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13 People Who Made James Brown a Star

James Brown

With James Brown’s life story now in movie theaters, it’s a great time to learn about the fascinating personalities who helped the Godfather of Soul find his unique look and sound.

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Bobby Byrd

Lead singer of the Famous Flames when James Brown joined the group in 1954, Byrd possessed a booming baritone and would function as Brown’s right-hand man until 1973, when he left the group. Byrd cowrote and sang lead on such R&B classics as “I Know You Got Soul” and “Doin’ the Do.”

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Little Richard

Born Richard Wayne Penniman in 1932 — just five months before Brown — Little Richard introduced the Famous Flames to manager Clint Brantley, who sent the group to a local radio station in Macon, Ga., to record the demo for “Please, Please, Please” in 1955. Little Richard had inspired the tune, whose performance would come to define Brown’s fevered stage style, when he wrote its title on a table napkin.

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Syd Nathan

Nathan was the founder of Cincinnati’s King Records, which released many of Brown’s earliest hits. His first single (“Please, Please, Please”), however, came out on King’s subsidiary label, Federal, in 1956. Brown would continue to record with Nathan’s company until 1972, when he switched to Polydor Records.

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Maceo Parker

Originator of one of the most distinctive alto-sax sounds in modern American music, Parker joined the James Brown Revue in 1964, left it in 1970 and returned in 1974. His piquant riffs and solos grace numerous JB classics, among them “Licking Stick” and “Papa Don’t Take Any Mess.” Parker left Brown again in 1975 to join Parliament-Funkadelic. He has since forged a noteworthy solo career.

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Fred Wesley

The trombonist arranged many of Brown’s hits during the 1960s and early ’70s, and his velvety style is featured on such classics as “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud,” “Hot Pants” and “Mother Popcorn.” Like Parker, Wesley left Brown to join Parliament-Funkadelic in 1975.

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Bootsy Collins

After Brown’s back-up band abruptly quit in 1970, bassist Bootsy Collins stepped forward, along with his older brother and guitarist Phelps “Catfish” Collins, to form a new backing band, the JBs. Bootsy stayed with Brown for a brief 11 months, but it was long enough to give us such definitive tunes as “Super Bad,” “Sex Machine” and “Soul Power.”

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Vicki Anderson

In his 1986 autobiography, The Godfather of Soul, Brown cites Anderson as the best singer in the ever-morphing James Brown Revue, formed in 1960. Anderson joined the Revue in 1965, replacing Anna King as Brown’s main female singer, only to leave it three years later but rejoin it in 1969. Her powerful pipes stand out on “The Message From the Soul Sisters,” “You’ve Got the Power” and “Super Good.” Anderson married singer Bobby Byrd, another member of Brown’s Revue.

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Yvonne Fair

After getting her start in the girl group the Chantels, Fair joined the James Brown Revue in the mid-1960s and quickly scored a hit with “I Found You.” Brown would retitle that song and make it his anthem: “I Got You (I Feel Good).” Fair and Brown had a daughter together, Venisha Brown, and Fair went on to a solo career that saw her release a 1975 LP on the Motown label.

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Marva Whitney

Renowned for her exhilarating singing, Whitney helped power the James Brown Revue beginning in the mid-1960s. Under Brown’s guidance, she scored a handful of hits such as “Unwind Yourself,” “Things Got to Get Better (Get Together),” and “It’s My Thing (You Can’t Tell Me Who to Sock It To).” The latter was Whitney’s 1969 response to the Isley Brothers’ hit “It’s Your Thing.”

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Lyn Collins

The fiery soul singer known as “The Female Preacher” became a showcase in the James Brown Revue in 1970 after Marva Whitney left, belting out such classics as “Think (About It),” “Take Me Just as I Am” and “Put It on the Line.” 

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Pee Wee Ellis

A stalwart saxophonist, arranger, composer and music director of Brown’s band from 1965 to 1969, Ellis cowrote a string of hits that included “Cold Sweat” and “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud.” He later became an arranger for CTI/KUDU records, and worked with the likes of George Benson, Esther Phillips and Van Morrison.

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Clyde Stubblefield

Stubblefield’s stuttering rhythms on the skins became blueprints for funk drumming. You can check out his intricate rhythmic patterns on the classics “Ain’t It Funky Now,” “I Got the Feeling” and “Funky Drummer.” In 2007, Stubblefield toured with fellow JB alumni Bootsy Collins, Maceo Parker and Jabo Starks.

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Al Sharpton

He’s a vocal civil rights activist and the host of MSNBC’s PoliticsNation, but would you believe that the Rev. Al Sharpton was James Brown’s tour manager from 1973 to 1980? Sharpton was so enamored of Brown that he even adopted the Godfather of Soul’s hairstyle.

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