"Soul Brother Number One," "The Godfather of Soul," "The Hardest Working Man in Show Business," "Mr. Dynamite" -- those are mighty titles, but no one can question that James Brown earned them more than any other performer. Other singers were more popular, others were equally skilled, but few other musicians were so influential over the course of popular music. And no other musician put on a more exciting, exhilarating stage show: Brown's performances were marvels of athletic stamina and split-second timing. Through the gospel-impassioned fury of his vocals and the complex polyrhythms of his beats, Brown was a crucial midwife in not just one, but two revolutions in American music; he was one of the figures most responsible for turning R&B into soul and he was, most would agree, the one figure most responsible for transforming soul music into funk. Fittingly, his music became even more influential as it aged, since his voice and rhythms were sampled on innumerable hip-hop recordings, and critics belatedly hailed his innovations as among the most important in all of rock or R&B.
Brown's rags-to-riches-to-rags story has heroic and tragic dimensions of mythic resonance. Born into poverty in the South, he ran afoul of the law by the late '40s on an armed robbery conviction. With the help of singer Bobby Byrd's family, Brown gained parole and started a gospel group with Byrd, changing their focus to R&B as the rock revolution gained steam. The Flames, as the Georgian group was known in the mid-'50s, signed to Federal/King and had a huge R&B hit right off the bat with the wrenching, churchy ballad "Please, Please, Please." By that point, the Flames had become James Brown & the Famous Flames; the charisma, energy, and talent of Brown made him the natural star attraction.
All of Brown's singles over the next two years flopped, as he sought to establish his own style, recording material that was obviously derivative of heroes like Roy Brown, Hank Ballard, Little Richard, and Ray Charles. In retrospect, it can be seen that Brown was in the same position as dozens of other R&B one-shots: talented singers in need of better songs, or not fully on the road to a truly original sound. What made Brown succeed where hundreds of others failed was his superhuman determination, working the chitlin circuit to death, sharpening his band, and keeping an eye on new trends. He was on the verge of being dropped by King in late 1958 when his perseverance finally paid off, as "Try Me" became a number one R&B (and small pop) hit, and several follow-ups established him as a regular visitor to the R&B charts.