James Brown (born May 3, 1928) is one of the most important figures in African American music, pioneering in rhythm and blues, soul music and funk. Not only did Brown display his own musical genius as a performer, singer and songwriter, but as a bandleader he fostered the careers of many influential musicians.
James Brown's innovations in funk music have been extraordinarily influential. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, his irresistible sound spawned countless imitators. By the mid 70s, several of his key band members (Bootsy Collins, Fred Wesley, and Maceo Parker) had left James Brown and joined forces with George Clinton to create a new type of funky music, now collectively referred to as P-Funk. With the advent of Hip Hop in the late 70s, James Brown's grooves became the foundation for rap music and break dancing, as DJs such as Grandmaster Flash looped and extended the drum breaks from earlier JB favorites like "Give It Up Or Turn It A Loose." In the late 1980s, James Brown's music experienced a renaissance with the rise of sampling by Hip Hop producers. Snippets of his songs were recycled into hundreds of rap songs and continue to appear in electronic music to this day.
While some say Macon, Georgia, it is generally believed that Brown was born in Barnwell, South Carolina in 1928. Brown grew up in Augusta, Georgia in a poor family. As a teenager he turned to petty crime and was eventually sent to prison. Securing an early release after three years, under the condition that he not return to Augusta or Richmond County, Brown turned his considerable energy to music, transforming the vocal band The Gospel Starlighters into the first generation of the Famous Flames.
He began to tour relentlessly (Brown often calls himself The Hardest Working Man In Show Business) and the band built a following with their live shows. Musically they played a brand of tight rhythm and blues, that would later be known as funk, and mixed with Brown's trademark screams and melodramatic stage persona, they were capable of whipping crowds into a frenzy. Whilst their early singles were local hits, and performed well on the R'n'B chart the band were not nationally successful until this live show was captured on record, on Brown's self-financed Live at the Apollo in 1963.
Brown followed this success with a string of singles that essentially defined funk music. "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag" and "I Got You (I Feel Good)" featured deceptively simple riffs on horn and guitar locked into a compelling groove by the bass guitar. As the sixties went on, Brown would refine this style further on "Sex Machine" and add socio-political comment on tracks like "Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)" and "Funky President".
By the mid-seventies Brown's star was on the wane. Hits dried up, key musicians such as Bootsy Collins left his band, not least due to the wearing effect of Brown's ego, and his releases were poor imitations of his best records. In 1986 he managed another hit single, "Living In America", but in 1988 he was arrested following a high speed car chase through the streets of Augusta. Imprisoned for firearms and drugs offences, as well as the repercussions of his flight, he was released in 1991 to find the sampled rhythms and drum beats from his records almost ubiquitous in rap music, a 20 second drum solo near the end of the song "Funky drummer" is perhaps the single most sampled piece of music in history. Brown still makes his home in the Augusta area, and is one of the most prominent figures in that community.
As Brown continues to tour, and his reputation as an innovator still guarantees crowds, the influence of his music and sounds he first created continue to define the notion of funky.