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Soul singer James Brown dies

His influence on rap, disco and funk are indisputable. He had been hospitalized briefly with pneumonia.

December 25, 2006|Greg Bluestein | The Associated Press

ATLANTA — James Brown, the legendary singer known as the Godfather of Soul, has died, his agent said today. He was 73.

Brown was hospitalized with pneumonia on Sunday at Emory Crawford Long Hospital and died around 1:45 a.m. today, said his agent, Frank Copsidas of Intrigue Music. Longtime friend Charles A. Bobbit was by his side, he said.

Copsidas said that Brown's family was being notified of his death and that the cause was still uncertain. "We really don't know at this point what he died of," he said.

Along with Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan and a handful of others, Brown was one of the major musical influences of the last 50 years. A generation idolized him, and sometimes openly copied him. His rapid-footed dancing inspired Mick Jagger and Michael Jackson, among others. Songs such as David Bowie's "Fame," Prince's "Kiss," George Clinton's "Atomic Dog" and Sly and the Family Stone's "Sing a Simple Song" were clearly based on Brown's rhythms and vocal style.

If Brown's claim to the invention of soul can be challenged by fans of Ray Charles and Sam Cooke, then his rights to the genres of rap, disco and funk are beyond question. He was to rhythm and dance music what Dylan was to lyrics: the unchallenged popular innovator.

"James presented obviously the best grooves," rapper Chuck D of Public Enemy once told the Associated Press. "To this day, there has been no one near as funky. No one's coming even close."

His hit singles included such classics as "Out of Sight," "(Get Up I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine," "I Got You (I Feel Good)" and "Say It Loud -- I'm Black and I'm Proud," a landmark 1968 statement of racial pride.

"I clearly remember we were calling ourselves colored, and after the song, we were calling ourselves black," Brown said in a 2003 Associated Press interview. "The song showed even people to that day that lyrics and music and a song can change society."

He won a Grammy award for lifetime achievement in 1992, as well as Grammys in 1965 for "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" (best R&B recording) and for "Living In America" in 1987 (best R&B vocal performance, male). He was one of the initial artists inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, along with Presley, Chuck Berry and other founding fathers.

From the 1950s, when Brown had his first R&B hit, "Please, Please, Please" in 1956, through the mid-1970s, Brown went on a frenzy of cross-country tours, concerts and new songs. He earned the nickname the Hardest-Working Man in Show Business.

With his tight pants, shimmering feet, eye makeup and outrageous hair, Brown set the stage for younger stars such as Michael Jackson and Prince.

And rap stars of recent years overwhelmingly have borrowed his lyrics with a digital technique called sampling.

Brown's work has been replayed by the Fat Boys, Ice-T, Public Enemy and a host of other rappers. "The music out there is only as good as my last record," Brown joked in a 1989 interview with Rolling Stone magazine.

"Disco is James Brown, hip-hop is James Brown, rap is James Brown; you know what I'm saying? You hear all the rappers, 90% of their music is me," he told the Associated Press in 2003.

Born in poverty in Barnwell, S.C., in 1933, he was abandoned as a 4-year-old to the care of relatives and friends and grew up on the streets of Augusta, Ga., in an "ill-repute area," as he once called it. There he learned to wheel and deal.

"I wanted to be somebody," Brown said.

By the eighth grade in 1949, Brown had served 3 1/2 years in Alto Reform School near Toccoa, Ga., for breaking into cars.

While there, he met Bobby Byrd, whose family took Brown into their home. Byrd also took Brown into his group, the Gospel Starlighters. Soon they changed their name to the Famous Flames and their style to hard R&B.

In January 1956, King Records of Cincinnati signed the group, and four months later "Please, Please, Please" was in the R&B Top Ten.

Though most of Brown's life was glitz and glitter, he was plagued with charges of abusing drugs and alcohol and of hitting his third wife, Adrienne.

In September 1988, Brown, high on PCP and carrying a shotgun, entered an insurance seminar next to his Augusta office. Police said he asked seminar participants if they were using his private restroom.

Police chased Brown for a half-hour from Augusta into South Carolina and back to Georgia. The chase ended when police shot out the tires of his truck.

Brown received a six-year prison sentence. He spent 15 months in a South Carolina prison and 10 months in a work release program before being paroled in February 1991.

After his release in 1991, Brown said he wanted to "try to straighten out" rock music. He was soon on stage again with an audience that included millions of cable TV viewers nationwide who watched the three-hour, pay-per-view concert at Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles.

In 2003, the South Carolina parole board granted him a pardon for his crimes in that state.

Adrienne Brown died in 1996 in Los Angeles at age 47. She took PCP and several prescription drugs while she had a bad heart and was weak from cosmetic surgery, the coroner said.

He and his fourth wife -- Tomi Raye Hynie, one of his backup singers -- had a son, James Jr., now about 5.

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