“Soul Brother #1,”The Godfather of Soul,” “Mr. Dynamite,” “Sex Machine,” “The Minister of the New New Super Heavy Funk.” These are some of the names by which the world would eventually know James Joseph Brown, Jr., the revolutionary musical figure who was born on this day in 1933. The story Brown himself would often tell is that he appeared stillborn when he first came into the world, but that an aunt attending his birth managed to breathe life into him.
Long before he changed the course of 20th-century popular music and crowned himself “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business,” little James Brown may well have been the hardest working boy in Augusta, Georgia, where he was sent to live with his Aunt Honey Washington at the age of six. He’d spent the previous several years with his father, James, Sr., who scraped out a meager living selling pine tar to the local turpentine factory in the woods of Barnwell County, South Carolina, just down the Savannah River from Augusta. James’s mother had left with another man when James was only four, and while Aunt Honey would play something of a maternal role for James, the fact that she ran a brothel and sold moonshine for a living made for anything but a traditional upbringing.
While other famous musicians of his generation would get their musical training in the traditional context of the church, James Brown would get his on the streets, where between jobs as a cotton-picker, coal-scrounger and shoeshine boy, he also danced and sang to attract clients to his aunt’s place of business. He honed his talents further in prison, where he was sentenced to serve 8-to-16 years for stealing from parked cars at the age of 15. An experience that might have broken another man, however, instead inspired Brown to dedicate himself to music. He did his first gospel singing while in prison, where he earned the nickname “Music Box” and impressed his warden and the Georgia State Parole Board enough with his seriousness of purpose to win his release after only three years. At the age of 19, a highly motivated, worldly wise and ferociously talented James Brown walked out of prison and began his climb toward music greatness.
Born on this day in 1933, James Brown died on Christmas Day 2006.