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Enjoy & Learn

May 3, 1933 - December 25, 2006
James Brown

As a consequence, little James grew up in his aunt’s brothel in Augusta, Georgia. He had to earn his living from his earliest years. He was a shoe-shine boy, he washed cars and dishes and even picked cotton. At the age of 16, he was caught breaking into a car and spent three years in jail. Then, after a short career as a boxer and a baseball pitcher, James Brown discovered gospel music. With his friend Bobby Byrd he started the band Famous Flames. Brown’s ecstatic singing style with trademark screams soon brought him local popularity. The band switched from gospel to rhythm and blues, toured Georgia and developed into a black music revue in which all members had to play at least two instruments as well as dance and sing. When they were about to record their first professional studio album in 1955, James ended He was born in Barnwell, South Carolina. At least, this is the birthplace that most of his official biographies give (other possible locations include Pulaski, Tennessee and Macon, Georgia). The artist used false identity documents so often that he was probably not sure himself! Brown’s mother abandoned her only child when the boy was four and his father never even tried to look after him. up behind bars again, this time for causing a car crash… However, by that time he was influential enough to be released after a few days. In April 1956, the Famous Flames recorded the single Please, Please, Please which soared into the R&B top ten. Brown called himself “the hardest-working man in show business.” On average, he recorded four albums a year, and in 1969–as many as nine. Sadly, James Brown’s artistic success was marred by legal, financial and family problems. At some point, he had to pay $4.5 million in back taxes. He was involved in a bribery scandal, his marriages broke up and his oldest son Teddy died in a car accident in 1973. After this tragedy, Brown stopped recording and touring for a long time. His return was never as successful as his career before the break. Together with the impact of disco music in the 1970s–Brown is known as a victim of the disco revolution– this popularity crisis contributed to the singer’s drug addiction and violent behavior. In 1987, James Brown was arrested for drug possession and a high-speed car chase. His resistance to arrest and illegal possession of firearms made it worse. In December 1988, he was sent to prison for six years. After only 15 months at the State Park Prison in Columbia, Brown was moved to a rehabilitation centre for good conduct and then released in February 1991 on the condition that he neither drove nor possessed firearms again. He did. In January 1998, the 65-year-old legend was arrested yet again. This time he was treated for drug addiction while in prison. After his release, half a year later, James Brown came to Poland. On 18 July, he gave a concert in Sopot. He also spoke to us.

Mr Dynamite, Godfather of Soul, Minister of Funk… What do you call yourself?
It’s always been the way my fans call me–Godfather of Soul. I’ve always been part of that music, no matter how the styles and fashions have changed. My music is happy music, and it’s important because the world needs happiness.

What was your childhood like?
I prayed every day to have something to eat. I was born and raised in poverty. My father finished his education in the second grade, mother–in the fourth. I was lucky to get to the seventh grade myself. I was an ambitious and bright kid. I did those seven grades in three and a half years!

You were lucky to absorb music from your early years.
Yeah, I always wanted to be someone; to be appreciated. After being a professional sportsman for a while, I started to sing. And when I first heard the girls screaming my name in concert, I didn’t want to do anything else. I’m sixty-five now and just look at me–I don’t look my age.

Which style influenced you more – gospel or blues?
Gospel was more important for me. But I have always been looking for something new in music. So I gave up gospel and easy blues and did more jazz. The music that God gave me was jazz and gospel. And that’s funk.

Your most famous album was “Apollo 68” …
… and I had to fight a real battle with the record company boss, Syd Nathan, to have that album recorded! I had to pay for its recording with my own money; he only took care of the distribution. I spent $5,700. Today, that would be three to four million. For many years, it was the best-selling record in history.

What is the future of black music?
I’m black, but there is also Indian and even Japanese blood in my veins. When you are white, you are either rich or poor. A black man must always do better than others. I remember, back in the time when my songs were hits, someone told me to try harder. When you are black, you must be ten times better than the rest to achieve something.

Before his death in 2006, James Brown supervised work on the screenplay of a movie about his life. The biographical film will show both his artistic career and turbulent private life. The beginning of the project, directed by Spike Lee and starring Samuel L. Jackson, is planned for the year 2008.

James Brown died on Christmas Day last year after complications resulting from pneumonia. Ten thousand people attended his funeral. The artist wasn’t buried, though. The coffin with his body was first kept at his private residence in South Carolina, then it was taken to an undisclosed location. The reasons for this strange decision remain unknown. We may only speculate that his family decided to act this way due to the unclear inheritance situation. James Brown was married four times. He died a very rich man. 

Ryszard Wolański


translated by Jerzy Chyb

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