James Brown / Ahmet Ertegun
By Phast Phreddie Patterson
Blues singer/harmonica player Snooky Pryor (85) died on October 18 at a hospital in Cape Girardeau, Missouri.
He was born James Edward Pryor on September 15, 1921 in Lambert, Mississippi. As a teen, he learned how to play the harmonica while listening to Sonny Boy Williamson 78s. Pryor began his blues career while stationed near Chicago in 1940. On his leave, he would sit in with local musicians at the many blues clubs and on Maxwell Street. He was among the first blues harmonica players to play his instrument directly through an electric amplifier.
Pryor recorded his first sides in 1948 for the Planet label and issued a handful of records through the fifties on JOB, Parrot and Vee Jay. Mostly he recorded on dates by other bluesmen such as Sunnyland Slim, Homesick James and Floyd Jones.
During the early sixties, Pryor became disillusioned with the music business and he gave up playing the blues to become a carpenter in order to support his family in Ullin, Illinois. In 1973, his friend Homesick James talked him into joining him on a tour of Europe. While in England, they cut an album. But when Pryor came home, he continued with his carpentry.
In the late eighties, Pryor hung up his hammer and picked up his harmonica—his children were grown and he was retired. He returned to the stage and the recording studio; he made a series of albums featuring his brand of good, old-fashioned Chicago-style blues.
Blues guitarist Robert Jr. Lockwood (91) died of a brain aneurysm in a hospital in Cleveland, Ohio on November 21. He suffered a stroke on November 3.
He was born March 27, 1915 in Marvell, Arkansas and the family later moved to Helena, Arkansas. His first interest in music was on the piano, but during the late twenties, his mother had several romantic associations with the legendary bluesman Robert Johnson, and the older man taught Lockwood how to play guitar.
During the late thirties, Lockwood performed throughout the Mississippi Delta region—Helena, Memphis and Clarksdale, Mississippi—and occasionally recorded as an accompanist in Chicago for the Bluebird Record Company. In 1941, he made his own record for the label, but would not lead his own date again for ten years.
Also in 1941, he began working with Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller) on the “King Biscuit Time” radio show on KFFA radio out of Helena. The program was picked up throughout the area and musicians such as BB King found it to be highly influential.
In 1950, Lockwood moved to Chicago, where he worked with Sunnyland Slim. In 1951, Lockwood cut four tracks for Mercury Records. Two of them were released: a great version of Robert Johnson’s “Dust My Broom” and a very modern-sounding version of Arthur Cruddup’s “I’m Gonna Dig Myself a Hole,” which featured two-part harmony in the chorus—a technique rarely featured in blues music at the time.
During the fifties, Lockwood became a mainstay in the studio of Chess Records in Chicago. His playing on the recordings of Sonny Boy Williamson and Little Walter from 1955 to 1957 is especially noteworthy. On January 25, 1955, Lockwood played bass when Little Walter cut his classic “My Babe.”
In 1960, Lockwood recorded with the pianists Otis Spann, Willie Mabon and Sunnyland Slim. But in 1961, Lockwood moved to Cleveland, where he worked mostly outside of music to raise his family, but he occasionally took a local club or festival gig.
During the seventies, Lockwood’s association with Johnson became well known and it was both a blessing and a curse. It gave him regular work, but shallow audience members would insist Lockwood follow more closely in Johnson’s footsteps. Lockwood rebelled by featuring more jazz-like licks in his playing, much like the other Johnson, Lonnie.
During the eighties, Lockwood worked with another bluesman with a Robert Johnson association—Johnny Shines. Instead of aping Johnson’s style, however, the two men made music that was uniquely their own.
For the past several years, Lockwood worked with other veteran musicians David “Honeyboy” Edwards, Henry Townsend and Homesick James in a group known as The Delta Blues Cartel.
Jazz singer Anita O’Day (87) died of cardiac arrest in a West Los Angeles convalescent hospital on November 23. She was also suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and pneumonia.
Anita Belle Colton was born on October 18, 1919 in Chicago, Illinois. Her father left when she was one and her mother worked in a meatpacking plant. When she was seven, a doctor accidentally cut off her uvula during a tonsillectomy, leaving her without the ability to sing with a vibrato or hold notes. This gave her a unique sound when she began singing in Chicago taverns when she was still a teenager. She took the stage name “O’Day”—pig Latin for the “dough” she wanted to make as a singer.
In 1939, she was offered a steady gig at a downtown Chicago club. Two years later, Gene Krupa hired her to sing for his big band. The group cut “Let Me Off Uptown,” a jive-talking novelty jazz song featuring O’Day and trumpet player Roy Eldridge. It became a major swing hit. But when Krupa was sent to jail for possession of marijuana about a year later, the band broke up.
She worked briefly with Woody Herman before she joined the Stan Kenton Orchestra in 1944. Her vocals contributed to the success of several of Kenton’s hits. In 1945, she returned to the newly-freed Krupa and his new orchestra for about a year. In 1947, she cut her first records as a leader for Bob Thiele’s Signature label—including a great version of “Hi Ho Trailus Bootwhip.” In 1951, she had a pop hit on the Decca label with a version of “Tennessee Waltz.”
O’Day thrived musically during the fifties and early sixties with several highly acclaimed LPs she recorded for the Verve label. Although she became popular by singing swing songs, these recordings featured elements of bebop—she was a master at scat singing. In 1958, she gave a rousing performance at the Newport Jazz Festival that was captured in the film Jazz on a Summer’s Day, which put a shine on her reputation as a magnificent singer.
But all was not roses for O’Day. As she noted in her 1981 autobiography, High Times and Hard Times, she was haunted by addiction to heroin, abortions, alcoholism, imprisonment for drug possession, failed marriages and a nervous breakdown. In 1966, after suffering a near-fatal heroin overdose, she broke the habit cold turkey.
O’Day continued to perform and had just released a new album—her first in 13 years. A documentary, Anita O’Day—The Life of a Jazz Singer, is scheduled to be released in 2007.
Jump blues singer H-Bomb Ferguson (77) died from emphysema and cardiopulmonary disease in Cincinnati on November 26.
Robert Percell Ferguson was born in Charleston, South Carolina on May 9, 1929. His father encouraged him to play piano. In 1950, Ferguson toured with Joe Liggins and His Honeydrippers and several other R&B combos of the day, eventually landing in New York City, where the comedian Nipsey Russell helped Ferguson obtain work.
Later that year, he cut his first two records for the Derby label as Bob Ferguson, backed by Jack Parker’s Orchestra.
The next year, Atlas Records issued three 78s. The first, “Rock H-Bomb Rock,” introduced Ferguson’s new moniker—to better reflect his highly extroverted, shouting style and his booming voice. (These recordings are further notable for having a young Lou Donaldson employed as baritone saxophonist.) Later that year, Ferguson cut ten songs for the jazz label Prestige, but only one 78 was issued.
By the end of 1951, Ferguson was recording for Savoy. Although none of those recordings succeeded on the R&B charts, in 1986 the 16 songs were released as an album called Life Is Hard and, for the last twenty years, this has been his legacy. The recordings are excellent examples of early fifties jump blues in the Wynonie Harris/Roy Brown tradition.
Through 1960, Ferguson cut several sides for several labels—including one as a featured vocalist for the Andy Kirk Orchestra in 1954—but none of those records were able to move a significant amount of units. By the end of the fifties, Ferguson was living in Cincinnati. By 1961, he had stopped recording. He continued to work live at local clubs up until about 1971.
Around the time the afore-mentioned Savoy reissue was released, Ferguson reappeared—now armed with colorful wigs and an exaggerated stage show. He performed at several blues clubs and festivals, mostly in Europe. It is very possible that Ferguson was the last of the great pre-rock and roll R&B shouters.
Dutch rock singer Mariska Veres (59) died of cancer on December 2.
Veres was born in The Hague, Netherlands. Her father was a Hungarian who played violin in a gypsy orchestra. During the mid-sixties, Veres cut two solo singles and worked with several rock bands. In 1968, as a member of The Bumble Bees, she performed at a party celebrating the success of Golden Earring’s first Number One song in Holland when the manager of a struggling group called Shocking Blue noticed her and asked her to join it. She did and the group began working the clubs and concert circuit in Europe.
Shocking Blue’s “Venus” was issued in America toward the end of 1969 and it became a Number One hit on February 7, 1970. Subsequent releases did not fare as well in the States, but the group continued to be popular in Europe until it broke up in 1974. Veres then had a successful solo career in Holland.
The Shocking Blue continued to have influence on the American music scene into the eighties. In 1986, Bananarama had a Number One hit with “Venus,” and in 1989, the grunge rock group Nirvana covered “Love Buzz” on its first album.
Meanwhile, Veres worked in several styles, calling one band The Shocking Jazz Quintet. In 1993, she formed a new band and called it Shocking Blue. In recent years she appeared on a “back to the Seventies” music show on Dutch TV.
Record producer/entrepreneur Marshall Sehorn died December 5 at a hospital in New Orleans. He had been ill for some time.
Marshall Sehorn grew up in North Carolina. He played guitar in a local bar band, knew he wasn’t good enough to be a performer, but wanted to be part of the music business. In 1958, he introduced himself to Bobby Robinson, the owner of the Fire and Fury labels, at a record convention in Miami, Florida and talked himself into a job as the record company’s promotion man for the South.
A year later, Sehorn brought R&B singer Wilbert Harrison to the attention of Robinson and recorded “Kansas City.” It became a monster hit record nationally, but lawsuits ensued. Savoy Records claimed Harrison was under contract to them. Songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller claimed authorship of the song as it was basically a cover of their “K.C. Lovin’,” recorded previously by Little Willie Littlefield. Regardless, the hit record gave Sehorn strong footing in the music industry.
In 1960, Sehorn recorded “There Is Something on Your Mind” with Bobby Marchan—one of the singers with Huey Piano Smith & the Clowns—in New Orleans. While in the Crescent City, Sehorn met songwriter/producer/pianist Allen Toussaint and the two men began a business relationship that lasted more than ten years. First on the agenda was Lee Dorsey. In 1961, Dorsey’s “Ya Ya” was a major hit and the beginning of a long career for him.
Around 1963, the Fire and Fury labels folded due to financial difficulties. By then, Sehorn was firmly ensconced in New Orleans, working in tandem with Toussaint and the musicians there. He was able to get Dorsey signed to Amy Records and it resulted in “Ride Your Pony,” another hit R&B record.
Together, Toussaint and Sehorn had a production/record company (Sansu), a publishing company (Mar-Saint), a recording studio (Sea-Saint) and subsidiary labels (Tou-Sea, Deesu) and probably some other concerns as well. Among the artists they worked with are Betty Harris (her “Break in the Road” is an awesome slice of New Orleans funk), Eldridge Holmes (ditto for “Pop Popcorn Children”) and The Meters, who started as Sansu’s studio band (members played on the previously mentioned records.
During the seventies, Sehorn and Toussaint continued to work together, most notably on albums by The Meters and on Toussaint’s solo albums, released on Warner Bros. Records.
Jazz pianist and bandleader Jay McShann (90) died of respiratory problems on December 7 in Kansas City, Missouri.
James Columbus McShann was born in Muskogee, Oklahoma on January 12, 1916. He learned to play piano by listening to others, and was especially influenced by late night radio broadcasts that featured Earl Hines and His Grand Terrace Orchestra.
McShann worked with several territory bands—that is, swing bands that operated throughout the Midwest and the South that were not as well known as those that worked on the East or West Coast. By 1937, he was able to land a job at the Reno Club in Kansas City.
Kansas City became McShann’s base of operations. Here he developed his boogie-blues approach to his instrument, gained the nick name “Hootie,” and led several small groups—one of which included the young Charlie Parker. By 1940, McShann led a big band that became popular enough in the area to get signed to Decca Records.
On April 30, 1941 in Dallas, Texas, the band recorded six sides including “Swingmatisim”—an outstanding example of Kansas City swing that features Parker’s first commercially recorded alto saxophone solo—and “Confessin’ the Blues,” featuring vocalist Walter Brown.
“Confessin’ the Blues” became a major hit record in the “race” market and on jukeboxes, and today the song is considered a blues standard. However, the B-side, “Hootie Blues,” another vocal by Brown, also featured 12 bars of Parker, which proved to be influential to musicians who flipped the record over.
In January 1942, the Jay McShann Orchestra opened at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, and shared the bill with the Lucky Millinder Orchestra (which included Dizzy Gillespie at the time). McShann’s group went over very well—especially its alto saxophonist.
On July 2, McShann’s Orchestra recorded four sides, with Parker featured prominently on “The Jumpin’ Blues” and “Sepian Bounce.” After these recordings, the big band headed back out on the road, as it made its way back to Kansas City, but Parker remained in New York City where he developed his bebop style.
McShann was able to keep his big band working through most of 1944. In November of that year he led a small group that backed singer Julia Lee for a session recorded for Capitol Records. By then, Walter Brown had left for a solo career. McShann then worked with singers Crown Prince Waterford, Jimmy Witherspoon (including the classic version of “Ain’t Nobody’s Business,” a Number One R&B hit in 1949), Maxine Reed, Pee Wee Matthews and Priscilla Bowman for a variety of labels through January 1956. Then he returned to Kansas City to raise his family.
In August 1966, he recorded an album for Capitol that was exceptionally well received in Europe, where he began to tour and record fairly regularly beginning around 1969. McShann was featured in the 1979 film Last of the Blue Devils, which was recorded during the late seventies in Kansas City and dealt with the blues and jazz of that city.
British rock drummer Freddie Marsden (66) died of cancer on December 9 in Southport, England.
Frederick John Marsden was born in Liverpool, England on October 23, 1940.
His brother Gerry was born two years later. As teens, they concentrated more on their musical skills—forming skiffle bands and such—than their studies. During the late fifties, their band was called The Mars Bars, but when the candy company of the same name objected they became Gerry & the Pacemakers. In 1960, the group opened for Gene Vincent at the Liverpool Stadium. The next year they began a series of dates at the Top Ten Club in Hamburg, Germany.
The Pacemakers alternated dates with The Beatles at the Cavern Club in Liverpool. The Beatles were in attendance at Freddie Marsden’s 21st birthday party.
The Pacemakers also shared manager Brian Epstein with The Beatles. When The Beatles passed on recording the song “How Do You Do It,” Epstein brought it to The Pacemakers who had a Number One hit in England with it. Their next two singles, “I Like It” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” also topped the British pop charts in 1963—making Gerry & the Pacemakers the first act to ever make Number One with its first three releases in England.
Meanwhile, back in the States, the group’s recordings were licensed to the Laurie label. Several were issued before “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying” (co-written by Freddie Marsden) became a Number Four hit in 1964. Later that year, “How Do You Do It” was reissued and also went Top Ten. “I Like It” was also rereleased and it, too, did well. In 1965, “Ferry Cross the Mersey” served as the group’s last Top Ten US hit and the title to a film that featured the group riding around Liverpool on motor scooters.
In 1968, Gerry Marsden left the group to star in a West End musical, an act that broke up the band. Freddie Marsden worked as a telephone operator, and then opened the Pacemaker driving school. Gerry occasionally fronted other “Pacemakers,” but Freddie never returned to music.
Pop singer Georgia Gibbs (87) died of complications from leukemia in New York City on December 9.
She was born Freda Lipschitz in Worcester, Massachusetts on August 17, 1919. As a teen she sang in the Boston area using the name Freda Gibson. She appeared on radio shows with various big bands, including those led by Frankie Trumbauer, Artie Shaw and Tommy Dorsey. By 1942, she was billing herself as Georgia Gibbs and appeared regularly on the “Camel Caravan,” a radio show hosted by Jimmy Durante.
