Many know of James Brown as the Godfather of Soul, and some have called him the hardest working man in show business but many do not know that he was much more. People of a certain age remember him as a flamboyant personality, a dynamic performer and a flashy dresser with a raw, emotional singing voice and a charismatic dance that electrified audiences for roughly 50 years. Some may know of his humble beginnings, earning pennies shining shoes and dancing for strangers. He also seemed to be a magnet for difficulties. He had various brushes with the law, married four times and got into tax trouble later in life. What many may not know is that while James Brown was an unforgettable singer, he is also known for using another voice.
Brown, once sent home from school for not wearing, i.e. not having, the appropriate clothing, found himself in a juvenile detention facility at the age of 15. There he became a part of a gospel singing group. It was not long before Brown, who never learned to read music, began to develop his own unique style. His first hit Please, Please, Please, with the Famous Flames, rose to number five on the charts and from there his career took off, influencing later artists such as Prince, Mick Jagger and Michael Jackson. He delighted audiences with his plaintive notes and his mesmerizing dance steps, but there was another side of Brown of which many may not be aware.
Brown’s was not only a musical voice, it was a social voice. Joseph James Brown, Jr. was not just the Godfather of Soul, he was much more, including a social activist. While some questioned whether Brown had a good understanding of the underlying racial and social tensions that plagued America in the 50’s and 60’s, he donated money and aided in fund-raising events for the cause of integration. He often spoke out against rioting and is said to have informed H.Rap Brown, black activist, that he was not going to tell anybody to pick up a gun. Right after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., when many were rioting, it was a James Brown concert that seemed to quell the violence in Boston. Later his hit song, I’m Black and I’m Proud, recaptured the hearts of some fans who felt that performing that night was not Brown’s idea but that of white promoters who knew that black people could not resist the lure of a James Brown concert.
Some historians have felt that James Brown was too naïve to understand the social complexion of the America he grew up in but many looked to and respected him as a voice for social change. His song, Don’t Be a Drop-Out, encouraged young blacks to stay in school. He often canceled performances to perform for black organizations such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (S. C.L.C.) and in 1968, he played Santa in his “Operation Black Pride” initiative, handing out vouchers for 3,000 Christmas dinners. In 1972, he performed for the troops in Vietnam.
Trouble, however, seem to follow Brown throughout his life. More tragedy befell him when he once again found himself on the wrong side of the law. He experienced domestic problems and he lost his first son, Teddy, in a tragic car accident. He also had the Internal Revenue Service after him for back taxes. Through it all, however, he continued to perform, making a cameo appearance in the Blues Brothers and another hit song, Living in America, from the Rocky movie series.
While Brown may not have understood the significance of his contributions as a social activist, he will always be considered an icon. James Brown is said to have been the father of funk and the progenitor of soul music. He was also a person of influence, known not only for his engaging style and his brash self-confidence but for his willingness to embrace his own truth. He spoke out from an honest place, from humble beginnings. He admits that he did not have underwear purchased from a store until he was nine. From there, he made it to super stardom. More than just the Godfather of Soul, James Brown was an inspiration, encouraging others and fully believing that if he could do it, others could too.
By Constance Spruill