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James Brown Dies at 73

The “Godfather of Soul,” James Brown-the R&B pioneer who ranks among Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan and the Beatles as one of the last century’s most significant musical innovators-succumbed to pneumonia on Christmas Day in Atlanta. He was 73.

In a career spanning over six decades, the iconic singer helped shape and define R&B and soul, in effect altering the course and rhythmic vocabulary of jazz and planting the seeds of funk, disco and rap. Where Dylan revolutionized music with lyrical content and John Coltrane did likewise by blurring the lines of sound and art, Brown’s contributions lied within his rhythmic innovations: His songs could be simultaneously polyrhythmic and Afro-centric as well as minimal and populist, their power reaching across racial and social divides.

Born James Joseph Brown on May 3, 1933, in Barnwell, S.C., “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business” began as a troubled, poverty-stricken youth. Abandoned by his family to relatives and friends when he was 4, he grew up on the streets of Augusta, Ga.; by the time he reached eighth grade, Brown had already served over three years in a reform school for breaking into cars. However, fate convened there as Brown met Bobby Byrd, a singer who led his own band, the Gospel Starlighters. Byrd took Brown under his musical wing-as his family took Brown into their home-and from there, Brown never looked back. The pair changed the band’s name to the Famous Flames and its sound to a harder-edged, grittier R&B. By 1956, King Records signed the group, who scored their first minor hit with the ballad “Please, Please, Please” later that year. 1958’s “Try Me” commenced 20 years of consistent hits and Brown became a mainstay on the R&B and pop charts.

Brown’s songs evolved from concise, upbeat constructions with tight arrangements and impeccable instrumentation into loose, extended, improvisational and polyrhythmic workouts (where precision remained constant and strictly enforced by Brown as a bandleader). In a way, Brown’s development mirrored Coltrane’s and influenced Miles Davis’, especially on Bitches Brew. 1967’s “Cold Sweat”-widely recognized as the first funk recording-is notable for its unique exploration of melodic minimalism and rhythmic repetition. In 1970, Brown took another turn with Soul on Top, recorded with the Louie Bellson Orchestra under the direction of Oliver Nelson, which would be as close to big-band jazz as he would ever come. By the mid-’70s-specifically with 1973’s The Payback-Brown was exploring epic workouts that predated disco, though coincided, spiritually, with Pharoah Sanders, Funkadelic and Fela Kuti.

After seemingly hitting his commercial nadir in the late ’70s and early ’80s-somehow being outshone by disco-Brown’s popularity and legendary status increased exponentially with the ascendance of rap, as DJs sampled cuts from the Brown catalog (as well as George Clinton’s). Hip-hop’s dependency on rhythm and aggressive attitude were shared traits with Brown’s music. In 1986, he became one of the initial inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (alongside Chuck Berry and Presley), and in 1992, he won a Grammy for lifetime achievement.

As reported in the New York Times, Brown is survived by fourth wife Tomi Rae Hynie, the couple’s son James Brown II and several other children from past relationships.

Originally Published