December 1964. It’s just mind-boggling to watch Brown in action, repeatedly dropping on his knees and being lifted up by his band mates while seemingly singing himself into a trance-like state.
I Got You (I Feel Good) is one of Brown’s signature tunes. Written by him and first recorded for his 10th studio record Out Of Sight released in September 1964, it also became Brown’s highest charting single on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at no. 3. The following clip apparently is from a concert in Paris, France in 1966.
Another incredible performance happened in Boston on April 5, 1968. Brown’s show at the Boston Garden took place just one day after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Apparently, the mayor had planned to cancel all public events including Brown’s concert, but in the end the local authorities were more concerned a cancellation could trigger unrest and allowed the event to go ahead. Here’s the above noted Try Me, a beautiful soulful tune written by Brown, which like Please Please Please appeared on the debut album. Check out Brown’s moves at around 1:30 minutes into the song. You can literally picture him starting to launch into the moonwalk at any moment!
Next up: A great medley of Cold Sweat and Ride The Pony (Mother Popcorn) from the same 1968 gig in Boston. Cold Sweat was co-written by Brown and the leader of his backing band Alfred “Pee Wee” Ellis. It also became the title track to his 21st studio album released in August 1967. It’s simply impossible to listen to this tune without starting to groove, especially when watching Brown’s dance moves.
A post about James Brown’s live performances wouldn’t be complete without one of his biggest concert staples: Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine. It’s perhaps the ultimate funk tune. First released in July 1970 as a two-part single, Sex Machine was co-written by him; Bobby Byrd, who by then had become the keyboarder of Brown’s new band The J.B.s; and Brown’s recording engineer Ron Lenhoff. The guitar part is performed by Phelps “Catfish” Collins and one of the coolest funk riffs in my book. It’s also propelled by the terrific rhythm section of Phelps’ brother William “Bootsy” Collins on bass and drummer John “Jabo” Starks. The following footage apparently was captured sometime in 1971.
To me James Brown is in the same group of extraordinary artists like Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson who pushed stage performances to a new level. Brown has received many honors, including inductions into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Songwriters Hall of Fame. He’s included at no. 7 in Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. According to the music magazine, Brown is also the most sampled music artist of all time.
Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube