In celebration of Black History Month, and in support of the numerous, invaluable, and myriad contributions of the African American community to our favorite subject, music, we built four web apps that let you enter any artist on Spotify to see and hear the chain of musical influence leading from each of four iconic black artists from the past to the artist you entered.
We had many to choose from, but ultimately settled on four artists — one for each week of the month. Access them all here, or try them below and read about each artist (biographies courtesy of Rovi via the Spotify Web API).
To build these apps, Paul Lamere, director of developer platform for The Echo Nest at Spotify, tapped into data about which artists “had a direct musical influence on, or were an inspiration to” a given artist according to Rovi editors, sometimes based on research and interviews. He mapped them all to Spotify, so you can play any artist in the app with a single click or tap:
Enter any artist to see how they were influenced by Spotify Insights’ featured Black History Month artists. For each of these paths of influence, you’ll get a unique playlist taking you from one artist to the other through the artists who form their musical connections, plus a scrollable list of each artist on the path, with links to their Spotify pages so you can dig through their catalogs.
Aretha Franklin (enter an artist to see how she influenced that artist or listen on Spotify) is one of the giants of soul music, and indeed of American pop as a whole. More than any other performer, she epitomized soul at its most gospel-charged. Her astonishing run of late-’60s hits with Atlantic Records — “Respect,” “I Never Loved a Man,” “Chain of Fools,” “Baby I Love You,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” “Think,” “The House That Jack Built,” and several others — earned her the title “Lady Soul,” which she has worn uncontested ever since. Yet as much of an international institution as she’s become, much of her work — outside of her recordings for Atlantic in the late ’60s and early ’70s — is erratic and only fitfully inspired, making discretion a necessity when collecting her records.
Franklin’s roots in gospel ran extremely deep. With her sisters Carolyn and Erma (both of whom would also have recording careers), she sang at the Detroit church of her father, Reverend C.L. Franklin, while growing up in the 1950s. In fact, she made her first recordings as a gospel artist at the age of 14. It has also been reported that Motown was interested in signing Aretha back in the days when it was a tiny start-up. Ultimately, however, Franklin ended up with Columbia, to which she was signed by the renowned talent scout John Hammond.
Franklin would record for Columbia constantly throughout the first half of the ’60s, notching occasional R&B hits (and one Top 40 single, “Rock-a-bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody”) but never truly breaking out as a star. The Columbia period continues to generate considerable controversy among critics, many of whom feel that Aretha’s true aspirations were being blunted by pop-oriented material and production. In fact, there’s a reasonable amount of fine items to be found on the Columbia sides, including the occasional song (“Lee Cross,” “Soulville”) where she belts out soul with real gusto. It’s undeniably true, though, that her work at Columbia was considerably tamer than what was to follow, and suffered in general from a lack of direction and an apparent emphasis on trying to develop her as an all-around entertainer, rather than as an R&B/soul singer.
When Franklin left Columbia for Atlantic, producer Jerry Wexler was determined to bring out her most soulful, fiery traits. As part of that plan, he had her record her first single, “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” at Muscle Shoals in Alabama with esteemed Southern R&B musicians. In fact, that was to be her only session actually at Muscle Shoals, but much of the remainder of her ’60s work would be recorded with the Muscle Shoals Sound Rhythm Section, although the sessions would actually take place in New York City. The combination was one of those magic instances of musical alchemy in pop: the backup musicians provided a much grittier, soulful, and R&B-based accompaniment for Aretha’s voice, which soared with a passion and intensity suggesting a spirit that had been allowed to fly loose for the first time.
In the late ’60s, Franklin became one of the biggest international recording stars in all of pop.
