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The Self Made Man: James Brown

This week’s Self Made Man Column, like the previous two, focuses on someone in the arts. But unlike John Waters, who grew up in stable upper-middle-class circumstances, or Steve ?Mugger? Corbin, a teenage runaway who was essentially adopted by the Los Angeles punk scene, our subject today clawed his way from extreme poverty (defined by the World Bank as living on less than $2 a day) to become an internationally famous singer, songwriter, and showman whose creative output changed what it meant to be a black musician. He also invented funk, for all practical purposes.

The Man

Really, if you don’t know that I’m talking about James Brown by this point, shame on you.

James Brown was born in South Carolina, and lived mostly with his father’s relatives, including an aunt who ran a whorehouse. As one might imagine, this was not an atmosphere conducive to formal schooling, and James dropped out of school in seventh grade, earning money through hustling, shining shoes, sweeping out stores, and other menial work. He learned how to play the harmonica, piano, drums, and guitar as he grew up, and danced to entertain troops from Camp Gordon as they passed through his aunt’s house. You know what I’m talking about.

Oh, and he also robbed people. That one’s kind of important, because it landed him in a juvenile detention center when he was 16, where he met Bobby Byrd (who would become an R&B legend in his own right). This friendship changed James’ life; after being released from juvy, he joined Byrd’s vocal group, which became the Famous Flames, aka James Brown’s first touring band. They would build up momentum during the remainder of the 1950s, and replace Little Richard on his remaining tour dates after Richard quit the music business to become a minister, and explode onto the scene in the 1960s. Not only did they release a string of hits and win a Grammy during that time, they upstaged the Rolling Stones.

What got James Brown noticed was his talent, but what made him famous was his work ethic. His live show clocked in over 300 performances a year, and he demanded a lot from himself and his band, who wore formal uniforms and shoes purchased by James himself. Put simply, the James Brown Revue played sick, hurt, and hungover every night for nearly 30 years straight, and never half-assed it. Their live show was known for its length and intensity, and most of their gigs were one-nighters, meaning they all packed into a fleet of tour buses, drove to the town, loaded in, rocked out for a couple of hours, loaded out, got back in the bus, and drove to the next town to do it all again. In retrospect, they were all goddamned insane. Presidential campaigns don’t keep that kind of schedule.

The result, though, was that James Brown had the best touring band of the 1960s, and arguably of the 1970s as well. His efforts also made him the top black entrepreneur in America ? he bought commercial and residential property, including radio stations (one of which he’d shined shoes in as a boy), and expanded into music publishing. And more than that, he was a public inspiration who recorded the unofficial soundtrack to the civil rights movement; his performance in Boston on the day after Martin Luther King’s assassination was credited with preventing riots in that city.

Now, was he perfect? No. Dear god, no. James’ personal life, unlike his professional one, was an unstructured, drug-addled freefall. But he was a successful man, and that came from working harder and having better instincts than everyone else. Whatever else you want to say about him, he was a Self Made Man. And, since it can’t be said enough, he was hell on the dance floor.


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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at

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