Musician. James Brown was born near Barnwell on May 3, 1933, to Joe and Susie Brown. Brown is likely South Carolina’s most famous twentieth-century entertainer. His career began in the 1950s in Augusta, Georgia, and grew into a music empire with a vast catalog of recordings, countless performances, and a global appeal that continued into the twenty-first century. While he was called the “Godfather of Soul,” his body of work forms the rhythmic foundations of funk, disco, and hip-hop. He is arguably the most sampled musical artist of all time.
Brown’s early life was bleak, lonely, and chaotic. His parents separated when he was four. Eventually Brown went to live with his two aunts in Augusta, in a house where he was exposed to gambling, prostitution, bootlegging, and violence. In spite of his disadvantaged upbringing, Brown displayed an irrepressible enthusiasm for music, friendship, and the street life of Augusta. His first public performances progressed from his front porch to his school to local talent nights. At age fifteen he was sent to jail for petty theft but was paroled early. He began seriously to consider a career in music, forming the Flames, the first of a series of backing bands that would contribute to the evolution of his trademark sound. Thus began a life of traveling the road and performing. Brown played the Jim Crow South and beyond, gaining a devoted following and building his reputation with a series of singles. His first hit came with the 1956 release of “Please, Please, Please.”
Although his band constantly changed members, it enabled Brown to utilize the talents of musicians such as Fred Wesley, Maceo Parker, Clyde Stubblefield, Bootsy Collins, and Vicki Anderson. A consummate entertainer, Brown gave his audiences the total experience of singing, dancing, and showbiz spectacle. His series of appearances recorded as Live at the Apollo (1963) are regarded as the peak of his live shows. Brown hit his stride after the 1965 release of “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.” Subsequent songs including “I Got You (I Feel Good)” (1965), “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” (1966), “Cold Sweat” (1967), “Get on the Good Foot” (1972), and “Sex Machine” (1975) are but a sample of his string of hits, which endured for decades in radio, sales, and film popularity.
Brown paradoxically has been at odds with the government and served as an international cultural symbol of the United States. He met with Hubert Humphrey on stay-in-school initiatives in 1966, played for the troops in Vietnam in 1968, and controversially endorsed Richard Nixon in 1972. Long an antidrug advocate, he struggled with his own demons as late as 1988, when a police car chase that began in Augusta ended across the South Carolina border. Brown received a six-year sentence but was released early in 1991.
James Brown continues to make his home in Beech Island, South Carolina. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 and received a Kennedy Center Honor in 2003. He has been married three times and has six children.
Brown, James, and Bruce Tucker. James Brown: The Godfather of Soul. 2d ed. New York: Thunder’s Mouth, 1997.