Many also saw Franklin as a symbol of black America itself, reflecting the increased confidence and pride of African-Americans in the decade of the civil rights movement and other triumphs for the black community. The chart statistics are impressive in and of themselves: ten Top Ten hits in a roughly 18-month span between early 1967 and late 1968, for instance, and a steady stream of solid mid- to large-size hits for the next five years after that. Her Atlantic albums were also huge sellers, and far more consistent artistically than those of most soul stars of the era. Franklin was able to maintain creative momentum, in part, because of her eclectic choice of material, which encompassed first-class originals and gospel, blues, pop, and rock covers, from the Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel to Sam Cooke and the Drifters. She was also a fine, forceful, and somewhat underrated keyboardist.
Franklin’s commercial and artistic success was unabated in the early ’70s, during which she landed more huge hits with “Spanish Harlem,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and “Day Dreaming.” She also produced two of her most respected, and earthiest, album releases with Live at Fillmore West and Amazing Grace. The latter, a 1972 double LP, was a reinvestigation of her gospel roots, recorded with James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir. Remarkably, it made the Top Ten, counting as one of the greatest gospel-pop crossover smashes of all time.
Franklin had a few more hits over the next few years — “Angel” and the Stevie Wonder cover “Until You Come Back to Me” being the most notable. Her Atlantic contract ended at the end of the 1970s. She signed with the Clive Davis-guided Arista and scored number one R&B hits with “Jump to It,” “Get It Right,” and “Freeway of Love.” Many of her successes were duets, or crafted with the assistance of contemporaries such as Luther Vandross and Narada Michael Walden. In 1986 Franklin released her follow-up to Who’s Zoomin’ Who?, the self-titled Aretha, which saw the single “I Knew You Were Waiting for Me,” a duet with George Michael, hit the top of the charts. There was also another return to gospel in 1987 with One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism. Franklin shifted back to pop with 1989’s Through the Storm, but it wasn’t a commercial success, and neither was 1991’s new jack swing-styled What You See Is What You Sweat.
Now solidly an iconic figure and acknowledged as one of the best singers of her generation no matter what her record sales were, Franklin contributed songs to several movie soundtracks in the next few years before releasing the R&B-based A Rose Is Still a Rose in 1998. So Damn Happy followed five years later in 2003 and again saw disappointing sales, but it did generate the Grammy-winning song “Wonderful.” Franklin left Arista that same year and started her own label, Aretha’s Records, two years later. A duets compilation, Jewels in the Crown: All-Star Duets with the Queen, was issued in 2007, followed by her first holiday album, 2008’s This Christmas. The first release on her own label, A Woman Falling Out of Love, appeared in 2011. She signed to RCA and realigned with Clive Davis, who connected her with the likes of Babyface and OutKast’s André 3000 for Sings the Great Diva Classics, for which she covered Gladys Knight, Barbra Streisand, and Adele, among others. Despite sometimes poor health, she continued to select new projects to work on; ever the institution, her reputation is secure as one of the best singers of the modern era. ~ Richie Unterberger & Steve Leggett, Rovi
In his brief four-year reign as a superstar, Jimi Hendrix (enter an artist to see how he influenced that artist or listen on Spotify) expanded the vocabulary of the electric rock guitar more than anyone before or since. Hendrix was a master at coaxing all manner of unforeseen sonics from his instrument, often with innovative amplification experiments that produced astral-quality feedback and roaring distortion. His frequent hurricane blasts of noise and dazzling showmanship — he could and would play behind his back and with his teeth and set his guitar on fire — has sometimes obscured his considerable gifts as a songwriter, singer, and master of a gamut of blues, R&B, and rock styles.
When Hendrix became an international superstar in 1967, it seemed as if he’d dropped out of a Martian spaceship, but in fact he’d served his apprenticeship the long, mundane way in numerous R&B acts on the chitlin circuit. During the early and mid-’60s, he worked with such R&B/soul greats as Little Richard, the Isley Brothers, and King Curtis as a backup guitarist. Occasionally he recorded as a session man (the Isley Brothers’ 1964 single “Testify” is the only one of these early tracks that offers even a glimpse of his future genius). But the stars didn’t appreciate his show-stealing showmanship, and Hendrix was straitjacketed by sideman roles that didn’t allow him to develop as a soloist. The logical step was for Hendrix to go out on his own, which he did in New York in the mid-’60s, playing with various musicians in local clubs, and joining white blues-rock singer John Hammond, Jr.’s band for a while.