In 1950, she had her first hit with “If I Knew You Were Coming I’d Have Baked a Cake” for the Coral label. In 1952, she had a huge hit with “Kiss of Fire” for Mercury, the record company that released most of her hits. She recorded ballads, novelty numbers and Broadway standards.
In 1955, Gibbs had a Number Two pop hit with “Tweedle Dee,” a cover of the R&B hit by LaVerne Baker. Gibbs’ next single, “Dance With Me Henry” was a Number One pop hit for three weeks. It was a cover of the R&B hit “Wallflower” by Etta James. Thus began a practice by white singers to convert R&B material—mostly recorded originally by African Americans—into pop gold during the early rock and roll period. Others who engaged in this activity include The McGuire Sisters, Pat Boone and, to a certain extent, Elvis Presley and Bill Haley & the Comets.
Gibbs’ final Top 30 hit was “Tra La La” in 1956—another LaVerne Baker cover. Gibbs continued to record into the mid-sixties, but quit music soon after.
R&B singer Walter Ward (66) died at his home in Northridge, California on December 11 after a long illness.
Ward was born on August 28, 1940 in Jackson, Mississippi. As a boy, he sang in church. By the time he was a teenager, his family had moved to Los Angeles, California. While in high school, he sang with his cousin Eddie Lewis in vocal groups. In 1956, they formed The Challengers, but changed the name to The Olympics when they realized another group was using that name.
In 1958 The Olympics signed to Demon Records. Their first single was a Coasters-inspired novelty number called “Western Movies” that was written and produced by Fred Smith and Cliff Goldsmith (who worked with The Olympics at various times). It was a Top Ten pop and R&B hit.
A year later, Smith and Goldsmith began to work for the Arvee label, and they took The Olympics with them. “Big Boy Pete” did well for them on the R&B charts and the group began to record a string of dance songs, including “Baby Hully Gully,” “Shimmy Like Kate,” “The Slop,” “The Stomp,” “Mash Them ‘Taters” and “Dance by the Light of the Moon.”
During the sixties, The Olympics excelled at making soul records. The group cut three fabulous singles for Loma in 1965: “I’m Comin’ Home” is a gospel-influenced up-tempo number written by Ward; the other two discs were produced by Jerry Ragovoy—“Baby I’m Yours” (sweet symphonic soul) backed by “No More Will I Cry” (Northern Soul dance number), and the original version of “Good Lovin’” (a song so good that The Young Rascals copied it note-for-note and had a Number One pop hit with it in 1966).
In 1966, The Olympics signed to Mirwood, where they resumed being produced by Smith and Goldsmith. “Secret Agents,” “Mine Exclusively,” “Baby Do the Philly Dog,” “The Duck” and “I’ll Do a Little Bit More” are outstanding examples of Los Angeles soul music, as is their version of The Valentinos’ “Lookin’ for a Love” on Parkway from 1968.
The next five years only saw four singles released, but Ward kept The Olympics going into the 21st century, playing oldies shows. Their last gig was in November.
Record man Ahmet Ertegun (83) died on December 14 at a hospital in New York City after suffering a fall.
Ertegun was born July 31, 1923 in Uskudar, Turkey—a town near Istanbul. His father was an ambassador and his work had the family living in Switzerland, France and Britain. Ertegun’s mother had a deep fondness for music, which was relayed to him and to his older brother Nesuhi.
While based in London in the early thirties, Nesuhi and Ahmet attended concerts by Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington at the Palladium. They instantly became fans of American jazz and they became avid collectors of jazz 78s. In 1934, the senior Ertegun was posted to Washington, D.C. At the sons’ urging, the ambassador would often host visiting jazz musicians, resulting in impromptu jam sessions.
Ertegun attended St. John’s College and Georgetown University. In 1944, his father died and his mother returned to Turkey. Ertegun and his brother remained in the U.S.; they sold off their record collection in order to do so.
