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The Music And Mission Of James Brown

A new look at the music and mission of the Godfather of Soul–James Brown.

Gospel-soul singer James Brown sings "Living in America" during his three-hour concert at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles, Ca., on June 10, 1991. (AP)

Gospel-soul singer James Brown sings "Living in America" during his three-hour concert at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles, Ca., on June 10, 1991. (AP)

Mister James Brown got all the top tags in soul music.  Soul Brother Number One.  The Hardest Working Man in Show Business.  Mr. Dynamite.

The Godfather of Soul.  He earned them.  His stage show was so electric.  His career was so long.  His music so exhilarating.  A new biography tells his story.  Coming up hard in “Georgialina”.  Battling all the way.  Becoming the one.

This hour, On Point:  the life and music and mission of James Brown.

-Tom Ashbrook



R. J. Smith, former senior editor for Los Angeles Magazine and contributor to blender. He is the author of The One: The Life and Music of James Brown.

Gail Mitchell, R&B senior correspondent and senior editor for Billboard Magazine.

From Tom’s Reading List

The New York Times “Lovability was not Mr. Brown’s salient attribute. So the reader who knows little of Mr. Brown’s story may not instantly grasp why that story is so mesmerizing. For that reader, three words of advice: “Please, Please, Please.””

USA Today “James Brown was never a big man, but even as a troubled young man growing up in abject poverty, he was larger than life. RJ Smith’s The One: The Life and Music of James Brown crackles with the same intensity Brown used to overcome his destitute beginnings to become the Godfather of Soul, who could whip audiences into a sweat-drenched frenzy with his primal screams and electrifying dance moves.”

Video: “Please, Please, Please” And “Night Train”

Check out this concert footage of James Brown from the TAMI Rock Concert in 1964.

Video: Get On Up!

James Brown in 1971 here, singing “Sex Machine.”


“I Got You (I Feel Good)” (LIVE)
“Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag” (LIVE)
“(Call Me) Super Bad” (LIVE AT THE APOLLO, 1971)
“Please, Please, Please” (PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE, 1956)
“I’ve Got Money” (I’VE GOT MONEY, 1962)
“Mashed Potatoes U.S.A.” (MASHED POTATOES U.S.A., 1962)
“I’ll Go Crazy” (LIVE AT THE APOLLO, recorded 1962)
“Out of Sight” (LIVE AT THE T.A.M.I. SHOW, 1964)
“Oh Baby Don’t You Weep”
“Cold Sweat”
“Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)”
“It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” (LIVE AT THE APOLLO, 1967)
“Funky Drummer”
“Get Down” by Nas
“Living in America”
“I Got You (I Feel Good)”

Excerpt: The One


I’m not gonna show you the secret, James Brown would tell people who asked about the One, but . . . Then he would start talking.

Brown refused to reveal the mystery because the One was a trade secret. It would remain a puzzle because the more mystique it had, the more mystique he had, and mystique was good for business.

The One was a way to find yourself in the music, it was a means for drummers to come together with one another. It was a small element in a life’s work, but like the drip was to Jackson Pollock or the footnote to David Foster Wallace, for Brown the One was bigger than it first appeared, a trifling that embodied the world he made.

Maybe most of all, for James Brown, the One was an anchor, an upbeat that put him in touch with his past and who he had become.

As he once explained it: “The ‘One’ is derived from the Earth itself, the soil, the pine trees of my youth. And most important, it’s on the upbeat—ONE two THREE four—not the downbeat, one TWO three FOUR, that most blues are written. Hey, I know what I’m talking about! I was born to the downbeat, and I can tell you without question there is no pride in it. The upbeat is rich, the downbeat is poor. Stepping up proud only happens on the aggressive ‘One,’ not the passive Two, and never on lowdownbeat. In the end, it’s not about music—it’s about life.”

To Brown it was a heartbeat that connected him to the dancers and singers and time keepers who came before him. The One put him on a timeline, though the way he talked about the beat, it put him at the end of the line: the ultimate expression of a heritage.

He wasn’t gonna show you the secret. But if you listened . . .

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  • Brett

    Live at the Apollo (1963) is one of Brown’s most inspired performances, and the album influenced me musically. Later, Clyde Stubblefield and “Jabo” were essential listening if one wanted to understand early Funk drumming. Also, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Bootsy Collins’ (on bass) contribution to James’ sound…and George Clinton stole everything he could set his ears on (in a good way)!