It was in a New York club that Hendrix was spotted by Animals bassist Chas Chandler. The first lineup of the Animals was about to split, and Chandler, looking to move into management, convinced Hendrix to move to London and record as a solo act in England. There a group was built around Jimi, also featuring Mitch Mitchell on drums and Noel Redding on bass, that was dubbed the Jimi Hendrix Experience. The trio became stars with astonishing speed in the U.K., where “Hey Joe,” “Purple Haze,” and “The Wind Cries Mary” all made the Top Ten in the first half of 1967. These tracks were also featured on their debut album, Are You Experienced, a psychedelic meisterwerk that became a huge hit in the U.S. after Hendrix created a sensation at the Monterey Pop Festival in June of 1967.
Are You Experienced was an astonishing debut, particularly from a young R&B veteran who had rarely sung, and apparently never written his own material, before the Experience formed. What caught most people’s attention at first was his virtuosic guitar playing, which employed an arsenal of devices, including wah-wah pedals, buzzing feedback solos, crunching distorted riffs, and lightning, liquid runs up and down the scales. But Hendrix was also a first-rate songwriter, melding cosmic imagery with some surprisingly pop-savvy hooks and tender sentiments. He was also an excellent blues interpreter and passionate, engaging singer (although his gruff, throaty vocal pipes were not nearly as great assets as his instrumental skills). Are You Experienced was psychedelia at its most eclectic, synthesizing mod pop, soul, R&B, Dylan, and the electric guitar innovations of British pioneers like Jeff Beck, Pete Townshend, and Eric Clapton.
Amazingly, Hendrix would only record three fully conceived studio albums in his lifetime. Axis: Bold as Love and the double-LP Electric Ladyland were more diffuse and experimental than Are You Experienced On Electric Ladyland in particular, Hendrix pioneered the use of the studio itself as a recording instrument, manipulating electronics and devising overdub techniques (with the help of engineer Eddie Kramer in particular) to plot uncharted sonic territory. Not that these albums were perfect, as impressive as they were; the instrumental breaks could meander, and Hendrix’s songwriting was occasionally half-baked, never matching the consistency of Are You Experienced (although he exercised greater creative control over the later albums).
The final two years of Hendrix’s life were turbulent ones musically, financially, and personally. He was embroiled in enough complicated management and record company disputes (some dating from ill-advised contracts he’d signed before the Experience formed) to keep the lawyers busy for years. He disbanded the Experience in 1969, forming the Band of Gypsies with drummer Buddy Miles and bassist Billy Cox to pursue funkier directions. He closed Woodstock with a sprawling, shaky set, redeemed by his famous machine-gun interpretation of “The Star Spangled Banner.” The rhythm section of Mitchell and Redding were underrated keys to Jimi’s best work, and the Band of Gypsies ultimately couldn’t measure up to the same standard, although Hendrix did record an erratic live album with them. In early 1970, the Experience re-formed again — and disbanded again shortly afterward. At the same time, Hendrix felt torn in many directions by various fellow musicians, record-company expectations, and management pressures, all of whom had their own ideas of what Hendrix should be doing. Coming up on two years after Electric Ladyland, a new studio album had yet to appear, although Hendrix was recording constantly during the period.
While outside parties did contribute to bogging down Hendrix’s studio work, it also seems likely that Jimi himself was partly responsible for the stalemate, unable to form a permanent lineup of musicians, unable to decide what musical direction to pursue, unable to bring himself to complete another album despite jamming endlessly. A few months into 1970, Mitchell — Hendrix’s most valuable musical collaborator — came back into the fold, replacing Miles in the drum chair, although Cox stayed in place. It was this trio that toured the world during Hendrix’s final months.
