You can trace pretty much every innovation in dance or soul music (which is to say: modern pop music) to the Godfather, and while he’s best known for his energetic dance jams (which, of course, provided a fantastic forum for his dancing and bandleading skills,) it’s often forgotten that the Hardest Working Man in Show Business had a tender side, as well.
His earliest hits-“Please, Please, Please” and “Try Me,” to name the most memorable ones-were ballads. As much as James could wail and scream, he could also croon with the best of them. Case in point: “How Do You Stop?” a late Eighties ballad that shuffled JB into the age of adult contemporary pop.
James spent much of the ’80s dealing with label drama and decreasing commercial viability. His most direct descendant, Michael Jackson, put a pop spit-shine on JB’s moves and became the biggest star in the land, and hip-hop was beginning to shift into the beginning of it’s “Golden Age,” an era that relied heavily on James’ Sixties and Seventies hits. At the end of 1985, Brown scored his biggest charting hit in a decade and a half with “Living In America,” the theme from Rocky IV. It was produced by multi-dimensional hitmaker Dan Hartman, who was behind the boards for most of the subsequent album, Gravity. “How Do You Stop?” was the album’s third single, following “Living In America” and the title track, and despite (or maybe because of?) it’s uncharacteristically subdued sound, it became the Godfather’s 98th Top 40 R&B hit, peaking at #10. Even when gunning for the quiet storm (or Lite-FM,) JB knew how to command a crowd, as this live performance of the song demonstrates. Wait for the signature shouts at the end!
And, if anyone asks you what James Brown and Joni Mitchell have in common…
James went on to score two more Top 40 R&B hits before changing musical tides and legal troubles silenced the contemporary portion of his career. He spent the last decade and a half of his life enjoying his legendary status, performing well into his Seventies (and still bringing the house down,) and posing for one incredibly regrettable mugshot. The Godfather passed away on Christmas Day, 2006, but the artistic legacy he left will ensure that there will be stylistic descendants of James Brown for generations to come.