Brown was born in South Carolina to extreme poverty. As a child, he would pick cotton and dance for spare change. He was arrested when he was 16 for armed robbery and sent to juvenile detention. After three years, Brown was released. Shortly thereafter, he formed his own gospel group. After seeing an R&B Revue starring Hank Ballard and Fats Domino, the group decided to switch from gospel to performing more secular music. Now called The Flames, they were known in the “Chitlin’ Circuit” for their elaborate shows.
The Flames were signed by Federal Records and, in 1956, released their first single, “Please, Please, Please.” The song sold over 1 million copies and climbed to #6 on the R&B charts. Because of the talent and influence of their breakout star, the group changed its name to The James Brown Revue. The release of the 1963 LP Live at the Apollo led to national attention for Brown. From 1963 to 1966 he recorded hit after hit, including “Prisoner of Love,” “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” “I Got You (I Feel Good)” and “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World.”
James Brown understood the importance of appealing to both black and white audiences. By 1965, he had already appeared in the teen movie, “Ski Party,” starring Frankie Avalon and Dwayne (“Dobie Gillis”) Hickman and performed on the classic concert film, “The T.A.M.I. Show.” But it wasn’t until 1966 that he took the biggest step in crossing over to mainstream audiences with two Ed Sullivan Show performances.
Brown debuted on The Ed Sullivan Show on May 1st 1966. With obvious respect, Ed gave an uncustomarily long introduction:
“I was talking to young Jim Brown—James Brown—he was telling me that his rhythm and blues are rooted in Southern Gospel singing. Now he’s a Southerner, of course, he was born in Augusta, Georgia [actually across the river in South Carolina], where he worked on a farm, picked cotton, worked in a coal yard and always sang his songs. So we are delighted to present James Brown on our stage, on this show. So let’s have a fine welcome for a very fine talent.”
Brown came on stage strutting down a ramp, wearing a dark suit and bowtie. His hair was straightened to look like Elvis’s, a process called a “conk,” involving harsh chemicals like lye. He had dance moves reminiscent of Jackie Wilson on The Ed Sullivan Show and a contagious energy that infected the studio audience. Brown, backed by a ten-man orchestra, showcased his footwork to a medley of popular hits starting with, “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” and “I Got You (I Feel Good).” His performance was filled with signature dance moves and spins. During “Ain’t That a Groove,” he introduced a dance called “The New Breed Boogaloo.” Slowing things down with a stirring and soulful version of “Its A Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” Brown closed the performance with a memorable rendition of his original hit, “Please, Please, Please.”
During the last number, Brown performed his trademark cape routine. After he dropped to his knees, seemingly exhausted, an aide walked over, cloaked a purple cape around his shoulders and began to walk him off-stage. Responding to the audience’s applause, Brown threw the cape off and jumped right back into the song, full of energy. Following another spin and drop to his knees, the aide again appeared, this time draping a gold cape around Brown and walking him off-stage. Once again, Brown cast the cape off and passionately worked his way back into the song. The third time, Brown dropped to his knees totally exhausted, having given all he had to this performance. The aide appeared one last time with a black and white cape, and finally walked a weary Brown up the ramp and completely off stage.
Brown returned on camera to shake Ed’s hand and blow a kiss to the audience. After his exit, Sullivan looked into the camera and said, “That is really excitement, isn’t it?” Nobody watching The Ed Sullivan Show that evening envied “the five young Polish acrobats” that had to follow Brown’s performance.
James Brown returned to the Sullivan stage on October 30th, 1966. Before bring him on, Ed took a moment to show a photograph of Vice President Hubert Humphrey thanking Brown for his efforts to keep kids in school. Then Sullivan turned the show over to the “unusual youngster” in a gold jacket and vest with his entourage of backup dancers, singers and musicians.
James Brown gave a soulful and spirited performance during a five-hit medley including, “I Got You (I Feel Good),” “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” “Prisoner of Love,” “Please, Please, Please” and “Night Train.” It was a star-studded evening with Nancy Sinatra and Rich Little performing, but it was James Brown who stole the show. At the end of his performance, one can see Brown dancing like he’s walking on the moon, decades before Michael Jackson showcased his own “moon walk.” On air, Sullivan told Brown, “You’re a find young artist. Come back soon.” But that would be the last time we would see “The Godfather of Soul” on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Following his two appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, James Brown would continue making music and performing for decades. In fact, he had shows scheduled until the day he died—December 25, 2006—over forty years after he appeared on Sullivan’s stage. “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business” kept on working until the very end.