It’s extremely difficult to separate the facts of Hendrix’s life from rumors and speculation. Everyone who knew him well, or claimed to know him well, has different versions of his state of mind in 1970. Critics have variously mused that he was going to go into jazz, that he was going to get deeper into the blues, that he was going to continue doing what he was doing, or that he was too confused to know what he was doing at all. The same confusion holds true for his death: contradictory versions of his final days have been given by his closest acquaintances of the time. He’d been working intermittently on a new album, tentatively titled First Ray of the New Rising Sun, when he died in London on September 18, 1970, from drug-related complications.
Hendrix recorded a massive amount of unreleased studio material during his lifetime. Much of this (as well as entire live concerts) was issued posthumously; several of the live concerts were excellent, but the studio tapes have been the focus of enormous controversy for over 20 years. These initially came out in haphazard drabs and drubs (the first, The Cry of Love, was easily the most outstanding of the lot). In the mid-’70s, producer Alan Douglas took control of these projects, posthumously overdubbing many of Hendrix’s tapes with additional parts by studio musicians. In the eyes of many Hendrix fans, this was sacrilege, destroying the integrity of the work of a musician known to exercise meticulous care over the final production of his studio recordings. Even as late as 1995, Douglas was having ex-Knack drummer Bruce Gary record new parts for the typically misbegotten compilation Voodoo Soup. After a lengthy legal dispute, the rights to Hendrix’s estate, including all of his recordings, returned to Al Hendrix, the guitarist’s father, in July of 1995.
With the help of Jimi’s step-sister Janie, Al set up Experience Hendrix to begin to get Jimi’s legacy in order. They began by hiring John McDermott and Jimi’s original engineer, Eddie Kramer to oversee the remastering process. They were able to find all the original master tapes, which had never been used for previous CD releases, and in April of 1997, Hendrix’s first three albums were reissued with drastically improved sound. Accompanying those reissues was a posthumous compilation album (based on Jimi’s handwritten track listings) called First Rays of the New Rising Sun, made up of tracks from the Cry of Love, Rainbow Bridge and War Heroes.
Later in 1997, another compilation called South Saturn Delta showed up, collecting more tracks from posthumous LPs like Crash Landing, War Heroes, and Rainbow Bridge (without the terrible ’70s overdubs), along with a handful of never-before-heard material that Chas Chandler had withheld from Alan Douglas for all those years.
More archival material followed; Radio One was basically expanded to the two-disc BBC Sessions (released in 1998), and 1999 saw the release of the full show from Woodstock as well as additional concert recordings from the Band of Gypsies shows entitled Live at the Fillmore East. 2000 saw the release of the Jimi Hendrix Experience four-disc box set, which compiled remaining tracks from In the West, Crash Landing and Rainbow Bridge along with more rarities and alternates from the Chandler cache.
The family also launched Dagger Records, essentially an authorized bootleg label to supply hardcore Hendrix fans with material that would be of limited commercial appeal. Dagger released several live concerts (of shows in Oakland, Ottawa, Clark University in Massachusetts, Paris, San Francisco, Woburn in Bedfordshire, and Cologne) and a collection of studio jams and demos called Morning Symphony Ideas.
Mainstream Hendrix reissue activity continued during the 2000s and 2010s, spotlighted by major live albums originally recorded at the Isle of Wight (2002), Berkeley (2003), Monterey (2007), Winterland (2011), and the Miami Pop Festival (2013). In 2010, Sony issued a four-disc set titled West Coast Seattle Boy: The Jimi Hendrix Anthology, which offered a full disc of recordings from Hendrix’s time as a backing guitarist. ~ Richie Unterberger & Sean Westergaard, Rovi
As a solo artist, Diana Ross (enter an artist to see how she influenced that artist or listen on Spotify) is one of the most successful female singers of the rock era. If you factor in her work as the lead singer of the Supremes in the 1960s, she may be the most successful. With her friends Mary Wilson, Florence Ballard, and Barbara Martin, Ross formed the Primettes vocal quartet in 1959. In 1960, they were signed to local Motown Records, changing their name to the Supremes in 1961. Martin then left, and the group continued as a trio. Over the next eight years, the Supremes (renamed “Diana Ross and the Supremes” in 1967, when Cindy Birdsong replaced Ballard) scored 12 number one pop hits. After the last one, “Someday We’ll Be Together” (October 1969), Ross launched a solo career.
