James Brown - The Godfather of Soul
Seven decades of funk and a bout with prostate cancer
by Julie McKenna
He is known as “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business,” “Soul Brother Number One,” “Mr. Dynamite.” He is the venerable, revolutionary, James Brown.
Since his first R&B hit, “Please Please Please,” in 1956, Brown has become an icon in American music. He is arguably the most innovative performer of the last 50 years, having influenced a variety of music genres, including soul, funk, gospel, disco, rock and rap. Over the years, Brown has totaled over 800 songs with 114 appearing on Billboard’s R&B singles chart and 94 on the Hot 100 singles chart. Brown’s music is frequently sampled by other artists and he recently collaborated with the Black Eyed Peas for the song, “They Don’t Want Music,” for the album Monkey Business.
James Brown has faced many health-related and legal challenges over the course of his life and career, but he continues to overcome adversity. So when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer late last year, he knew he could beat it. “When they found the cancer they said it was in the early stages and I thank God for that,” says Brown. “But even if I had been diagnosed too late I’d thank God anyway for everything he’d done for me.”
Brown had surgery in December 2004 and was fortunate that it removed all signs of his cancer. “I just trusted in the Lord and prayed and did what the doctors told me. And now I’m doing fine,” says Brown.
“Right now, the word from ol’ James Brown is ‘I feel good!’”
Just a few weeks after surgery, he was back on stage with his Seven Decades of Funk World Tour. Now, nearly a year later, he is in complete remission and Brown says he feels like his old self again. “Right now, the word from ol’ James Brown is ‘I feel good!’” Brown quips with a heartfelt laugh. “I just trust in God and trust in my doctors.”
Throughout his career, Brown has received numerous awards including the American Music Awards’ Award of Merit, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, the Lifetime Achievement Award of the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters, and he is a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee. But when asked which award stands out in his mind, he immediately cites his Kennedy Center Honors in 2003. “I was very proud to receive the Kennedy Center Award at the White House under the direction of Mr. Bush. His father was there whom I knew very well. Mr. Colin Powell, Senator Kennedy, and many friends were there. That was one I was very proud of because it recognized my hard work over the years,” Brown explains.
Brown was born in Barnwell, South Carolina, during the Depression. He was an only child and his parents separated when he was four. At the age of 16 he was sent to reform school where he met Bobby Byrd. After unsuccessful attempts at careers in boxing and baseball, Brown discovered his talent for singing when he and Byrd joined a gospel group in Georgia. Brown and Byrd eventually turned to secular music, forming a band that featured a combination of singing, dancing, and various instruments. Early on in his musical career, Brown became known for his onstage showmanship, with animated antics such as staging a heart attack.
Earlier this year, Brown published his memoir, I Feel Good: A Memoir of a Life of Soul, in which he writes candidly about the struggles and triumphs in his personal and professional life. Through it all, Brown says he remains grateful. Asked how cancer has changed his perspective, he says, “It made me thank God more. I just thank God more and more.”
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This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2005.