Born: May 3, 1933
Birthplace: Barwell, SC
Died: December 25, 2006
Place of Death: Atlanta, GA
Zodiac Sign: Taurus
James Joseph Brown (May 3, 1933 – December 25, 2006) was an American singer, songwriter, dancer, musician, record producer and bandleader. A progenitor of funk music and a major figure of 20th-century music and dance, he is often referred to as the "Godfather of Soul". In a career that lasted 50 years, he influenced the development of several music genres.
Brown began his career as a gospel singer in Toccoa, Georgia. He joined an R&B vocal group, the Gospel Starlighters (which later evolved into the Famous Flames) founded by Bobby Byrd, in which he was the lead singer. First coming to national public attention in the late 1950s as a member of the singing group The Famous Flames with the hit ballads "Please, Please, Please" and "Try Me", Brown built a reputation as a tireless live performer with the Famous Flames and his backing band, sometimes known as the James Brown Band or the James Brown Orchestra. His success peaked in the 1960s with the live album Live at the Apollo and hit singles such as "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag", "I Got You (I Feel Good)" and "It's a Man's Man's Man's World".
During the late 1960s, Brown moved from a continuum of blues and gospel-based forms and styles to a profoundly "Africanized" approach to music-making that influenced the development of funk music. By the early 1970s, Brown had fully established the funk sound after the formation of the J.B.s with records such as "Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine" and "The Payback". He also became noted for songs of social commentary, including the 1968 hit "Say It Loud – I'm Black and I'm Proud". Brown continued to perform and record until his death from pneumonia in 2006. Brown was inducted into 1st class of the National Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame in 2013 as an artist and then in 2017 as a songwriter.
Brown recorded 17 singles that reached number one on the Billboard R&B charts. He also holds the record for the most singles listed on the Billboard Hot 100 chart which did not reach No. 1. Brown has received honors from many institutions, including inductions into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Songwriters Hall of Fame. In Joel Whitburn's analysis of the Billboard R&B charts from 1942 to 2010, Brown is ranked No. 1 in The Top 500 Artists. He is ranked No. 7 on Rolling Stone's list of its 100 greatest artists of all time. Rolling Stone has also cited Brown as the most sampled artist of all time.
Personal Life and Family
Brown was born on May 3, 1933, in Barnwell, South Carolina, to 16-year-old Susie (née Behling; 1917–2003), and 22-year-old Joseph Gardner Brown (1911–1993), in a small wooden shack. Brown's name was supposed to have been Joseph James Brown Jr., but his first and middle names were mistakenly reversed on his birth certificate. He later legally changed his name to remove "Jr." In his autobiography, Brown stated that he also had Chinese and Native American ancestry; his father was of mixed African-American and Native American descent, whilst his mother was of mixed African-American and Chinese descent. The Brown family lived in extreme poverty in Elko, South Carolina, which was an impoverished town at the time. They later moved to Augusta, Georgia, when James was four or five. His family first settled at one of his aunts' brothels. They later moved into a house shared with another aunt. Brown's mother eventually left the family after a contentious and abusive marriage and moved to New York. Brown spent long stretches of time on his own, hanging out in the streets and hustling to get by. He managed to stay in school until the sixth grade.
He began singing in talent shows as a young child, first appearing at Augusta's Lenox Theater in 1944, winning the show after singing the ballad "So Long". While in Augusta, Brown performed buck dances for change to entertain troops from Camp Gordon at the start of World War II as their convoys traveled over a canal bridge near his aunt's home. He learned to play the piano, guitar, and harmonica during this period. He became inspired to become an entertainer after hearing "Caldonia" by Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five. In his teen years, Brown briefly had a career as a boxer. At the age of 16, he was convicted of robbery and sent to a juvenile detention center in Toccoa. There, he formed a gospel quartet with four fellow cellmates, including Johnny Terry. Brown met singer Bobby Byrd when the two played against each other in a baseball game outside the detention center. Byrd also discovered that Brown could sing, after hearing of "a guy called Music Box", which was Brown's musical nickname at the prison. Byrd has since claimed he and his family helped to secure an early release, which led to Brown promising the court he would "sing for the Lord". Brown was paroled on June 14, 1952. Shortly thereafter, he joined the gospel group, the Ever-Ready Gospel Singers, featuring Byrd's sister Sarah.
