James Brown: Biography, Songs & Death

Instructor: Chris Chouiniere

Chris has taught music and has a master's degree in music education.

Called ~'The Hardest Working Man in Show Business,~' James Brown was an influential American singer and songwriter who pioneered the funk genre. In this lesson we will examine his life and music.

James Brown, All-Star

Any fans of professional baseball out there? James Brown was to American music what an all-star player is to baseball. He was incredibly talented and focused. He created a dynamic and unique performance style that developed from a fusion of previous styles. He worked hard at his craft, to the point that some co-workers called him a perfectionist. He was also a social advocate. Brown was a consistent performer and charismatic public figure.

James Brown after a concert in 1972.
James Brown

Rags to Riches

James Brown was born in a wooden shack in Barnwell, South Carolina on May 3, 1933. His early life is a poignant story of hardship. His family moved a number of times and he stayed with different family members, including an aunt who ran a brothel. He dropped out of school in the sixth grade. He made money hustling on the streets and did some time in prison for robbery. Brown formed an impromptu band while in prison. When released from prison in the early 1950s, he held a few steady jobs and his performing career began to take off. In the 1960s he was considered a pioneer of the funk genre and rose to international fame. He had sixteen Number 1 hits on the American R&B charts. He won many awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Award Grammy. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He died on December 25th, 2006 in Atlanta, Georgia.

What Is Funk?

After his stint in prison, James Brown teamed up with Bobby Byrd in different musical groups - among them The Avons, an R&B group, and The Gospel Starlighters. Eventually Brown's style evolved as he began working with other musicians too. As a bandleader, he added more instrumentation to traditional styles while simplifying the harmonic content of songs. The bands James Brown worked with consisted of musicians playing guitar, bass guitar, drums, piano and brass. Funk is driven by a progressive, driving beat; it is like R&B plus a counterpoint, a simultaneous performance of multiple melodic lines. The beat is led by a guitar sound heavily processed by effects and backed by a deep bass guitar sound. This tight rhythm section is then usually complemented by a dynamic horn section.

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