Get on Up: Five Cities That Influenced James Brown

Take a look at five towns that shaped legend James Brown.

By Marc Acton on August 1, 2014 at 6:00 am EST
James Brown's legendary music was influenced by cities across the U.S.

This month Universal Pictures released Get On Up, a biopic featuring the man best known as the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, and filmed in Natchez, Miss. Brown came from the humblest of beginnings, but he built a career that spanned over half a century. While many musicians of his time were associated with a specific place, Brown was a citizen of the world, taking influences from all across the globe. Here are five places across the U.S. that had an effect on this legend:

Barnwell, S.C.:

Brown was born in a small, wooden shack in this barely-a-town, 42 miles southeast of Augusta, Ga., on May 3, 1933. His parents were extremely impoverished and moved when Brown was 5. He would refer to his humble beginnings often in later years, and was living again in southern South Carolina when he died on Christmas day, 2006, at the age of 73.

Augusta, Ga.:

Brown’s formative years were spent in Augusta, Ga., living with a family struggling to make ends meet. He briefly lived with his aunt, who ran and lived in a brothel. For money, Brown would hustle odd jobs, shining shoes, picking peanuts and dancing for tips from troops outside Daniel Field, a municipal airport that the Air Force had contracted to host pilot training during World War II. These odd jobs, his performances and his rough lifestyle in Augusta would shape his work ethic, leading to his eventual reputation as, “the hardest working man in show business.”

Toccoa, Ga.:

At the age of 16, Brown was sent to a juvenile detention center in Toccoa for robbery, where he was a part of his first “official” music group – a gospel quartet with three other inmates. Upon his release, he joined up with an established Toccoa band, which would eventually be known as the Famous Flames. Starting out as their drummer, Brown soon took over singing duties, with the Flames serving for decades as backing vocalists for Brown’s solo tours. While Brown and the Flames left Toccoa and the south for greener pastures, their hometown’s poverty and racial tension would be themes for Brown’s entire career.

Harlem, N.Y.:

Brown’s music continues to be relatable to a huge variety of audiences, but his song’s themes have always been most-welcomed by those who could associate with his rise from nothing. This made Harlem of the 1960s the perfect place for him to bring his powerful, kinetic stage shows. Brown’s appearances at the Apollo Theater were legendary – the right artist in the right place with the right message. And the right music. His first appearance in the iconic theater was in 1962, a performance that would provide a recording considered by many to be one of the greatest live recordings of all time. He would return two other times throughout his career, each time to sold-out audiences.

Cincinnati, Ohio:

Marvin Gaye and Motown, Dolly Parton and Nashville, and every rock band and Los Angeles – all of these artists are known for the towns in which they did most of their work. Brown might not have been tied to one location, but he did record most of his biggest records at King Studios in Cincinnati. It’s fitting that Brown’s recording career would be spent in a city more known for industry than music. The location jives perfectly with his blue-collar roots. And the fact that he made his dance-inspiring, “I made it, and you can too” music in such a workmanlike location speaks volumes of his genius – he wasn’t just the hardest-working man in show business, but a master of taking seemingly simple things, be it a beat, lyric, chorus or an impoverished upbringing, and making the most of it.

*Photo courtesy of Heinrich Klaffs, available under a Creative Commons license.

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