Motown initially paired her with writer/producers Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, who gave her four Top 40 pop hits, including the number one “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” (July 1970). Ross branched out into acting, starring in a film biography of Billie Holiday, Lady Sings the Blues (November 1972). The soundtrack went to number one, and Ross was nominated for an Academy Award.
She returned to record-making with the Top Ten album Touch Me in the Morning (June 1973) and its chart-topping title song. This was followed by a duet album with Marvin Gaye, Diana & Marvin (October 1973), that produced three chart hits. Ross acted in her second movie, Mahogany (October 1975), and it brought her another chart-topping single in the theme song, “Do You Know Where You’re Going To.” That and her next number one, the disco-oriented “Love Hangover” (March 1976), were featured on her second album to be titled simply Diana Ross (February 1976), which rose into the Top Ten.
Ross’ third film role came in The Wiz (October 1978). The Boss (May 1979) was a gold-selling album, followed by the platinum-selling Diana (May 1980) (the second of her solo albums with that name, though the other, a 1971 TV soundtrack, had an exclamation mark). It featured the number one single “Upside Down” and the Top Ten hit “I’m Coming Out.”
Ross scored a third Top Ten hit in 1980 singing the title theme from the movie It’s My Turn. She then scored the biggest hit of her career with another movie theme, duetting with Lionel Richie on “Endless Love” (June 1981). It was her last big hit on Motown; after more than 20 years, she decamped for RCA. She was rewarded immediately with a million-selling album, titled after her remake of the old Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers hit, “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” which became her next Top Ten hit. The album also included the Top Ten hit “Mirror, Mirror.”
Silk Electric (October 1982) was a gold-seller, featuring the Top Ten hit “Muscles,” written and produced by Michael Jackson, and Swept Away (September 1984) was another successful album, containing the hit “Missing You,” but Ross had trouble selling records in the second half of the 1980s. By 1989, she had returned to Motown, and by 1993 was turning more to pop standards, notably on the concert album Diana Ross Live: The Lady Sings…Jazz & Blues, Stolen Moments (April 1993).
Motown released a four-CD/cassette box set retrospective, Forever Diana, in October 1993, and the singer published her autobiography in 1994. Take Me Higher followed a year later, and in 1999 she returned with Every Day Is a New Day. 2000’s Gift of Love was promoted by a concert tour featuring the Supremes, although neither Mary Wilson nor Cindy Birdsong appeared — their roles were instead assumed by singers Lynda Laurence and Scherrie Payne, neither of whom had ever performed with Ross during the group’s glory days. In 2006 Motown finally released Ross’ lost album Blue, a collection of standards originally intended as the follow-up to Lady Sings the Blues. The album I Love You from 2007 featured new interpretations of familiar love songs. That same year the cable television network BET honored Ross with their Lifetime Achievement Award. ~ William Ruhlmann, Rovi
“Soul Brother Number One,” “the Godfather of Soul,” “the Hardest Working Man in Show Business,” “Mr. Dynamite” — those are mighty titles, but no one can question that James Brown (enter an artist to see how he influenced that artist or listen on Spotify) earned them more than any other performer. Other singers were more popular, others were equally skilled, but few other African-American musicians were so influential over the course of popular music. And no other musician, pop or otherwise, put on a more exciting, exhilarating stage show: Brown’s performances were marvels of athletic stamina and split-second timing.
