The Vault of Soul: James Brown’s Electrifying Career

The Vault of Soul: James Brown
Graphics by Kevin Shin

By Megan Doherty, Staff Writer


Regarded as one of the founders of funk, soul, and hip-hop, James Brown earned many nicknames. He's "The Godfather of Soul," "The Original Disco Man," and "Mr. Dynamite." You may also know him as "Soul Brother Number One" and "The Hardest-Working Man in Show Business."



Born May 3, 1933 in Barnwell, South Carolina, Brown grew up in the segregated South during the Great Depression. He was raised in Augusta, Georgia by his Aunt Honey, who took him in at age 5 after his parents divorced. He had an early introduction to gospel music in churches, and his neighbors taught him how to play drums, guitar, and piano. As a child, he sang for his classmates and competed in local talent shows. Despite his early musical experience, Brown initially wanted to pursue a career in baseball or boxing rather than music.

Abject to poverty, Brown endured a difficult childhood and became involved in street crimes in his youth. After a jail term, he turned to music and formed a gospel group called "The Famous Flames." Their unforgettable lively performances and Brown's emotive voice caught the attention of Little Richard. The influential rock & roller's manager helped promote the group. 



Brown's first recording Please, Please, Please (1956) sold three million copies and launched his remarkable career. He earned spots on the charts for almost 100 singles and 50 albums. Seventeen of those singles ruled Billboard's R&B tally. He also created two of the first successful live albums. 1963's Live at the Apollo alone spent 66 weeks on the charts. Following that landmark achievement was 1964's "Pure Dynamite! Live at the Royal, which charted for 22 weeks.

He may be known as the Godfather of Soul, but Brown's musicality and talent pushed beyond genres. Whether it was slow, soulful singing or letting out electrifying screams, he showed a mastery over the human voice. Melding aspects of blues, gospel, country, and other styles made him one of the most impactful singers of the century. 

James Brown died from a heart attack and fluid in his lungs on Christmas Day 2006.



Bues, gospel, and African-American folk music helped shape James Brown's style and career. After watching jazz and R&B singer Louis Jordan's performance footage, Brown wanted to be a musician and entertainer. He was also inspired by some of his contemporaries, like Little Richard, Elvis Presley, and Ray Charles.

Brown, who invented funk music, noted Little Richard as the person who introduced funk into rock and roll. However, Brown's the one who really developed and shaped funk into its own genre.



As the inventor of funk, Godfather of Soul, and Grandfather of Hip-Hop, Brown influenced countless people with his nuanced music. He's aware of his massive role in American musical and cultural history. He wrote in his memoir, "Others may have followed in my wake, but I was the one who turned racist minstrelsy into Black soul-and by doing so, became a cultural force." 

Artists such as Mick Jagger, Michael Jackson, Jay-Z, Afrika Bambaataa, Aerosmith, Public Enemy, David Bowie, and Dr. Dre have cited Brown as an inspiration. A testament to his impact, James Brown is the most sampled artist in Hip Hop History.



  • Best R&B Recording "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag" (Grammys, 1965)
  • Best Male R&B Vocal Performance "Living In America" (Grammys, 1986)
  • Rock and Roll of Fame (1986)
  • Best Album Notes Star Time (Grammys, 1991)
  • Lifetime Achievement Award (Grammys, 1992)
  • American Music Award of Merit (1992)
  • Pioneer Award for Lifetime Achievement (Rhythm and Blues Foundations, 1993)
  • Kennedy Center Honors (2003)
  • BET Lifetime Achievement Award (2003)
  • Hall of Fame (Grammys, 1998, 1999, 2010, 2013, 2014)




Beginning with massive, ascending horns and a drum roll, then a single horn spiraling the notes back down, "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" exemplifies Brown's musical range. On this soulful tune, he shows off how moving his expressive vocals can be when on a romantic ballad. The heartfelt song placed #1 on the R&B chart.



In the 1960s, Brown was an activist who used to perform at demonstrations for civil rights organizations. "Say It Loud - I'm Black And I'm Proud" serves as one of many amazing examples of his role in the Black Power movement. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame even named the song one the 500 that shaped rock and roll. It features a children's chorus in the hook interacting with Brown in call-and-response style. The kids were from the Los Angeles Watts neighborhood and Compton.


"I GOT YOU (I FEEL GOOD)" (1965)

"I Got You (I Feel Good)" is one of Brown's most widely known tunes. A second into the track, he lets out a quick yet distinct howl that instantly clues you in to what song just came on. This horn-filled upbeat groove earned Brown his biggest hit from his first major pop breakthrough in the mid '60s. 


Interested in exploring the Soul genre beyond the vault? Listen to 88.9 every night from 10 pm to 2 am for The Secret Spot. Let D Danubian wind you up and simmer you down with a blend of R&B, Soul, and Slow Jams.

Also, be sure to check out ERS+, our new HD radio experience. Take a deep dive into R&B and Hip Hop with the legendary voices of Soul alongside new and pioneering mc's. Find ERS+ online at WERSPlus.Org

Uncommon Newsletter

Music reviews, ticket giveaways, live performances & member specials.

Sign Up

We'll never sell your email, be boring or try to sell you on bad music.

in studio performances