You can’t be a fan of modern funk, soul, or R&B and not know James Brown, AKA “Soul Brother Number One.” The man was a musical genius, and his spectacular rise from bone-breaking poverty to over-the-top stardom is the stuff that fairy tales are made of. Unfortunately, his life behind the scenes was anything but a fairy tale. What made Brown the man and the musician he was? Let’s find out as we sway to the beat to these melodic facts about the Godfather of Soul.
1. He Was Born in Poverty
James Brown was born in 1933, in a small shack in a pine forest in South Carolina. His parents were just 16 and 22, and clearly not ready for a baby. Their house was without windows, running water, electricity, and even a toilet. It was a difficult life and adding a baby in the mix meant things were just going to get harder.
2. He Could Have Been Joseph
His parents planned to name him Joseph James Brown Jr., but the names got switched on his birth certificate and so he became James Joseph Brown Jr. He dropped the “Jr.” from his name when he wrote his autobiography—but he had good reason. He wasn’t close to his father, so it was no surprise that he didn’t want to be a “junior.” Sadly, he’d turn out to be like him in the worst way possible…
3. He Had a Tough Childhood
Brown Sr. was no Dad of the Year. He was alcoholic and abusive and once almost killed his wife in a fit of rage. She left the family when Brown was four. The little boy grew up wearing rags and walking around barefoot. He had no neighbors or friends, and his father’s steady stream of girlfriends never stayed long enough to take care of him—but soon, he’d be in for a big change.
4. His Aunt Took Him In
Things took a turn for little James when his aunt took him in. He moved to her place in Augusta, Georgia—but there was a chilling dark side to the situation. Her place happened to be a bordello. Brown had to earn his upkeep here too: He was responsible for entertaining potential clients, and for guiding them to his Aunt’s establishment.
5. And He Helped Her Out
How did he do that? By perfecting a song and dance routine which became popular among servicemen. They enjoyed watching Brown’s “buck dance” (a form of tap dancing) and listening to him play the guitar, piano, and harmonica, which he’d taught himself. It was a win-win situation: He’d earn a few coins, and his aunt would gain new clients.
6. He Didn’t Want a Career in Music
Believe it or not, music wasn’t Brown’s first choice for a career! He originally wanted to play baseball or become a professional boxer.
7. He Was a Hustler
Growing up without a proper shirt on your back can do a lot of things to a kid’s mind, and Brown knew that he would have to hustle to get somewhere in life. He worked all kinds of jobs as a kid; as a cotton-picker, shoe-shiner, car-washer, and whatever else he could find. He was nine when he bought his first underwear. Unfortunately, hustling wouldn’t keep him in school.
8. His Learning Didn’t Happen at School
James Brown was sent home from school for having “insufficient clothes” when he was in the sixth grade—and he never went back. Instead, he turned to church and religion as an escape from the brittle realities of poverty and fell in love with gospel music. He started singing for the church choir, and the same music would save him when he got in trouble with the law.
9. He Was Detained
Brown was only 15 when he got picked up for petty theft. He was convicted and sent to a juvenile detention center in Toccoa. Originally sentenced to 8-16 years in prison, he was let out after three for good behavior. What did Brown do to pass time while he was there? Why, sing of course. He formed a gospel quartet with three others, which opened many doors for him.
10. Byrd Discovered Him
James Brown didn’t know how life would change when pianist and R&B singer, Bobby Byrd, came to play baseball with some of the inmates of the detention center one day. Brown was known as “Music Box,” which made Byrd curious to hear him sing. As you would imagine, there was no looking back after that.
11. And Gave Him a Chance
Brown may have spent longer in detention if it wasn’t for Byrd and his family. They vouched for him and secured his early release. The court had a condition of its own: Brown would have to promise to “sing for the Lord,” for some time at least. Here too, it was Byrd’s sister who helped. She had a church choir group that Brown joined. But he wasn’t there for long.
12. They Made a Band
Well, Byrd already had a gospel a cappella group called The Gospel Starlighters. Brown joined it when one of their bandmates had an accident. The band of seven would alternate between gospel singing and R&B, for which they changed their name to The Avons. Although Brown was the last to join, he quickly overshadowed the others because of his powerful voice, stage theatrics, and his strong presence. Yup, this was not going to end well…
13. And They Got a Break
The Avons changed their name to The Famous Flames and became popular performing live at college parties and nightclubs in the South. Their big break came when they got to play on the same stage as famous musician, Little Richard. The Flames were determined to make their mark. Brown especially would dance and sing his heart out, and it paid off. The audience loved him.
