Bobby Byrd, 73; Musician Credited In Igniting Career Of James Brown

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 15, 2007

Bobby Byrd, 73, a singer, pianist and songwriter credited with discovering James Brown and who was one of his most important collaborators for two decades, died Sept. 12 at his home in Loganville, Ga. He had lung cancer.

Without Mr. Byrd, it has been asserted by some music scholars, Brown might not have become famous beyond the walls of a Georgia youth detention facility, much less become the "godfather of soul." Mr. Byrd was dubbed by some "the godfather's godfather."

In the early 1950s, Mr. Byrd's family helped secure Brown's early release from a juvenile detention facility in Georgia. The Byrds provided a home for Brown, who hitched himself to Mr. Byrd's gospel group, which morphed into a much more secular vocal band. The Famous Flames were led by Brown, who strutted his way to international funk stardom as the "hardest-working man in show business."

Mr. Byrd remained with the Famous Flames, and subsequently the JBs, for 20 years. During that time, he energized crowds before the cape-sporting superstar appeared. He participated with Brown on million-selling records such as Brown's "Live at the Apollo" on several TV appearances.

As a composer, Mr. Byrd received co-authorship billing on songs including "Talkin' Loud & Sayin' Nothin', " "Licking Stick," "Get Up, Get into It and Get Involved" and "Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine." For the last, he was heard on the recording shouting the famous refrain, "Get on up!"

But he and Brown had strong disagreements about royalties, mostly regarding Mr. Byrd's authorship of songs that Brown attributed to himself and various relatives. Brown had produced many of Mr. Byrd's early solo recordings, including his greatest hit, "I Know You Got Soul" (1971), a fast-paced R&B number attributed to Mr. Byrd, Brown and Charles Bobbit.

Starting in 1973, Mr. Byrd embarked on what would become a modestly successful three-decade solo career. He continued to think that his contribution to R&B was overlooked when many younger entertainers -- including Eric B. & Rakim, Public Enemy, Jay-Z and Ice Cube -- covered or sampled Mr. Byrd's singles but rarely paid for the music.

Bobby Howard Byrd was born Aug. 15, 1934, in Toccoa, Ga., where he was raised by his mother and grandmother. He was high school class president and excelled in sports and music, particularly as a gospel singer at his Baptist church.

At that time, Brown was locked up for burglary at a facility in Toccoa. He formed a music group of inmates and also pitched for the prison baseball team. Mr. Byrd, who lived near the facility, played on an opposing team and participated in a community church choir that performed for prisoners.

Speaking of Brown, Mr. Byrd later said: "He'd come out and sing, he was in his teens. I thought he was very good, even then."

After he was released, Brown sang with Mr. Byrd's vocal group the Gospel Starlighters. The bandmates were increasingly influenced by the secular hits of Hank Ballard and Fats Domino, and they soon took a new name, the Flames, to reflect their radical turn from holy music.

In 1956, the Flames signed with King Records of Cincinnati and had a Top 10 R&B hit with "Please, Please, Please," a gospel-tinged reworking of the Big Joe Williams blues number "Baby Please Don't Go." It was a great shock to many of the singers to see themselves billed as James Brown & the Famous Flames, reflecting the speed with which the flamboyant Brown had become the front man.

"Oh, that was devastating! That was devastating!" Mr. Byrd told an interviewer. "All the stuff we had gone through together and struggled so, to try to get to the 'Please Please' and then it wind up with one person's name on it. . . . That wasn't right, because one person didn't do all of that. It took all of us to get into that."

After leaving Brown, Mr. Byrd spent decades performing at European clubs and fairgrounds with his second wife, former Brown singer Vicki Anderson. They also sang last year at Brown's funeral, with Mr. Byrd soloing on "Sex Machine" and "I Know You Got Soul."

His first marriage, to Gail Byrd, ended in divorce.

Besides Anderson, of Loganville, survivors include three children from his first marriage; a daughter from his second marriage; at least three children from other relationships; two sisters; and a brother.

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