The Kings of Funk

James Brown

Early Life

James Joseph Brown, known as James Brown or The Godfather of Soul, was born in Barnwell, South Carolina, on May 3, 1933. His parents were Susie and Joseph Gardner Brown. Initially, his name was supposed to be Joseph James Brown, but it was switched on his birth certificate. James dropped out of school in the 6th grade. At 10, he sang at a talent show in 1944 at Augustas Lenox Theater. While in Augusta, Georgia, Brown learned how to play piano, guitar, and harmonica. After hearing Louis Jordan and his Typany Five’s song “Caledonia”, Brown was inspired to become an entertainer. In his teen years, Brown had a brief boxing career. At 16, Brown was held at Toccoa’s juvenile detention center for robbery. While in the detention center, he got the nickname “Music Box”.


Brown formed a gospel quartet with his cellmates while in the detention center. Outside of the center, Brown met the singer Bobby Byrd. Brown was released on work sponsorship with S.C. Lawson, who was a Toccoa business owner. Lawson employed Brown for two years after his release. In 1952, Brown was paroled, and he joined the Ever-Ready Gospel Singers, a gospel group. After former member Troy Collins died in a car crash in 1954, Brown took his place in Byrd’s group. The group’s name changed a lot over time, but it went from Gospel Starlighters to the Famous Flames. In 1955, the group contracted Little Richard. Richard suggested they called Clint Brantley, his manager. Brantley agreed to manage the group. The group composed “Pleased, Please, Please” at the local radio station that Brantley sent them to record a demo session. Later in 1956, the single was re-recorded.


In 1957, the original group went separate ways, and it became “James Brown and The Famous Flames”. In 1958, “Try Me” was released by the group, which was #1 on the R&B charts in 1959. The Famous Flames reunited in 1959 and opened for Little Willie John, Brown’s idol, at the Apollo Theatre.


Brown had 2 of the first successful albums that were live near in concert. Live at the Apollo (1963) stayed on the charts for 66 weeks and Pure Dynamite! Live at the Royal (1964) stayed on charts for 22 weeks. During the 1960s, Browns’ music was associated with Black nationalist movements. This included songs like “Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m, Proud” (1968) and “Don’t Be a Dropout” (1966). Brown received the title of “Godfather of Soul” in the 1979s. In the 1980s, many of Brown’s songs were sampled for the upcoming hip hop genre. 


Brown is commonly known for his ability to scream on the beat and his stage presence. He inspired generations to come, such as Michael Jackson. Brown played an important role in shaping funk music. Internationally, especially in Africa, Brown was quite successful with lots of support.


In 1986 Brown’s song “Living In America” won a Grammy Award for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance. In the same year Brown was inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 1991, his song, “Star Time” won a Grammy Award for Best Album Notes. In 1992 the Grammy Awards presented him with the Lifetime Achievement Award.

Rick James

Early Life

James Ambrose Johnson Jr. is referred to as Rick James or The King of Punk-Funk. James was born in Buffalo, New York, on February 1, 1948. His parents were Mabel and James Ambrose Johnson Sr. Johnson Sr. left the house when Jame was only ten years old. Mabel was a dancer for Katherine Dunham and then became a numbers-runner. When his mother took him to the bars, she worked at, and he’d see artists such as John Coltrane and Etta Jones performing.

After dropping out of high school, James was caught for burglary as a young teen. James enlisted into the U.S. Navy at 14 or 15. Around the same time, he became a drummer for local jazz groups in New York. Once he was ordered to Vietnam because he missed his Reserve sessions, James fled to Toronto, Canada. After arriving, Levon Helm and two other guys helped James when a group of drunk men attacked him. Helm was a part of Ronnie Hawkins’ backup band. He invited James to their show that night. James ended up performing with them.

To avoid military authorities, James went by Ricky James Mathews. In 1965, James found a band that was a combination of soul, funk, and rock music called Mynah Birds. In the same year, the group recorded their 1st single, “Mynah Bird Hop,” with Columbia Records’ Canadian division. After rearranging the group’s members, they traveled to Detroit to record with Motown. While in Detroit, James met Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, his idols. After meeting Stevie Wonder, he suggested he shorten his stage name from Ricky James Matthews to Ricky James.


In 1966 Motown learned about James’ fugitive status with the Navy due to him going AWOL. Motown executives told James to settle his legal issues and come back when they were resolved. In 1966, James surrendered to the FBI. For unauthorized absence, the Navy sentenced him to 5 months of hard labor. After six weeks of confinement, James escaped the Naval Brig. James surrenders to the FBI once again after six months as a fugitive. James’ mother helped him get help from his cousin, who later became a congressman, Louis Stokes, and lawyer, former Marine Captain John Bracken. They got James’ sentence to come down from a potential five years to 5 months. James was released in 1967, and he returned to Toronto. In 1968, James worked under his real name Ricky Matthews.


