James Brown, who grew up in Augusta, was one of the most influential musicians of the last half of the twentieth century. An original artist, fascinating showman, and tireless performer, Brown achieved legendary status, inspiring a generation of younger musicians. An inductee into both the Georgia Music Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he created a solid body of work that has withstood the passage of time and popular music trends.
Born in a one-room shack in the country outside Barnwell, South Carolina, on or around May 3, 1933 (although some sources give different dates), Brown grew up in severe poverty. His mother left the family when he was four, and when he was five his father and aunt moved with him to Augusta, Georgia. There, in a roadhouse on U.S. 1, Brown was brought up by two aunts while his father worked a series of odd jobs and appeared only sporadically. As a boy Brown also worked a variety of jobs and began to develop an interest in music, learning to play the drums, piano, and guitar. He won singing awards in several local talent shows.
When he was fifteen Brown was caught committing petty theft and was sentenced to eight to sixteen years in juvenile prison. While incarcerated, first in Rome and then in Toccoa, he formed a gospel group and earned the nickname “Music Box.” He appealed to the parole board and was released shortly after his nineteenth birthday. He stayed in Toccoa, where he married and continued to make music, both gospel and rhythm and blues, with other local players. His band, the Flames, began to tour in the area. A Little Richard show in Toccoa convinced Brown and the Flames that they should move to Macon, Little Richard’s home and a lively music center. A talent scout for King Records, based in Cincinnati, Ohio, heard a demo tape by Brown and the “Famous Flames.” He sought them out, found them playing a show at a little club outside Milledgeville, and signed them to record for King.
Brown’s first single,”Please Please Please,” was released March 3, 1956. It was a major hit, going to number six on the rhythm and blues charts. Brown continued recording singles and scored a number one hit in 1958 with “Try Me.” He and the Flames began a relentless touring schedule, earning Brown the epithet “the hardest-working man in show business.” He developed a high-energy, dramatic stage show that thrilled audiences. The concert album Live at the Apollo, released in January 1963, captured the excitement of the shows and became a best-seller.
Brown, along with Ray Charles and Sam Cooke, pioneered a distinct new form of wildly popular music known as “soul,” a dynamic blend of gospel and rhythm and blues. Two singles in 1965, “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag—Part 1” and “I Got You (I Feel Good),” were milestones of soul. Both were number one on the rhythm and blues charts, and in the top ten on the pop charts. The pop ranking indicated that Brown was beginning to gain popularity with white listeners. For the next decade Brown was positioned at the top of the charts, releasing single after single and continuing the grueling touring schedule.
With “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud—Part 1,” released in 1968 a few months after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, Brown forcefully voiced the ideals of Black cultural nationalism. Yet Brown rejected violence and was criticized by some political militants for helping to calm angry crowds after King’s assassination and for accepting U.S. president Lyndon Johnson’s invitation to dine at the White House. But poet LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka) called him “our number one Black poet,” and in 1969 Look magazine’s cover asked if he was the most important Black man in America.
That same year, Brown moved back to Augusta, where Black citizens held a James Brown Day in his honor and white citizens organized an unsuccessful campaign to prevent him from moving into an upper-class, all-white neighborhood. He traveled to Vietnam to perform for American troops and endorsed Richard Nixon for president in 1972. On songs from the late sixties and early seventies, like “Mother Popcorn,” Brown continued to push musical barriers, and these new directions helped inspire the later sounds of funk, disco, and rap.
Brown’s popularity declined in the late seventies, though he continued to perform and record. In 1988 his career came to a halt. A year of legal troubles—suspicions of drug abuse and convictions for assaulting his wife as well as resisting arrest—concluded with a police chase through the streets of Augusta. When the bullet-punctured tires of Brown’s truck finally came to a stop, he was surrounded by fourteen police cars. These circumstances prompted Brown’s lawyers to charge that the police had overreacted, but a jury found Brown guilty, and he was sentenced to six years in prison. He served part of the term and was granted early release in February 1991. He resumed touring and recording.
Retrospective CD compilations in the 1990s found new audiences for Brown’s work among the young. In 2003 Brown was honored at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., for his artistic achievements. In May 2005 the city of Augusta erected a statue of Brown in the downtown area where he grew up, and in May 2006 the city held its inaugural James Brown Soul of America Music Festival. The Augusta–Richmond County Coliseum was renamed the James Brown Arena in August 2006.
Though often outspoken about America’s persistent racism, Brown espoused Black self-help and told audiences to make something of their lives by working hard, as did this man born in a one-room shack in the Jim Crow South. His frenetic stage shows established a much-imitated style, and his songs continue to find wide airplay and receptive listeners, both Black and white.
Brown continued to perform until the end of his life; he died of congestive heart failure in Atlanta on December 25, 2006. A procession and public viewing was held in his honor three days later at the historic Apollo Theater in New York City, and on December 30 a public memorial service and viewing was held at the James Brown Arena in Augusta. Paine College, a private, historically Black college in Augusta, presented an honorary degree to the singer at the end of the service.