Ahmet and his friend Herb Abramson formed Atlantic Records in New York in 1947. Abramson had previously worked for National Records, where he dealt with Big Joe Turner and Billy Eckstine. In order to finance the operation, Ertegun borrowed $10,000 from his dentist.
The early Atlantic recordings were mostly by jazz musicians. In the spring of 1949, Atlantic had its first hit record with a blues—“Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee” by Sticks McGhee & His Buddies. At that point, Atlantic became a Rhythm & Blues label.
Later in 1949, Atlantic signed Ruth Brown and she became the label’s first regular hit maker. During the fifties, the record company had significant hits with Big Joe Turner, The Drifters, LaVerne Baker, The Clovers, The Cardinals and Ray Charles.
In 1950, one of the first artists signed to the new label finally paid off—“Anytime, Any Place, Anywhere” by Joe Morris and His Orchestra featuring Laurie Tate became a Number One R&B hit on November 4. Two weeks after its four-week run at the top, Atlantic had its second Number One with Ruth Brown’s “Teardrops From My Eyes.” That song topped the chart for 11 weeks. From then until 1963—when Billboard discontinued its R&B chart—Atlantic and/or its subsidiary label Atco had at least one chart topper each year.
Two things about Ahmet Ertegun: 1) he knew music—many of the artists he worked with are now considered legendary; 2) he had a keen business instinct—he hired some of the best people in the business. They included recording engineer Tom Down, A&R man Jerry Wexler who took Abramson’s place when he left, and production/songwriting team Mike Leiber & Jerry Stoller, to name a few. Plus, Ertegun was a genuine songwriter during the early years, not just a label head who put his name on a song because he could.
Ertegun was an early entrant in the bidding war for the services of Elvis Presley, but the company could not compete with RCA’s offer. Try to imagine Presley making records for Atlantic—a label that let an artist develop organically.
In 1956 Nesuhi joined the company to head up the jazz division—John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman and The Modern Jazz Quartet all recorded important records for the label.
During the sixties, while Wexler was busying himself with soul music—Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Stax Records, etc.—Ertegun fed the company rock and pop hits. He went to England, where he licensed product by The Bee Gees and Cream; and he traveled to California where he signed The Buffalo Springfield and Sonny & Cher.
In 1967 Ertegun sold the company to Warner Bros., then doing business as Warner Seven Arts, for $17.5 million. Ertegun remained at the helm of Atlantic, which retained its separate identity. In 1969 he brought in Led Zepplin, and a year later he helped The Rolling Stones finance their own record label and distributed it.
During the late forties, several important R&B labels were founded—Aladdin, Specialty, Chess, Modern, Savoy, etc—but none of them exist today. Atlantic has survived and continued to grow, even as most other labels seem to disappear, mostly due to mergers and buy-outs. Ertegun remained with the label throughout.
On October 29, The Rolling Stones were preparing to take the stage at a concert celebrating former President Bill Clinton’s 60th birthday, when Ertegun slipped backstage. He fell and hit his head so hard that he suffered a brain injury and lapsed into a coma. He remained in that state until he died more than a month later.
British rock musician Denis Payton (63) died of cancer in Bournemouth, England on December 17.
Denis West Patyon was born on August 11, 1943 in London, England. He learned to play an assortment of instruments and, as a teen, played saxophone in a jazz band while studying electrical engineering. By 1962, Payton became the saxophonist, harmonica player and occasional guitarist for a local beat combo named after its leader and drummer, Dave Clark. That year, The Dave Clark Five issued its first single, “Chaquita,” an instrumental that featured Payton’s growling tenor saxophone in a variation of “Tequila” by The Champs.
Although that record and a couple others did not sell well, the DC5 became a popular live act. In 1963, the group recorded a version of The Contour’s “Do You Love Me.” In Britain, the version by Brian Poole & the Tremeloes beat the DC5’s on the chart, however The Five’s was issued in the U.S. and it became a hit there
From then on, the bulk of The DC5’s songs were originals—mostly written or co-written by Clark: “Glad All Over,” “Bits and Pieces,” “Can’t You See That She’s Mine.” The group became very popular in America—helped along by 18 appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show. It is estimated that The Dave Clark Five sold more than 100 million records around the world.