-He wrote songs at Motown for groups like The Spinners and The Miracles. Looking for more opportunities, James moved out to LA with Greg Reeves, another musician. The two crashed on the musician Stephen Stills’ couch. The leader singer of the group, The Doors, Jim Morrison, tricked James into taking acid. In 1970, James was included in Bruce Palmer’s solo album The Cycle Is Complete alongside Salt’N’Pepper member Ed Roth.


In 1973, James signed with A&M Records. His first single, My Mama, was released in 1974, and it became a club hit in Europe. In 1976, James formed the tone City Band and released his second single, “Get Up and Dance!”. After James and the Stone City Band signed with Motown’s Gordy Records in 1977, they began recording their first album in NY. His debut album Get It! Included the two popular singles, “Mary Jane” and “You and I”. In 1981, his album Street Songs had the songs “Give It To Me Baby”, “Fire and Desire”, and “Ghetto Life”.


In 1981, James was nominated for two Grammy Awards for his two singles, “Super Freak” and “Street Songs”. James won a Grammy Award for “U Can’t Touch This” in 1990


Early Life

Prince Rodgers Nelson was a singer, songwriter who also played multiple instruments. Prince was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is now for his eclectic work across several genres and falsetto and high-pitched screams. Prince’s mother, Mattie Della, was a jazz singer, and his father, John Lewis Nelson, was a pianist and songwriter. He was named after his father’s stage name “Prince Rodgers,” but he preferred to be called Skipper most of his childhood. Prince’s father and mother performed in a jazz group called “Prince Rodgers Trio”. When he was in high school, he trained at the Minnesota Dance Theatre. At the age of 7, he wrote his first song on his father’s piano. After his father kicked him out, Prince moved in with his neighbors, The Anderson family. Andre Cymone, Anderson’s son, and Prince became close friends.


In 1975, Pepe Willie, the husband of Prince’s cousin, hired Prince and Cymore to record tracks for his new band 94 East. After being unable to offer Prince, a recording contract producer Chris Moon took Prince’s tape to Minneapolis businessman Owne Husney. Husney was able to sign Prince to a management contract at 19. Prince put together a demo recording with the help of Husney at the Sound 80 Studios in Minneapolis. The demo got the attention of record companies, including Warner Bros. Records and Columbia Records. In 1979, Prine created a band with Cymore at 14 years old. The band’s first show was at the Capri Theater on January 5, 1979. Warner Bros. executives were in attendance but thought Prince needed more development.


In 1979, Prince released his first album Prince(1979), and it went platinum. In 1980, he released the album Dirty(1980), known for its explicit content. In the same year, Prince was the opening act for Rick James’ “Fire It Up” tour. In 1982, Prince released a double album 1999(1982), which sold over 4 million copies. The title song, “1999,” was a protest song against nuclear proliferation. “Little Red Corvette” was one of the 1st videos by Black artists, alongside Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”. The song played on rotation on MTV.


The song “Delirious” placed top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts. “International Lover” earned Prince his 1st Grammy nomination in 1984. Prince’s album Purple Rain(1984) was his best-selling album and earned him his first Grammy Award. In 1999, he released Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic under the Arista label. His memoir The Beautiful Ones (2019) was released after his death, and it included text and photos with original music for his fans. 


In 1985 Prince won 3 Grammy Awards; 2 were for his album Purple Rain. In 1987 his song “Kiss” won a Grammy Award for Best R&B Performance by Duo or Group with Vocals. In 2005, Prince won two more Grammy Awards for the songs “Call My Name” and “Musicology”. The final Grammy Prince won before his death was in 2007 for his song, “Future Baby Mama”.


In 2004, Prince was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 1985, Prince’s song “When Doves Cry” from the film Purple Rain was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Original Song. In 2007, “The Song of the Heart” from the movie Happy Feet won a Golden Globe Award for Best Original Song.


These three Kings were influences for many to come after them. Funk and Soul transitioned into Techno and Disco and then finally into R&B. Funk and Soul was a way for Black people to express themselves, whether it was about the Black community’s injustices or if it was about the injustices within the Black community was for personal matters. There will never be another James Brown, Rick James, nor Prince. People can and have tried, but they were unique in their own ways. Their music is timeless and will be played for years to come.

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