In the history of R&B music, there has never been a more flamboyant artist than the legendary James Brown. No other artist has as many nicknames: “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business,” “Mr. Excitement,” “Soul Brother No. 1,” and his most famous moniker, “The Godfather of Soul.” Brown has influenced more singers than any artist in the history of music: Prince, Michael Jackson, Rick James, and Sly Stone are just a few of the legendary artists who were influenced by “The Godfather.”
James Brown was also the first soul singer who made his concerts into a must see show. His bombastic singing voice coupled with his innovative dance routines made attending his concerts an off the charts experience. This was especially true when he performed at Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theatre. It was at The Apollo where his legend grew to almost mythic proportions. It was all of these attributes that make Brown the second greatest R&B male singer of all time.
Brown’s first major hit, “Please, Please, Please,” was inspired by his idol; Rock and Roll Godfather Little Richard. Richard wrote the words on a napkin and challenged a then 21 year old Brown in 1955 to come up with a song based on those three words. Brown did, resulting in a ballad that became his first major hit. Three years later, in 1958, Brown released his first R&B number one song, “Try Me,” another ballad. While Brown has been historically lauded for his uptempo party and funk music, he first made his mark singing love songs. Both aforementioned ballads feature just how dark his bombastic voice gets when singing about love. A style of singing never seen before or since. Other great ballads sung by Brown throughout his career include “Lost Someone,” “Baby You’re Right,” “Prisoner of Love,” and in my opinion, his greatest love song he ever sung, “It’s a Man’s World.” “It’s a Man’s World,” is the single, most emotional song ever sung by Brown. It not only empowers men, but women as he outlines how men could not be great without the presence of women. How men would be lost without the presence of women. While ballads were definitely a strong part of Brown’s repertoire, it was his classic funk and up tempo music that would define his greatness.
Brown dominated R&B music between the years 1962-1974 with one up tempo song after another, beginning with 1962’s “Night Train.” During this period, Brown released one classic funky anthem after another; “Papa Don’t Take No Mess,” “I Got You,” “I Got The Feelin’,” “Mother Popcorn,” “The Big Payback,” “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud,” “Sex Machine,” and “Papa Don’t Take No Mess.” During this period, Brown redefined R&B music and became the innovator of funk music. His tours sold out all over the world, and he would perform for over three hours nightly while bathed in sweat from non stop dancing. His dance moves were never seen before, and was the major inspiration for the then very young Michael Jackson. In later years, while seeing Jackson perform, you see the incredible influence Brown had on him. There would never had been a Michael Jackson if James Brown never existed. Considering the number of artist that have copied Jackson’s style since the 1980’s, imagine the musical landscape if the presence of James Brown never existed.
On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King was assassinated, resulting in a massive flurry of riots throughout the majority of the inner cities in the United States. The following evening, Brown held a concert in the Boston Garden to help end those same riots. It was successful, as the concert was broadcast nationwide and during the show, Brown pleaded with the nationwide audience and fans in attendance to stop the violence. Almost immediately, the rioting ceased. The only other Black culture figure at that time who could’ve accomplished that feat was Muhammad Ali.
James Brown had a masterful career. Seventeen number one R&B hits, an original member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a Grammy lifetime achievement award, and a member of the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. He sung about love, political empowerment and having a good time. His greatest accomplishment, however, was probably the night he performed a concert the day after Martin Luther King was assassinated. In front of a sold out crowd at the Boston Garden and live on nationwide television, Brown’s concert helped bring an end to riots that were occurring throughout many of the inner cities in the United States. It led the State Department to keep an eye on Brown, as one official stated, “If that n@@@@er can stop a riot, he can start one as well!” All of this explains why James Brown is the second greatest R&B singer of all time.