The DC5 stood out from the other British Invasion groups of the early-mid sixties in that it prominently featured keyboards and saxophone, whereas the others—Beatles, Kinks, Who, Rolling Stones, etc.—were all guitar-based. Manfred Mann had a keyboard player but no other group in the world had the booming sound of The Dave Clark Five—that drum sound is a thing of wonder that has not been equaled. Denis Payton co-wrote several instrumentals. “On the Move,” the stompin’ B-side to “Catch Us if You Can,” showcases his wailing saxophone playing; he is featured on harmonica on the scorching “All Night Long,” B-side to “Try Too Hard.”
In 1965, the group appeared in a film called Catch Us If You Can—which was titled Having a Wild Weekend in the U.S. Obviously an answer to The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night, the DC5 vehicle is actually more serious and quite watchable, as opposed to other films that featured British Invasion groups of the time.
By 1967, DC5-mania had settled down. The group had a few more hits in England, but its style was considered dated compared to the new fangled flower power and heavy underground groups that were becoming fashionable as the sixties ended. The Dave Clark Five broke up in 1971. Soon after, Payton became a real estate agent on the south coast of England and played in a local combo called Formula One.
Soul singer James Brown (73) died of congestive heart failure on December 25 in Atlanta, Georgia.
James Joe Brown, Junior was born on May 3, 1933 in a one-room country shack near Barnwell, South Carolina. When he was four, his mother abandoned the family and two years later his father left him with a great aunt to raise. He sang gospel music at the local Baptist church and learned to play drums, piano and guitar. He also boxed. When he was 15 he was arrested for stealing clothes out of a parked car. Beginning in 1949, he served three years in jail for a series of petty crimes. While incarcerated, he met Bobby Byrd, who sang in a gospel group that often entertained in local prisons. After Brown sang with Byrd’s group, Byrd had his mother adopt Brown and helped get him paroled.
It soon became apparent that Brown would be the lead singer of Byrd’s group, as it turned from gospel to R&B. By 1954, the group was called The Flames and it became a popular act by performing lively versions of songs by The Midnighters, The “5” Royales and others. In January 1956, the group was signed to Federal Records, a subsidiary of King. On February 4, it recorded four songs. The first, “Please Please Please,” was a gospel-drenched screamer that didn’t sound like anything else at the time. Released on March 3, it was credited to “James Brown with the Famous Flames,” unbeknownst to the group, which was still billing itself as The Flames. The record eventually climbed its way into the R&B Top Ten by the summer.
Follow-up releases failed to pay off. Nine consecutive releases of solid R&B vocal workouts, ballads, jump blues and rock and roll failed to excite the public. Label owner Syd Nathan gave up on the act.
Brown persisted. In 1958, using the group’s own money, they cut a demo of a new Brown composition and played it for Nathan. He was impressed enough to book a session in New York City using local session musicians. “Try Me” was released in October. A month later it hit the Billboard R&B chart. On February 2, it knocked Jackie Wilson’s “Lonely Teardrops” off the top of the chart.
Up until then, The Famous Flames were mostly vocalists who played instruments when they had to at live shows. With this new success—and James Brown clearly in the driver’s seat—he recruited the J.C. Davis Combo to become his backing band and built a show around it.
And what a show! On April 24, 1959, James Brown & His Famous Flames opened for Little Willie John at the Apollo Theater in Harlem and tore the place up.
In 1960 Brown’s recording output was shifted to the mother label King, in order to give it a higher profile. It worked; several of his subsequent releases were top R&B sellers.
During the sixties, the James Brown Show was a success—mostly with black audiences, as his records received very little airplay on pop radio. Brown wanted to make a live album, but label head Nathan did not. Using his own money, Brown booked some dates in October 1962 and recorded the show. Nathan refused to release it.