On December 23, 2006, Brown became very ill and arrived at his dentist's office in Atlanta, Georgia, several hours late. His appointment was for dental implant work. During that visit, Brown's dentist observed that he looked "very bad ... weak and dazed." Instead of performing the work, the dentist advised Brown to see a doctor right away about his medical condition.
Brown went to the Emory Crawford Long Memorial Hospital the next day for medical evaluation and was admitted for observation and treatment. According to Charles Bobbit, his longtime personal manager and friend, Brown had been struggling with a noisy cough since returning from a November trip to Europe. Yet, Bobbit said, the singer had a history of never complaining about being sick and often performed while ill. Although Brown had to cancel upcoming concerts in Waterbury, Connecticut, and Englewood, New Jersey, he was confident that the doctor would discharge him from the hospital in time for his scheduled New Year's Eve shows at the Count Basie Theatre in New Jersey and the B. B. King Blues Club in New York, in addition to performing a song live on CNN for the Anderson Cooper New Year's Eve special. Brown remained hospitalized, however, and his condition worsened throughout the day.
On Christmas Day, 2006, Brown died at approximately 1:45 am EST (06:45 UTC), at age 73, from congestive heart failure, resulting from complications of pneumonia. Bobbit was at his bedside and later reported that Brown stuttered, "I'm going away tonight," then took three long, quiet breaths and fell asleep before dying.
In 2019, an investigation by CNN and other journalists led to suggestions that Brown had been murdered.
After Brown's death, his relatives, a host of celebrities, and thousands of fans gathered, on December 28, 2006, for a public memorial service at the Apollo Theater in New York City and, on December 30, 2006, at the James Brown Arena in Augusta, Georgia. A separate, private ceremony was held in North Augusta, South Carolina, on December 29, 2006, with Brown's family in attendance. Celebrities at these various memorial events included Michael Jackson, Jimmy Cliff, Joe Frazier, Buddy Guy, Ice Cube, Ludacris, Dr. Dre, Little Richard, Dick Gregory, MC Hammer, Prince, Jesse Jackson, Ice-T, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bootsy Collins, LL Cool J, Lil Wayne, Lenny Kravitz, 50 Cent, Stevie Wonder, Charlottesville's Todd Williams and Don King. Rev. Al Sharpton officiated at all of Brown's public and private memorial services.
Brown's memorial ceremonies were all elaborate, complete with costume changes for the deceased and videos featuring him in concert. His body, placed in a Promethean casket—bronze polished to a golden shine—was driven through the streets of New York to the Apollo Theater in a white, glass-encased horse-drawn carriage. In Augusta, Georgia, his memorial procession stopped to pay respects at his statue, en route to the James Brown Arena. During the public memorial there, a video showed Brown's last performance in Augusta, Georgia, with the Ray Charles version of "Georgia on My Mind" playing soulfully in the background. His last backup band, The Soul Generals, also played some of his hits during that tribute at the arena. The group was joined by Bootsy Collins on bass, with MC Hammer performing a dance in James Brown style. Former Temptations lead singer Ali-Ollie Woodson performed "Walk Around Heaven All Day" at the memorial services.
Brown signed his last will and testament on August 1, 2000, before J. Strom Thurmond Jr., an attorney for the estate. The irrevocable trust, separate and apart from Brown's will, was created on his behalf, that same year, by his attorney, Albert "Buddy" Dallas, one of three personal representatives of Brown's estate. His will covered the disposition of his personal assets, such as clothing, cars, and jewelry, while the irrevocable trust covered the disposition of the music rights, business assets of James Brown Enterprises, and his Beech Island estate in South Carolina.
During the reading of the will on January 11, 2007, Thurmond revealed that Brown's six adult living children (Terry Brown, Larry Brown, Daryl Brown, Yamma Brown Lumar, Deanna Brown Thomas and Venisha Brown) were named in the document, while Hynie and James II were not mentioned as heirs. Brown's will had been signed 10 months before James II was born and more than a year before Brown's marriage to Tomi Rae Hynie. Like Brown's will, his irrevocable trust omitted Hynie and James II as recipients of Brown's property. The irrevocable trust had also been established before, and not amended since, the birth of James II.
