A whirling, feverish performer, James Brown was a melodramatic showman, with his scissor-splits and ritual of feigning fatigue, being led off stage in a cape and then charging back with evangelical zeal. More than that, he created a staccato vocabulary of dance that echoes in the steps of Michael Jackson, Prince, Usher and new performers today such as Chris Brown.
His music, meanwhile, was a unique bridge between soul and funk, and its audacious experiments with beat and structure made it a vital template for the hip-hop revolution.
Brown's life was as jolting as his art; there was his firebrand role in the black pride movement and his outspoken boldness on issues of race inequality — but there also were his bizarre drug and crime exploits and mercurial personality, which could be as coiled and unpredictable as his music. All of it combined to make him a volatile figure of fascination, a Miles Davis with dance moves.
The hits began in 1956 with "Please Please Please," a straightforward R&B hit of its time, but by 1961, with the memorable and unexpected sound of "Night Train," the singer was moving toward a sound that was melodically minimal and rhythm-heavy, laced with brass and punctuated by the ad-lib vocals that would become his signature. True national stardom arrived with the 1963 landmark release "Live at the Apollo, Vol. I," hailed by many critics as one of the essential concert albums in modern music.
Brown's live prowess and his incandescent hits — among them "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," "I Got You (I Feel Good)" and "Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine (Part 1)" — earned him the moniker the Godfather of Soul. But, like Elvis Presley, he cut across musical boundaries and then made new ones. As Rick Rubin, the producer, once wrote: "James Brown is his own genre."
The mid-1960s saw Brown hit his commercial peak. In February 1965, he released "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," a revolutionary single that crossed over to the Top 10 on the pop chart, where it was followed in short order by "I Feel Good (I Got You)." That song still resonates today: It's the oldest recording that gets regular airplay on Radio Disney, a channel not known for plumbing oldies for its pre-teen audience. The song fits in with today's collage-minded and beat-driven music and with good reason; Brown is routinely referred to as the most sampled artist in hip-hop history, and his music helped shape the spare aesthetics and bravado of the two-turntable-and-a-microphone generation.