  • Old Drummer

    As a former drummer from Berklee (Boston - 69, 70, and 71) – James Brown and the rhythm section (bass/drums) were ingenious. The only way you can truly appreciate what he had going on is to have played drums (jazz and rock) for many years like I did in my earlier years.

    • Brett

      I started playing drums in 1961 at age six, and Brown’s rhythm section was essential listening. Much of the “style” of drumming prominent in his sound was emphasizing the first beat in the measure (making it as fat as he could get it). Most soul drummers of the time played strong backbeats, emphasizing the two and the four beats in the measure. 

      • Modavations

        Never saw him,but in Boston I went to many a gig featuring the “Wicked Mr.Wilson Pickett”.I’m a punk reggae kid.Clash,Sublime,Steve and Damien Marley.Love Electronic too.Fat Boy Slim,Chemical Brothers.I gots ta dance

        • Gregg

          I never saw Wilson Pickett but I played Keys with Percy Sledge for a decade. Percy was great friends with Mr. Pickett and had awesome stories about the day. Percy always did “Midnight Hour”. I’m tempted to post a video.

          • Brett

            Sledge enjoyed a “come-back” of sorts throughout the 1990′s after ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’ hit the charts in England again (after being featured in a commercial I think). If you played with him during that time, it would have been a pretty sweet gig. 

            “Midnight Hour” is one of those songs that everybody loves playing. Remember Felix Pappalardi’s (sp?) version (of The Rascals)? I learned a lot of Soul music from the “blue-eyed” versions, then I’d go back and find the original versions…Of course, I got Otis Redding straight from Otis Redding!  

          • Gregg

            It was during the late 90′s though about 2008 or so. I wrote a couple of songs for him but he never recorded them, maybe he still will. I called him up last Nov. on his birthday and was was doing great although he’s not playing much. He had some great stories about Otis too.

          • Modavations

            The sad part is back then these gigs were half Black,half white.No one wanted to fight, we all wanted to dance.Now Blacks and Whites never hang.All my black mates are in JoBurg,with a few in Brixton.

        • Brett

          My second drum teacher had done some studio work with Wilson Pickett and had toured with him. The guy said he’d toured with Otis Redding a couple of years before Otis’ death, too. 

        • BEEZ

          Humans are amazing creatures; I never would have pegged you as a Jr Gong fan! I’m suprised his poltical and humanistic message hasn’t rubbed off on you at all…

          • Modavations

            Life is strange.Cuba turned me.I’ll tell you the tale if they ever do a Cuba story.Mind Control by Damien Marley..Sweeeeeet Jesus

    • Modavations

      I was raised on J.Geils Band at the Boston Tea Party.And can anyone play a harp like Magic Dick

  • Anonymous

    The master of funk, what more can one say.
    And I agree with comments about that rhythm section, they defined the meaning of tight and in the pocket.

    James Brown’ music gave us Parliament Funkadelic and the rest is history…

  • Modavations

    While the Woe as me crowd,brushed their teeth,combed their hair and “wrung the collective hands”,I had the stereo cranked.My beloved yelled down the hall,”what the hell’s going on????I yelled back…”I Feel Goooood,like a real man should”……

  • Gregg

    Alfred Hitchcock meets James Brown.


  • Gregg

    James Brown’s influence is huge. Prince is a great example from his dance steps to his “Papa’s got a brand new bag” guitar riff in “Kiss”.

  • John in Vermont

    The TAMI show (above) was the first time I (and a lot of white kids) saw James Brown. He was the best showman on the bill and I became a fan right then and there.  By contrast Mick Jagger was a stick figure, rooted in place.  I think a lot of what you see in the Stones performances and other bands owes a lot to James and that movie.

  • http://twitter.com/marlonibrown Marlon I. Brown

    Though I did not grow up during the “James Brown Era,” I will always remember growing up with his music.  My cousin was a huge James Brown fan and would endlessly play his music on our long car trips from Michigan to Alabama.  The exciting music made the trip bearable and to this day I still love listening to “Make it Funky” where James Brown lists off names of soul food dishes at the end of the song!

