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Last Updated: Monday, 25 December 2006, 08:19 GMT
Obituary: James Brown

James Brown on stage in 2000
Brown was the self-confessed "Godfather of Soul"

When James Brown styled himself Soul Brother Number One, for once, this was no idle showbusiness exaggeration. His influence on popular music was, quite simply, enormous.

He transformed gospel music into rhythm and blues, and soul music into his own creation - funk - with its driving rhythms and insistent beat.

His performances remain unsurpassed for their urgency of expression and raw physicality, influencing later white rockers like Mick Jagger and Iggy Pop.

Born James Joe Brown Junior in 1933 in a one-room shack in the backwoods of South Carolina, by the age of seven he was boarding at a brothel in Augusta, Georgia.

Delighted and outraged audiences

He helped to pay the rent by shining shoes and tap-dancing in the streets.

Nine years later he was harshly punished for trying to steal a car. Sent to prison for between eight and 16 years, he eventually served only three years and a day.

James Brown on the stage in the 1960s
Brown was a charismatic frontman
On his release, he joined a gospel group. While pursuing a promising but ultimately abortive career as a semi-professional boxer, he rose to become the leader of the James Brown Revue.

Audiences were delighted and outraged by the group's tight R&B sound, fronted by the charismatic Brown, whose stage antics caused him to shed up to seven pounds a night.

In 1956, Brown wrote the song Please, Please, Please. It sold one million copies and propelled the singer to stardom.

Other hits followed as Brown worked up to 350 nights a year, earning himself another reputation, as the hardest-working man in showbusiness.

Mould-breaking show

Though the financial returns were scant - Brown and his band members earned a derisory $150 each for Please Please Please - he refused to compromise on the quality of his performances.

His reason was simple: "When you're on stage, the people who paid money to get in are the boss, even if it cost them only a quarter. You're working for them."

The success: James Brown in the 1970s
The success: James Brown in the 1970s
He treated his band like an army, imposing fines for lateness, scruffy costumes and poor playing. By the early 1960s his growing reputation saw him play to packed crowds at the Mecca of black music, Harlem's Apollo Theatre.

In 1961, realising that the essence of his music could only be captured live, Brown personally financed the recording of an album at the theatre.

The result, the mould-breaking James Brown Show Live at the Apollo, was a sensation. Establishing his reputation throughout the United States, it remains one of the most critically-acclaimed live albums ever recorded.

His status was enhanced by a succession of worldwide hits like Papa's Got a Brand New Bag, I Got You (I Feel Good) and Get Up (I Feel Like Being a Sex Machine).

Presidential thanks

Artistically, James Brown was breaking new ground with a whole new musical form, funk.

Songs like Cold Sweat, where the brass section and guitars drove the rhythm, exemplified the stylistic change which Brown wrought.

Success brought great wealth. James Brown owned radio stations, fast food restaurants and a private jet.

He embraced "black capitalism" even before the phrase was coined, urging his fellow countrypeople to live the American Dream.

The prisoner: James Brown in jail in the late 1980s
The prisoner: In jail in the late 1980s
He gave back, too, sponsoring food stamps for the poor and giving money and land to those in need, especially in Africa.

Some radicals, though, criticised him for his patriotism and he received death threats after playing to US troops in Vietnam.

Such was James Brown's influence that when Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, the order went out to broadcast Brown's show in Boston live across the United States.

Punctuated by his pleas for calm, the show helped to stem the tide of anger and Brown earned the personal thanks of President Lyndon Johnson.

Living in America

The 1970s were bad times for James Brown. His son Teddy died in a car accident, he himself was beset by tax problems and disco music threatened to eclipse his career.

Sheer hard work on the club circuit brought him back from the brink. A cameo role as a singing preacher in the cult 1980 film The Blues Brothers brought his music to another generation.

James Brown performing in 1999
Brown was still strutting in his sixties
His song Living in America, a paean to the American Dream, was chosen as the theme music to Rocky IV and James Brown was among the first group of inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

But James Brown's capacity for self-destruction was a constant danger. In 1988 an incident with a shotgun led to a high-speed police chase and he spent two-and-a-half years in jail.

His release coincided with a huge upswell in rap and hip-hop music, both of which borrowed freely from Brown's work. His role as a pivotal musical innovator was recognised as never before.

Even with his faults, James Brown was an important role model to a whole generation of African Americans.

Triumphing over poverty and racism, his outlook is best summed up by the title of one of his greatest hits - Say it Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud.


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