James Joseph Brown, Jr., May 3, 1933, Barnwell, SC; d. December 25, 2006, Atlanta, GA
Born into abject poverty in Georgia, James Brown began performing gospel and R&B at an early age, but his entry into the professional music business ironically came from a prison stint -- while serving a sentence for armed robbery at the age of 16, he met one Bobby Byrd, whose family engineered Brown"s release provided he get a job. James soon found himself in Byrd"s group, The Avons, who became The Famous Flames in 1955. Cincinnati"s King Records signed the popular touring group, now with James" name in front, and the band scored an immediate R&B smash with 1956"s "Please, Please, Please."
The next two years saw James trying to follow that hit without much success, but when Little Richard left rock for the ministry in 1957, Brown inherited his tour dates, and with them his band, The Upsetters. Credited by the singer as the first band to put funk backbeats in music, they eventually crafted the unique funk sound, which resulted in their first pop smash -- 1965"s "Papa"s Got a Brand New Bag." That groove only deepened as the Sixties ran on, and James became a black icon as much for his increasing social activism as his famous beat or now-legendary, incendiary live performances.
By the mid-Seventies, however, disco was beginning to take a huge toll on funk and soul, and Brown was suffering from drug addiction and mismanaged funds. The emerging hip-hop movement helped bring the singer back into prominence by citing him as a major influence, and he engineered a comeback in 1986, but it was short-lived, especially when an infamous 1989 police chase landed him in jail for two years. James remained a popular live performer until his death in 2006, but his troublesome later years, plagued by drugs and violence, have tainted his legacy and public image to an extent.