15 Things You Don’t Know About James Brown

We’re celebrating the birthday of the self-proclaimed “hardest-working man in show business” with some little-known facts.

James Brown performs at the HM Tower of London Festival of Music’s inaugural jazz-and-opera festival at HM Tower of London July 4, 2006.

Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images

The biopic Get on Up, about the life of James Brown, will be released in August. On the occasion of his birthday, we are sharing some little-known facts about the Godfather of Soul.

1. James Joseph Brown Jr. was born May 3, 1933. His first name was actually supposed to be Joseph but was accidentally reversed on his birth certificate.

James Brown performs at the Royal Albert Hall in London July 13, 2003.

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2. At the age of 6 he was sent to live with his aunt Honey Washington, who ran a brothel and sold moonshine for a living.

Ole Smoky Tennessee Moonshine

Mike Lawrie/Getty Images

3. James Brown was once a cotton picker, coal scrounger and shoeshine boy. He also danced and sang to attract clients to his aunt’s place of business.

Cotton picking in Georgia

Wikimedia Commons

4. As a young man, he wanted to play professional baseball and be a professional boxer.

James Brown in Hamburg, Germany, in 1973   

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5. In 1992 a news anchor mistakenly reported him dead. The news inspired a song by L.A. Style.



6. Kanye West and Jay Z’s song “Gotta Have It” featured three James Brown samples: “Don’t Tell a Lie About Me and I Won’t Tell the Truth About You,” “People Get Up and Drive Your Funky Soul” and “My Thang.”

Kanye West and Jay Z perform in Paris June 1, 2012.


7. His first No. 1 single on the R&B chart was “Try Me” in 1959.


Youtube screenshot

8. James Brown had his eyebrows tattooed in 1991.

James Brown in Los Angeles Superior Court Feb. 5, 2002

Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

9. He first sang gospel while in prison, where he earned the nickname “Music Box.”

James Brown performs in Beirut Jan. 2, 2000.


10. James Brown was a lifelong Republican who campaigned for Richard Nixon and made fundraising appearances for the GOP.

James Brown with President George W. Bush during a Black Music Month event at the White House June 29, 2001

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

11. His original Famous Flames bandmates were originally in Little Richard’s band.

James Brown and the Famous Flames at the Apollo Theater in New York City in 1964


12. James Brown did not know how to read sheet music.

James Brown at 2001 NBA jam session

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13. He made a cameo appearance in the movie The Blues Brothers.

Scene from the 1980 movie The Blues Brothers

YouTube screenshot

14. James Brown was married four times.

James Brown and wife Tommie Rae at the 47th Annual Grammy Awards at the Staples Center in Los Angeles Feb. 13, 2005

Kevin Winter/Getty Images

15. He died on Christmas Day in 2006 and was laid to rest in a 24-karat-gold coffin.

The casket containing the body of James Brown during a homegoing celebration at the James Brown Arena in Augusta, Ga., Dec. 30, 2006

Annette Brown/Getty Images

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