Monday, December 25, 2006

Soulobit: James Brown

We've just heard, further to our posting earlier, that James Brown has died.

Brown was born in South Carolina in 1933 into extreme poverty - at the age of seven he was living in an Atlanta brothel, helping make money through shoeshine and busking.

At the age of 16 he had his first serious run-in with the law when he was caught stealing a car, a crime that saw him spend three years inside. He would go on to be dogged by combinations of cars and cops, winding up inside again for an incident when he fired on police during a car chase. Other blots on his record included an unacceptable habit of spousal abuse, and signing up to Reagan's War on Drugs, a battle he appeared to fight undercover, behind (and doing) enemy lines.

On release from prison, he developed the musical act he'd been working on inside into a gospel revue. His big breakthrough came with 1956's Please Please Please, his first million seller - albeit one for which he was only paid $150. A combination of onstage flair and a determined attitude (it wasn't unusual for "the hardest working man in showbusiness" to turn in 350 gigs in a year) saw him build a steady fanbase and run up a string of hits.

While his temper, attitude towards women and willing embrace of hypocrisy can't be overlooked, it's equally impossible to take away his achievements both as a singer and a businessman. Having said that, the Grammy committee did do their best, never acknowledging Brown until he'd provided Living In America for one of the Rocky soundtracks. Papa's Got A New Bag not worthy of a Grammy; saccharine over-emotive flag-flying bollocks for a pumped-up B-movie is.

James Brown spawned anecdotes as fast as he spawned legal actions. His manager floated a rumour that Brown was planning a sexchange to be able to marry singer Bobby Byrd; he was well-known for fining band members who turned up late for rehearsals. In 1992, he was prematurely obituarised by a TV news broadcast. And, apparently, his eyebrows were tattooed on.

Brown is probably the definitive mess of contradictions: repeatedly in trouble with the law, but in 1968, Brown's Boston gig was given an unexpected live nationwide broadcast as an attempt to calm down the atmosphere following the murder of Martin Luther King. And for every run-in over unpaid tax bills, there was a charitable initiative or sponsorship of food stamps for the poor. A shrewd businessman (he owned radio stations and car dealerships) he also made some astonishingly poor decisions.

But most of all: he was the Godfather of Soul.

Brown beat prostate cancer in 2004; severe pneumonia finally took him at 1.45 on Christmas Day morning.

2006's other obituaries