Bobby Byrd: 1934 to 2007
Bobby Byrd’s contribution to James Brown’s music might seem no more significant than that of many other storied Brown collaborators. Brown, a mesmeric musician whose vision was dependent upon arrangers and instrumentalists — many of them, such as Fred Wesley, highly trained players whose affinities were with jazz and whose sophistication only threw the leader’s eccentricity into even harsher focus — preached brotherhood even as he made it clear he was boss. Yet Brown must have felt a kinship with Bobby Byrd that came out of both men’s struggles to become famous. They’d come up in a harsh world, and the music they made embodied that harshness even as its humor and determination transcended that world.
He was born Bobby Howard Byrd on August 15, 1934, in the northeast Georgia town of Toccoa. He met Brown in the early 1950s when Brown was a resident in a juvenile detention facility. With the help of Byrd’s family, Brown won an early release from jail. The two young men shared an interest in baseball and gospel music, and an ambition for fame. Byrd already had a vocal group called the Gospel Starlighters, and after Brown joined up, the name and the style changed. They called themselves the Flames and set out to make their mark in rhythm & blues.
By the time they hit in 1956 with “Please, Please, Please”, the Flames had become the Famous Flames, and James Brown had become their leader. It didn’t matter; during the ’60s Byrd co-wrote such hits as “Licking Stick — Licking Stick”, and made his own records while remaining Brown’s loyal second voice. Far from being a second banana, Byrd proved himself Brown’s equal in the creation of everyday surrealism, as on 1967’s “Funky Soul #1”, which found Byrd declaring, “Do the underdog/Get on the log.”
Byrd’s 1971 “I Know You Got Soul” became a favorite of sampling rappers. And on the long version of “Get Up I Feel Like Being A Sex Machine” included on Brown’s 1970 Sex Machine LP, Byrd matches him in a bravura example of futuristic gospel intensity, repeating “Get on up” and “Yeah!” for ten minutes.
In later years, Byrd fell out with Brown over the authorship of some of Brown’s hits. He married Vicki Anderson, another member of Brown’s extended family, and continued to record and perform. Byrd sang at Brown’s funeral late last year. He died of lung cancer in Loganville, Georgia, on September 12 at age 73.