In April of the next year, Brown cut the Russ Columbo song “Prisoner of Love,” complete with a string section. The Top Ten R&B hit went into the pop Top 20. Brown now demanded that Live at the Apollo be released. When it was finally issued it became the Number Two selling record in America.
Around this time, Brown became active in the business side of the industry. He started his own publishing company, record company and production company in order to promote members of his group (Bobby Byrd, Baby Lloyd, Bobby Bennett) and revue (Tammy Montgomery AKA Tami Terrell, Yvonne Fair, Anna King, Vicki Anderson). Many of the production efforts were licensed to Smash Records, a subsidiary of Mercury, including instrumental recordings featuring J.B. at the organ.
In 1964, “Out of Sight”—an early example of funk and one of Brown’s best records—was released on Smash. It reached the Top Ten of the Cashbox Black Contemporary Singles chart (Billboard did not publish R&B charts in 1964) and Syd Nathan sued Mercury. The Out of Sight album was recalled. However, Brown’s point was made. He received a better deal at King, which also agreed to release Brown’s productions and eventually gave him his own label, People Records.
In October 1964, Brown was featured in the The T.A.M.I. Show, a filmed document of several rock, pop and soul acts of the day, where he clearly upstaged the headlining act, The Rolling Stones.
In February 1965, with a band consisting of his touring group—including Maceo and Melvin Parker, Nat Jones and the great blues guitarist Jimmy Nolen—augmented by session musicians at a studio in New York City, James Brown recorded a song that would change the course of music forever—“Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.” This was a sound like no other that had come before it—straight from outer space. For all intents and purposes, this is the beginning of funk music as we know it.
“Papa” was Brown’s biggest hit to date—a Number One R&B hit for eight weeks. It even went Top Ten pop and won a Grammy Award. The next single, “I Got You (I Feel Good)” was only Number One R&B for six weeks, but it reached Number Three pop.
J.B.’s funk became the new soul music, used as a blueprint by such artists as Sly Stone, The Temptations, Aretha Franklin, The Meters, The Isley Brothers and too many others to list. During the late seventies it became the cornerstone upon which rap and hip hop music was based—indeed, dozens of hip hop records have sampled James Brown records.
Brown had further Number One R&B hits with “Cold Sweat,” “I Got the Feelin’,” “Give It Up or Turnit a Loose,” “Mother Popcorn” and “Superbad.”
In 1968, Syd Nathan died. King Records was sold and re-sold, but the hits continued for Brown. In 1971, Brown’s contract and his back catalog were sold to Polydor Records—a European-based company that had been distributing King product in Europe for several years. J.B. did not stop. In 1974, three records in a row—“The Payback,” “My Thang” and “Papa Don’t Take No Mess”—were Number One R&B hits.
By the late seventies, Brown seemed to have run out of steam. The disco craze kept him off the higher reaches of the charts, although he made some fine recordings in the genre: “Get Up Offa That Thing,” “Bodyheat” and “It’s Too Funky in Here.”
In 1984, he cut a notable record with rapper Afrika Bambaataa called “Unity.” The next year, “Living in America,” a song from Rocky IV, was a Number Four pop hit. After three more Top Ten R&B hits in 1987 and 1988, Brown never returned to the upper echelon of the R&B chart.
James Brown has truly earned the title The Hardest-Working Man in Show Business. His recording output is very large—more than 200 singles released—and of a very high quality. Plus, he produced a myriad of other artists, including many who influence him, such as Hank Ballard, The “5” Royales and Bill Doggett.
Brown was very influential in the Black community. Presidents sought his advice. The day after the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, Brown performed a show in Boston that was televised with the hopes of keeping rioters of the streets, and it did. Brown was a man who was born in a shack and, with his immense talent and by the sweat of his brow, made himself one of the most successful and popular people on the planet.
Although he had several brushes with the law—some involving drugs and violence—nothing can overshadow the fabulous music that he created.
On December 24, Brown was taken to Emory Crawford Long Hospital in Atlanta to be treated for pneumonia. At 1:45 the next morning his heart gave out, but not his soul.