Get Up: The Life and Times of James Brown by Fergus Mason by Fergus Mason - Read Online

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Get Up - Fergus Mason

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The story of music in the United States of America is a long and colorful one. With so many different nationalities blending together to form a single nation they’ve all added their own musical traditions to the mix, and the results have been remarkable. Probably the biggest single contribution has come from the African-American community. Rhythms developed from traditional African music have evolved into several new genres and influenced many more. From jazz to the blues, from hip-hop to hard rock, almost everything in popular music has its roots in the churches and music clubs of the American South.

With this rich musical tradition behind them, it’s no surprise that black musicians have so often been at the leading edge of American music. Entertainment, along with sport, has often been one of the best chances of escaping from poverty, and many people have seized the opportunity. Where doors are closed by discrimination talent and determination can kick them open again. One of the most talented and determined performers of the 20th century, without any doubt, was James Brown.

Born into appalling poverty in the rural south, the man who’d later be known as Soul Brother #1 showed musical ability at an early age. Unfortunately, it looked like it would be squandered when he turned to a life of street crime, ending up sentenced to a lengthy prison term at the age of sixteen. A chance meeting and a willingness to work hard earned him a second chance – and he made the most of it.

Starting with a prison gospel quartet and a handful of instruments made from scrap wood and metal, Brown drove himself up and up, first breaking out into the Georgia music club circuit as part of a popular R&B band, then fighting to make the next step with a chart single. When success arrived he worked harder than ever, to build on it and push himself to the top level of the entertainment business. It worked. For a span of nearly four decades, from the 60s to the first decade of the 20th century, James Brown was one of the most consistently popular live acts in the world. His original band was built up into an enormous travelling stage spectacular that delighted audiences all over the world, and the most spectacular part of the act was always Brown himself. Formidably organized, always flamboyant, and willing to work harder than anyone else in show business, he put everything he could into giving the crowd something they’d never forget.

Brown’s personal life was as colorful as his stage persona. He was married three times – possibly four; even now nobody’s quite sure – and father to somewhere between nine and a dozen children. He also had a huge circle of friends that extended beyond the music scene and included businessmen, activists and even presidents of the USA.

James Brown was a man who never did anything in a small way. Whatever task he set himself in life, he set out to excel at it. To achieve that, he could marshal discipline, resolve, talent, and a formidable instinct for what needed done. He faced many obstacles in his life and overcame them all to become a global star whose legacy lives on in most of the popular music of today. Here’s the story of how he did it.

Chapter 1: Birth of a Legend

There are two versions of James Brown’s birth. Who’s Who in America says he was born on June 17, 1928 in Pulaski, Nebraska. Brown himself, who should have known, said he was born on May 3, 1933 just outside Snelling, Barnwell County, in rural South Carolina.i It should be simple to find out which is true by checking birth records, but those seem to be missing. This is probably one mystery that won’t be solved in a dusty old filing cabinet, but to follow Brown’s life we have to know where to start. What story is more likely? That’s not really too hard. We know for sure that both his parents were from South Carolina and lived there until the late 1930s, so Brown’s own version is probably the one to go with.

The story starts with Joseph Gardner, born in 1911 in Barnwell County. When Joe was still a young boy, his mother ran off to New York and left her son behind with a woman named Mattie Brown. She looked after him and brought him