14. Which Turned Into Something Big
You never know when Lady Luck will smile upon you. The Famous Flames recorded the song “Please, Please, Please” at a local radio station. A talent scout, Ralph Bass, heard it and signed them up with King’s Records. The song went on to become a massive hit. Brown said once that the happiest moment of his life was when it was released.
15. But the High Didn’t Last
Unfortunately, the success of “Please, Please, Please,” soon led to disaster for the band. The hit seemed like a fluke, as none of the band’s other songs seemed to click with their fans. After a year of touring and opening for artists like Ray Charles and B.B. King, the Flames had had enough. They were upset that Brown was considered the star, and the band broke up. The others went their separate ways, but after a brief taste of success, Brown was desperate not to lose his record deal.
16. But He Didn’t Give Up
Brown’s persistence paid off, and finally, he struck gold with “Try Me,” which made its way to No.1 on the R&B charts and also made it to the Hot 100 Singles. He reunited with Byrd and they formed a new lineup with the same name as before. The Famous Flames did much better this time as their album Think! Became a huge hit. Brown was here to stay.
17. He Was a Multi-Tasker
While Brown was giving hits with The Famous Flames, he still kept recording with his backing band…so technically he was in two bands at the same time. The second one was called The James Brown Orchestra or the James Brown Band. He released two albums with them too! And while they didn’t reach the high Think! did, they did quite well in their own right.
18. He Was a Hard Worker
It’s no wonder Brown became known as “the hardest-working man in show business.” It seemed he never got tired because he was constantly working on something; writing music, learning dances, touring for performances, you name it. Byrd recalled how hard it was to keep up with him because “he’d go from what [we] rehearsed and leap off into something else.”
19. And Expected Others to Keep Up
James Brown was something of a taskmaster and perfectionist when it came to his band. He may not have been able to read sheet music, but he could tell as soon as any of his bandmates played a false note. Brown would fine them for that offense, and if their clothes or shoes weren’t in top shape. He would also call upon them to improvise rapidly on stage; one of his musicians admitted that it was essential to be a quick thinker if you wanted to stay in the band.
20. His Relationship With Byrd Soured
Brown may have owed Byrd his entry into show business, as well as his freedom, but when push came to shove, he betrayed his friend in a heartbreaking way. Byrd claimed that though he had co-written many of Brown’s greatest hits, and helped arrange music for them, his name was never on the records. He also didn’t get paid for the work he put in and only received a weekly salary which was a fraction of what the band was making per night. He wasn’t the only person Brown let down.
21. He Had a Dark Side
Brown was no gentleman. A singer, Tammi Terrell, joined the James Brown Revue in 1962. She was just 17, and Brown was almost 30. He got involved with her, even though he was married to his first wife, Velma Warren. But that wasn’t even the worst part…
22. And It was Very Dark…
James Brown and Tammi Terrell’s relationship had a chilling dark side. He mistreated her terribly. Her mom had been concerned about leaving her young daughter with Brown’s band, but one of his female assistants had assured her she would keep an eye on her. Well, that didn’t happen. Brown wooed the teen with gifts and money and once she got involved, he would beat her up regularly. Bobby Bennett, a former Flame member, confirmed the brutality and said he’d seen her “shedding blood.”
23. His First Marriage Was the Most Normal One
Although Brown separated from first wife, Velma Warren, about a decade after they’d gotten married, their divorce was only finalized in 1969. Warren and Brown had three sons together and would maintain a close friendship until he passed. This was perhaps the healthiest relationship Brown had with any woman. His other wives weren’t so lucky…
24. His Second Marriage Wasn’t a Happy One
Brown’s second marriage to Deidre (Deedee) Jenkins was doomed as well. The couple divorced after nine years and two daughters for a chilling reason: Brown was terribly abusive towards Deedee. His younger daughter published a memoir in which she described in heartbreaking detail how her dad would lose all control when something made him angry.