Through the gospel-impassioned fury of his vocals and the complex polyrhythms of his beats, Brown was a crucial midwife in not just one, but two revolutions in black American music. He was one of the figures most responsible for turning R&B into soul and he was, most would agree, the figure most responsible for turning soul music into the funk of the late ’60s and early ’70s. After the mid-’70s, he did little more than tread water artistically; his financial and drug problems eventually got him a controversial prison sentence. Yet in a sense, his music is now more influential than ever, as his voice and rhythms have been sampled on innumerable hip-hop recordings, and critics have belatedly hailed his innovations as among the most important in all of rock or soul.
Brown’s rags-to-riches-to-rags story has heroic and tragic dimensions of mythic resonance. Born into poverty in the South, he ran afoul of the law by the late ’40s on an armed robbery conviction. With the help of singer Bobby Byrd’s family, Brown gained parole and started a gospel group with Byrd, changing their focus to R&B as the rock revolution gained steam. The Flames, as the Georgian group was known in the mid-’50s, signed to Federal/King and had a huge R&B hit right off the bat with the wrenching, churchy ballad “Please, Please, Please.” By that point, the Flames had become James Brown & the Famous Flames; the charisma, energy, and talent of Brown made him the natural star attraction.
All of Brown’s singles over the next two years flopped, as he sought to establish his own style, recording material that was obviously derivative of heroes like Roy Brown, Hank Ballard, Little Richard, and Ray Charles. In retrospect, it can be seen that Brown was in the same position as dozens of other R&B one-shot: talented singers in need of better songs, or not fully on the road to a truly original sound. What made Brown succeed where hundreds of others failed was his superhuman determination, working the chitlin circuit to death, sharpening his band, and keeping an eye on new trends. He was on the verge of being dropped from King in late 1958 when his perseverance finally paid off, as “Try Me” became a number one R&B (and small pop) hit, and several follow-ups established him as a regular visitor to the R&B charts.
Brown’s style of R&B got harder as the ’60s began; he added more complex, Latin- and jazz-influenced rhythms on hits like “Good Good Lovin’,” “I’ll Go Crazy,” “Think,” and “Night Train,” alternating these with torturous ballads that featured some of the most frayed screaming to be heard outside of the church. Black audiences already knew that Brown had the most exciting live act around, but he truly started to become a phenomenon with the release of Live at the Apollo in 1963. Capturing a James Brown concert in all its whirling-dervish energy and calculated spontaneity, the album reached number two on the album charts, an unprecedented feat for a hardcore R&B LP.
Live at the Apollo was recorded and released against the wishes of the King label. It was this kind of artistic standoff that led Brown to seek better opportunities elsewhere. In 1964, he ignored his King contract to record “Out of Sight” for Smash, igniting a lengthy legal battle that prevented him from issuing vocal recordings for about a year. When he finally resumed recording for King in 1965, he had a new contract that granted him far more artistic control over his releases.
Brown’s new era had truly begun, however, with “Out of Sight,” which topped the R&B charts and made the pop Top 40. For some time, Brown had been moving toward more elemental lyrics that threw in as many chants and screams as they did words, and more intricate beats and horn charts that took some of their cues from the ensemble work of jazz outfits. “Out of Sight” wasn’t called funk when it came out, but it had most of the essential ingredients. These were amplified and perfected on 1965’s “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” a monster that finally broke Brown to the white audience, reaching the Top Ten. The even more adventurous follow-up, “I Got You (I Feel Good),” did even better, making number three.
These hits kicked off Brown’s period of greatest commercial success and public visibility. From 1965 to the end of the decade, he was rarely off the R&B charts, often on the pop listings, and all over the concert circuit and national television, even meeting with Vice President Hubert Humphrey and other important politicians as a representative of the black community. His music became even bolder and funkier, as melody was dispensed with almost altogether in favor of chunky rhythms and magnetic interplay between his vocals, horns, drums, and scratching electric guitar (heard to best advantage on hits like “Cold Sweat,” “I Got the Feelin’,” and “There Was a Time”). The lyrics were not so much words as chanted, stream-of-consciousness slogans, often aligning themselves with black pride as well as good old-fashioned (or new-fashioned) sex. Much of the credit for the sound he devised belonged to (and has now been belatedly attributed to) his top-notch supporting musicians such as saxophonists Maceo Parker, St. Clair Pinckney, and Pee Wee Ellis; guitarist Jimmy Nolen; backup singer and longtime loyal associate Bobby Byrd; and drummer Clyde Stubblefield.