  • troll_doll


  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1347766031 Sabrina Dupree

    He gave us Maceo Parker! For that alone, God bless him

  • Peterpia

    I listen to JB everyday, my best friend Clem got me into him in the 80′s and I’ve seen him about a dozen times last time at The Apollo for the anniversary of Live at The Apollo.    

  • Monica Roland

    Ski town Steamboat Springs, Colorado, named a little bridge over the Yampa River the “James Brown Soul Center of the Universe” in 1993.  The citizens named the bridge in a democratic vote, maybe as a joke, but it lives in Steamboat history.  The great man came to the dedication dressed in an electric blue jumpsuit.


  • WW_ph15

    His music is so uplifting. If I need a boost of energy, or want to get out of a funk, I put James Brown on and “I Feel Good”!

  • Brett

    I’ve got an old instructional video made by Stubblefield and Jabo…It’s a gem. Stubblefield says things throughout the video like, “boom shukka, boom shukka, shukka, shukka boom…” “Now, if you can say it, you can play it!” It’s a hoot! Stubblefield now sometimes plays with the band on NPR’s “What Do You Know.” 

  • Brad

    Many folks don’t realize that James Brown was a great Hammond Organ player.  That is him playing on many of those early instrumental tracks on King records.

  • Tina

    It was 1967.  My college best friend was the school refectory  (cafeteria) DJ.  On went the James Brown.  WHY was no one asking me to dance on the table tops?  My best friend and I may have been in Seventh Heaven, but the other kids were walking out of the refectory … angry … in 1967! that we were  playing such stuff.  They wanted the undanceable sounds of the druggy-music “revolution”.  

  • JMc

    The dual album “The JB’s”, is one of my favorite from James Brown. My 5 and 7 year old daughters love to listen in the car. His Christmas CD telling the holiday’s from a ghetto point of view is also another favorite.

  • Brett

    I think I saw Brown for the first time on The Ed Sullivan Show; I don’t remember, really, but I do remember his schtick with the robe and all. I remember being a little boy and thinking that was the coolest stuff there was! 

  • http://www.facebook.com/billcarbone Bill Carbone

    James Brown is perhaps the most timeless musician with the broadest appeal of anyone in the history of American pop music.  I’m a drum teacher at Wesleyan University and I also have a background in ethnomusicology.  I teach all of my students how to groove vis-a-vis the history of the development of the drum parts in James Brown’s music, from “Please, please, please” to “Body Heat.” In those drum parts are the history of American music; they go from shuffles, to funky popcorn beats, to the hard, simple disco grooves.  It seems like they end in the late ’70s but they start all over again with sampling in the ’80s.
    What’s more interesting is that EVERY student loves it.  Kids that love metal, or listen to nothing but hipster indie-rock light up when I play James Brown.  They love early tracks like “I’ve Got Money,” even though it came out 30-some years before they were born.  They learn the grooves and get better too! 
    Thanks for this book, I can’t wait to read it.

  • Jane Buchan

    I was born in 1945 in Windsor, Ontario, and lived a typically repressed white-girl’s life until I heard James Brown scream into our staid high school dances.  The first time I and so many others of my boomer generation heard The One’s music, we discovered we had pelvises.  Life has never been the same since. 

    James Brown, more than Elvis, more even than Chuck Berry or Detroit’s MoTown artists, introduced us to the juicy, grounding, incredibly passionate and rejuvenating world of free dance.  We adored and adored him . . . at least do those of us who are striving to live fully from that edgy evolutionary place of total authenticity.

  • Roy-in-Boise

    My step-brother in NY currently plays with the JB Horns … The Willie Amrod Band from the Kingston-Rhinbeck area features PeeWee Ellis & the other horn players. They can be seen around the Hudson Valley often.

  • Anonymous

    I saw James Brown in 1983 at the Channel Nightclub in Boston. Even though he took the stage two hours late it was one of the greatest shows I have ever witnessed. Non-stop up tempo. At one time his band featured a 17 year-old bassist from Cincinnati named Bootsy Collins who went on to play with George Clinton and Parliament/Funkadelic

  • Big Bruce

    Every One who loved James ,He left a man to carry on YOUNG JAMES BROWN see youtube Tony Wilson and James Brown Relationship .Any One seriously Interested in sponcering To Keep James Brown legacy alive contact starzzpromotions @gmail .com only serious Interests.

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