25. He Was Particular About Appearance
He’d spent his childhood wearing rags and walking barefoot, so when he could afford it James Brown made sure he’d only wear the flashiest, most over-the-top clothes he could find. He became known for his velour jumpsuits, huge capes, and showy gold jewelry. He had a particular hairstyle and later got his eyebrows tattooed to ensure falling eyebrow-hair was one thing he didn’t need to worry about.
26. His Cape Routine Was Inspired
One hallmark of Brown’s performances (apart from the energetic dancing with splits, twists, and flips) was his cape routine, which he borrowed from the wrestler, Gorgeous George. The MC would drape a cape on his shoulders at some point and lead him off the stage, but he’d shake the cape off as his band continued singing and come back for an encore. This would continue at least 2-3 times to the fans’ deafening approval.
27. He Knew What Would Sell
Brown insisted on financing an album of his band’s live performance at the Apollo Theater in 1962 after he’d had several hits including “Night Train,” and “I’ll Go Crazy.” Although skeptical about its success because the songs had already come out as singles, King Records agreed to release the album and surprise, surprise, it was a huge hit! Brown may not have known how to treat people, but he knew what they wanted to listen to.
28. He Liked Creating a Spectacle
James Brown wanted to make sure that his audience got not just a show, but the best show of their lives when he performed. His clothes, the “uniforms” he insisted his musicians and members of his Revue wore, his dance style, his singing style (in which he’d “scream” in tune)—these were all essential elements of the spectacle. This flair for the dramatic would continue even after his passing—but more on that later.
29. He Invented a New Music Form
He had already become known as “Soul Brother No. 1” in the 60s, but with his new song, “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” James Brown became the “Father of Funk.” Interesting fact: The song was recorded in less than an hour, and even Brown was taken aback by how hugely successful it became.
30. His Songs Became Anthems
Brown’s songs also became the soundtrack to Black Arts and Black Nationalist movements. His “Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud,” became an anthem for young black people, and “I Don’t Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing (Open the Door I’ll Get it Myself) was inspirational with its rejection of sympathy and demand for equal opportunity. And this wasn’t Brown’s only form of activism.
31. He Kept the Peace
America was going through a period of unrest, with the Civil Rights Movement at its peak. The day after Martin Luther King Jr.’s tragic assassination, Brown was scheduled to perform in Boston. When he heard the show might be canceled, he requested that he be allowed to perform. The Mayor agreed, and it turned out to be a blessing. By broadcasting his show live on television, the government was able to keep rioters off the street and busy watching the concert.
32. He Went to Vietnam
In the middle of the conflict in Vietnam, Brown traveled out there. It wasn’t to fight, though—he went there to sing for the American forces. He had been wanting to go for a while, but it was his performance in Boston that finally made the government change its mind and agree to his request to perform for the men there.
33. His Politics Changed
Brown had been a staunch Democratic supporter in the 1968 election when he backed Hubert Humphrey. He seemed to change his tune when he performed for President Nixon’s inauguration though, and openly supported him for re-election. He lost a lot of his black fans because of this about-face, but he had his reasons for it…
34. He Didn’t Like the IRS
There was one problem that plagued Brown throughout his life: taxes. Apparently, the IRS had claimed Brown owed them over $6.5 million, and Brown hoped that Nixon would come to his rescue. That didn’t happen, and the IRS ended up taking many of his assets. Oh James, probably would’ve been best to stick to those ideals.
35. He Had Some Lean Years
The 1970s were not kind to James Brown, and he didn’t have a single hit for a long time. It was the age of disco and Brown found himself too old to adapt to it. His last hit was “Sex Machine” in 1970, but it would take almost a decade for Brown to make a comeback. But make a comeback he most certainly did!
36. He Came Back
It didn’t come by another hit song; his comeback was thanks to the cult classic film The Blues Brothers. He also made an appearance in Rocky IV and his song in the latter, “Living in America,” was a huge hit. Suddenly Brown’s music was everywhere again! He was touring the world and he was back in the limelight. Unfortunately, this did not mean all was well in his world.
37. His Third Wife Did Not Fare Well
Brown married Adrienne Lois Rodriguez in 1984—but their dream soon turned into a nightmare. Brown started using PCP, a hallucinogenic. We know Brown had anger issues from the way he had treated women in the past, and his behavior towards Rodriguez was no different. She filed for divorce four years later, after having reported his aggression 11 times to the authorities. Surprisingly, they wound up reconciling.