Brown was both a brilliant bandleader and a stern taskmaster, the latter leading his band to walk out on him in late 1969. Amazingly, he turned the crisis to his advantage by recruiting a young Cincinnati outfit called the Pacemakers featuring guitarist Catfish Collins and bassist Bootsy Collins. Although they only stayed with him for about a year, they were crucial to Brown’s evolution into even harder funk, emphasizing the rhythm and the bottom even more. The Collins brothers, for their part, put their apprenticeship to good use, helping define ’70s funk as members of the Parliament-Funkadelic axis.
In the early ’70s, many of the most important members of Brown’s late-’60s band returned to the fold, to be billed as the J.B.’s (they also made records on their own).
Brown continued to score heavily on the R&B charts throughout the first half of the ’70s, the music becoming more and more elemental and beat-driven. At the same time, he was retreating from the white audience he had cultivated during the mid- to late ’60s; records like “Make It Funky,” “Hot Pants,” “Get on the Good Foot,” and “The Payback” were huge soul sellers, but only modest pop ones. Critics charged, with some justification, that the Godfather was starting to repeat and recycle himself too many times. It must be remembered, though, that these songs were made for the singles radio jukebox market and not meant to be played one after the other on CD compilations (as they are today).
By the mid-’70s, Brown was beginning to burn out artistically. He seemed shorn of new ideas, was being out-gunned on the charts by disco, and was running into problems with the IRS and his financial empire. There were sporadic hits, and he could always count on enthusiastic live audiences, but by the ’80s, he didn’t have a label. With the explosion of rap, however, which frequently sampled vintage J.B.’s records, Brown became hipper than ever. He collaborated with Afrika Bambaataa on the critical smash single “Unity” and reentered the Top Ten in 1986 with “Living in America.” Rock critics, who had always ranked Brown considerably below Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin in the soul canon, began to reevaluate his output, particularly the material from his funk years, sometimes anointing him not just “Soul Brother Number One,” but the most important black musician of the rock era.
In 1988, Brown’s personal life came crashing down in a well-publicized incident in which he was accused by his wife of assault and battery. After a year skirting hazy legal and personal troubles, he led the police on an interstate car chase after allegedly threatening people with a handgun. The episode ended in a six-year prison sentence that many felt was excessive; he was paroled after serving two years.
Throughout the ’90s Brown continued to perform and release new material like Love Over-Due (1991), Universal James (1992), and I’m Back (1998). While none of these recordings could be considered as important as his earlier work and did little to increase his popularity, his classic catalog became more popular in the American mainstream during this time than it had been since the ’70s, and not just among young rappers and samplers. One of the main reasons for this was a proper presentation of his recorded legacy. For a long time, his cumbersome, byzantine discography was mostly out of print, with pieces available only on skimpy greatest-hits collections. A series of exceptionally well-packaged reissues on PolyGram changed that situation; the Star Time box set is the best overview, with other superb compilations devoted to specific phases of his lengthy career, from ’50s R&B to ’70s funk.
In 2004, Brown was diagnosed with prostate cancer but successfully fought the disease. By 2006, it was in remission and Brown, then 73, began a global tour dubbed the Seven Decades of Funk World Tour. Late in the year while at a routine dentist appointment, the singer was diagnosed with pneumonia. He was admitted to the hospital for treatment but died of heart failure a few days later, in the early morning hours of Christmas Day. A public viewing was held at Apollo Theater in Harlem, followed by a private ceremony in his hometown of Augusta, GA. ~ Richie Unterberger, Rovi
To celebrate Black History Month, enter any artist into our web apps to see and hear how each of these four artists influenced their music through various artists over time.