The tag “Soul Brother Number One”, attributed to the great funk God James Brown, didn’t come without him paying dues — literally and figuratively. Long before he was the “Hardest Working Man in Show Business” he was among the hardest punchers in informal boxing circles back in Augusta, Georgia. You probably know him better as the heavily sampled soul/funk legend, one of the most pivotal and influential figures in music history. Word is, he was pivotal in bruising a few knuckleheads before he achieved all that.
By his account, he never had the passion for singing that he had for baseball or boxing. He had already started singing to raise money for school in his hometown and performing for his classmates, his hands itched more for boxing gloves than a microphone. Part of it might have come from him being picked on by the neighborhood bullies who used to try to electrocute him or tie him to trees to intimidate his feisty spirit. His life history — from being born into poverty in Barnwell, South Carolina during the Great Depression, to his run-ins with law — boasts a kind of thuggish rags to riches American success story. As a youth, he picked cotton, shined shoes, danced for spare change, and landed in reform school at the age of 16.
He sang through his short stays in juvenile hall and in prison, but once he was released, he redirected some his rage into sports. In his words, he was “much better at baseball then I was at singing,” in his 1986 autobiography James Brown: The Godfather of Soul he wrote: “I didn’t have a burning desire to be a professional musician. People who knew me thought I was going to play baseball . . . I was a left-handed pitcher with a good fastball a sharp curve, and a wicked floater. . . . But what I really wanted to do was box.”
Brown looked up to a man who was in his line of work at the time — a shoe shine boy named Beau Jack (real name: Sidney Walker) who went on to become the lightweight champion of the world in 1942 by fighting his way through Battle Royals in their mutual hometown. Battle Royals were informal bouts consisting of six men fighting with one hand behind their backs, usually, slugging it out until there was one man lasting. Sounds like a predecessor to “The Fight Club”, but apparently it was exhilarating for Jack, who impressed renowned golfer Bobby Jones so much that Jones paid for him to be trained up North.
Brown might not have had the same appeal or boxing talent as Beau, but he was still inspired by his predecessor’s stamina. “Later on, I met Beau,” Brown wrote, “and had several semi-pro fights with some of the boxers he handled, but during this time I was doing most of my fighting in the school yard, on the streets and at the Bethel Community Center for Negroes.” Typical of the man who would be called Mr. Dynamite, James Brown was the kind of fighter that would confuse the hell out of his contenders. He was left-handed, for one, and his reputation as a thick-skinned neighborhood miscreant preceded. According to his folklore, he was known for playing football with a cast on his leg after he’d broken it playing the same sport — earning himself the nickname “Crip.”
That reputation earned him a spot in the top contenders for white men who recruited young black men to fight in the insane battles. It’s not certain when he engaged in these brawls — he doesn’t talk about the timeline and there is only anecdotal evidence of his boxing bouts, which might have happened around the mid-’30s. But typical of a soul legend, he pursued boxing with youthful gumption. James would be blindfolded with one hand tied behind his back, put a boxing glove on his free hand and shoved into a ring with five other victims — er, fighters. It might have been this crazy fighting fray that led him to his interest in entertainment.
“You swing at anything that moves and whoever’s left standing at the end is the winner. It sounds brutal,” James wrote, “but a battle royal is really comedy. I’d be out there stumbling around, swinging wild and hearing the people laughing. I didn’t know I was being exploited; all I knew was that I was getting paid a dollar and having fun — I was too classy for battle royals, though, because I could really box.”
Truth is, he could sing his ass off, too — which he probably realized would be his ticket to fame early on. Those were his last words on his boxing days, an indication that they didn’t last long. Surely, based on his electrifying stage presence alone, he could duck and weave with the best of them. It is interesting to note, though, that he didn’t write a note about the leg injury that ended his boxing and baseball aspirations. Still, it’s better though, that he’s sitting somewhere right now saying: “I coulda been a contender.” Better for the history books and annals of quality soul music that he kept singing with The Cremona Trio for amateur nights and gigs in his tiny hometown. He went on to write his first song when he outgrew his feisty fighting days — “Goin’ Back to Rome” before he even knew he would end up being Mr. Super Bad.
While he fought the good fight physically, he did the same artistically. He was an prominent figure in two Black music revolutions, introducing funk elements into soul music in the late ’60s and early ’70s and later, becoming heavily sampled in the rap era by the likes of hip-hop pioneers like Afrika Bambattaa. Though he would go on to become a central figure in rock and soul, James Brown didn’t necessarily become an icon because of his sheer talent — more of it came from his otherworldly determination to watch the trends and working hard to tune his musical legacy over decades. He reached the height of his career from 1965 on, with his R&B commercial success, became a bit of a black ambassador to politicians and on television shows — he worked hard to develop a phenomenal sound and voice — so much so that he was later abandoned by a few groups along the way.
Critics and fans agree that James burned out by the mid-’70s and that he couldn’t keep up with the times due to his personal woes — including run-ins with the IRS and a high publicized legal battle with his wife who accused him of assault and battery. But one could say his work has already been done. He revolutionized the soul, funk, and to some extent, rap eras through good old-fashioned hard work and, of course with talent. Not all fighters get the recognition they deserve when they step out of the ring. Music lovers are harsh, they expect their icons and heroes to come away unbruised by their personal histories and battles.
And James Brown might not make the funky, good vibe music that he did before the hip-hop/”neo-soul” generation came of age, but he’s left us with more than enough material to learn from. Sometimes a fighter is best known for that one incredible fight, where they knocked some dude down in the first round. It took James a couple of rounds, and he’s been knocked out a few times along the way — but better for him that his battles were on a stage and not in a ring. Actually, better for us, the lovers of his music. To us, no matter the blows to his reputation and legacy, he’ll always be the last man standing.