38. He Became a Widower
After they got back together, Rodriguez made several complaints about domestic brutality and had Brown detained by the authorities four times. She went public with her bruises, but the last episode she reported had the most devastating end, and she wound up hospitalized. A year later, Rodriguez had a stroke and didn’t make it through. The authorities then dropped all charges against Brown.
39. He Went to Rehab
Not long after Rodriguez’s passing, Brown found himself in hot water again. This time it was because he had walked out in his lawn, without a stitch of clothes on, and fired two shots in the air. The neighbors complained and this time Brown was put into a facility for two years to recover.
40. But the Problems Didn’t Stop
Unfortunately, an electrician also faced Brown’s wrath after he came back from rehab. The young man had been on his street to check an overhead light and for some reason, his presence bothered Brown to such an extent that he chased after him with a steak knife!
41. He Wanted to Make a Difference
Brown himself left the bulk of his estate to his “I Feel Good” Trust. This was a charity that provided scholarships for underprivileged children in Georgia and South Carolina. Since his will hasn’t been administered yet, no scholarships have been given out since he passed.
42. He Was Serious About Education
For all his faults, and there were some serious ones, Brown had some redeeming qualities. For one, he really wanted to see kids in school. He wrote songs to that effect too, such as “Don’t Be a Dropout,” and “Killing is Out, School is In.” He donated money to underprivileged children in Augusta and made public speeches in schools, stressing on the importance of education.
43. He Was a Pioneer in Many Ways
The “Father of Funk,” the “Grandfather of Hip-Hop,” and the “Godfather of Soul” was also the first person to be inducted in the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame—and that’s not all. Did you know that no artist’s work comes close to being sampled as much as Brown’s songs have been? In other words, his work has inspired generations of musicians who have incorporated audio snippets, or some part of his tunes in their own creations.
44. He Worked Until the End
True to his title of being the “Hardest-Working Man in Show Business,” Brown was touring and performing even some weeks before his passing. It was his dentist who noticed he looked sick when he came in for some implants and suggested he see a doctor. Two days later, on December 25, 2006, Brown succumbed to pneumonia and heart failure in the hospital. He’d had some concerts scheduled for the New Year and had been certain he’d be released in time for them.
45. He Got a Memorable Send-off
Even his last rites were done in style. Brown was laid to rest in a 24 karat gold coffin, which was driven in a glass-encased carriage, pulled by white horses, through the streets of New York. His public memorial services were held in the Apollo Theater, New York, and the James Brown Arena, Georgia. A private service was held in South Carolina. Apart from millions of fans, many celebrities like Michael Jackson, Little Richard, and Stevie Wonder also came to pay tribute to “Soul Brother No. 1”
46. He Went on to Marry a Fourth Time
A few years after Adrienne passed, Brown set his sights on his next wife. This time it was one of his background singers—a woman named Tomi Rae Hynie. Like his marriages before, it quickly turned dark. She filed a case against him for domestic battery as well. Brown was let go after he paid a bond of over $1,000. However, after Brown passed, the marriage with Hynie has been brought under scrutiny by his family.
47. He Tried to Annul It
Brown married Hynie while she was still married to another man named Ahmed. Although she claims this marriage was a scam and that Ahmed had been previously married himself, Brown’s last will and testament is still being battled out in South Carolina courts because of her insistence that she was the singer’s lawful widow. And she isn’t the only one involved in the court battle.
48. His Will Is Still Disputed
Brown’s previous wives, all his children (nine legally, and at least three out of extra-marital affairs), grandchildren, manager, valet, and even his lawyers are still fighting out the provisions of his will in court ever since his passing. Unfortunately, the losers in this scenario are the kids whom his estate would really benefit.
49. He Avoided a Chase
One day in 1988, Brown was heavily under the influence of PCP when he walked into his office in Augusta and decided someone from the insurance agency in the building had used his bathroom. He walked into a seminar they were holding waving a firearm. When law enforcement arrived, he sped off with them hot at his heels.
50. …But He Was Caught
Law enforcement went to desperate measures to catch Brown. They drove all across Georgia and South Carolina on his tail. It was only when they formed a human chain across the road after they’d put 23 bullets in his car and shot out the tires, that he finally stopped. He was sentenced to six years but was let out on parole after two. And this wasn’t the last time he got in trouble either.