On January 24, 2007, Brown's children filed a lawsuit, petitioning the court to remove the personal representatives from the estate (including Brown's attorney, as well as trustee Albert "Buddy" Dallas) and appoint a special administrator because of perceived impropriety and alleged mismanagement of Brown's assets. On January 31, 2007, Hynie also filed a lawsuit against Brown's estate, challenging the validity of the will and the irrevocable trust. Hynie's suit asked the court both to recognize her as Brown's widow and to appoint a special administrator for the estate.
On January 27, 2015, Judge Doyet Early III ruled that Tommie Rae Hynie Brown was officially the widow of James Brown. The decision was based on the grounds that Hynie's previous marriage was invalid and that James Brown had abandoned his efforts to annul his own marriage to Hynie.
On February 19, 2015, the South Carolina Supreme Court intervened, halting all lower court actions in the estate and undertaking to review previous actions itself. The South Carolina Court of Appeals in July 2018 ruled that Tommie Rae was in fact Mr. Brown's wife.
At the end of his life, James Brown lived in a riverfront home in Beech Island, South Carolina, directly across the Savannah River from Augusta, Georgia. Brown had diabetes that went undiagnosed for years, according to his longtime manager Charles Bobbit. In 2004, Brown was successfully treated for prostate cancer. Regardless of his health, Brown maintained his reputation as the "hardest working man in show business" by keeping up with his grueling performance schedule.
In 1962, Tammi Terrell joined the James Brown Revue. Even though she was only 17, Brown became sexually involved with Terrell in a relationship that continued until she escaped his abuse. Bobby Bennett, former member of the Famous Flames told Rolling Stone about the abuse he witnessed, "He beat Tammi Terrell terrible," said Bennett. "She was bleeding, shedding blood." Terrell, who died in 1970, was Brown's girlfriend before she became famous as Marvin Gaye's singing partner in the mid-Sixties. "Tammi left him because she didn't want her butt whipped," said Bennett, who also claimed he saw Brown kick one pregnant girlfriend down a flight of stairs.
Brown was married four times. His first marriage was to Velma Warren in 1953, they had three sons together. Over a decade later, the couple had separated and the final divorce decree was issued 1969; they maintained a close friendship that lasted until Brown's death. Brown's second marriage was to Deidre "Deedee" Jenkins, on October 22, 1970. They had two daughters together. The couple were separated by 1979, after what his daughter describes as years of domestic abuse, and the final divorce decree was issued on January 10, 1981. His third marriage was to Adrienne Lois Rodriguez (March 9, 1950 – January 6, 1996), in 1984. It was a contentious marriage that made headlines due to domestic abuse complaints; Rodriguez died in January 1996. Less than a year after her death, Brown hired Tomi Rae Hynie to be a background singer for his band. They married in 2001.
On December 23, 2002, Brown and Hynie held a wedding ceremony that was officiated by the Rev. Larry Flyer. Following Brown's death, controversy surrounded the circumstances of the marriage, with Brown's attorney, Albert "Buddy" Dallas, reporting that the marriage was not valid; Hynie was still married to Javed Ahmed, a man from Bangladesh. Hynie claimed Ahmed married her to obtain residency through a Green Card and that the marriage was annulled but the annulment did not occur until April 2004. In an attempt to prove her marriage to Brown was valid, Hynie produced a 2001 marriage certificate as proof of her marriage to Brown, but she did not provide King with court records pointing to an annulment of her marriage to him or to Ahmed. According to Dallas, Brown was angry and hurt that Hynie had concealed her prior marriage from him and Brown moved to file for annulment from Hynie. Dallas added that though Hynie's marriage to Ahmed was annulled after she married Brown, the Brown–Hynie marriage was not valid under South Carolina law because Brown and Hynie did not remarry after the annulment. In August 2003, Brown took out a full-page public notice in Variety featuring Hynie, James II and himself on vacation at Disney World to announce that he and Hynie were going their separate ways. In 2015, a judge ruled Hynie as Brown's legal widow.