Film 'Get on Up!' Reveals James Brown's Gospel Roots

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Known as the "Godfather of Soul," James Brown's work still influences the music industry more than six years after his death.

A feature film about his life hits theaters Friday, and you might be surprised to learn that the church played a big influence in his life and legacy.

Brown's story is a real life tale of rags-to-riches, with a few bumps on the journey.

"He had to fend for himself, so he became a hustler," Gospel music historian Bill Carpenter said.

Carpenter listened to Brown as a child, later covered him as a journalist, and wrote about him in his book, Un-cloudy Days: The Gospel Music Encyclopedia.

"He grew up in the Great Depression. Born in 1933 in South Carolina, 'poorer than poor,' those are his words. He said poor people looked down on him, he was so poor. And he came from a very dysfunctional family, where his parents were not at home. He was raised by his Aunt Honey, who sort of ran a boarding house," Carpenter said.

And at age 16, long before becoming the "Godfather of Soul," Brown went from Aunt Honey's boarding house to a Georgia jail house for armed robbery. It was there that he realized his love for music. It's a story he shared with CBN, more than 30 years ago.

"They turned me loose to sing Gospel one morning and we went out about five prisoners to sing Gospel and the warden realized that he had turned all of us loose," Brown told CBN's Scott Ross.

Carpenter explained, "While he was in prison, he met someone named Bobby Byrd, who went on to become an integral part of his band, and Bobby's family was deeply in the church. They helped him get out of prison. And when he came out of prison he and Bobby started a Gospel group called The Star Lighters."

The Star Lighters eventually became "James Brown & the Famous Flames." Their meteoric rise in the music industry is masterfully told in the new feature film "Get on Up!"

Chadwick Boseman, who played Jackie Robinson in the film "42," leads the all-star cast.

"Our music is still affected by what he started because it was such an innovation," Boseman said.

Much of that innovation came from Brown's childhood, growing up in church.

"At one point when he was a kid, he thought he wanted to be a preacher because he really enjoyed watching how they stirred the audience," Carpenter said.

Brown writes about one preacher known as "Sweet Daddy Grace" in his autobiography The Godfather of Soul.- The flamboyant evangelist started the denomination the United House of Prayer for All People.

"And he sat on this big, red throne and he had a cape, and a crown. And James Brown just looked at it in amazement and that is where he got that sense of pageantry that was in his early 1960s shows, where he was wearing the cape. And when you look at those performances, like 'Please, Please, Please,' it is like a revival service," Carpenter said.

Brown's revival-like performances come back to life on the big screen, and on New York's famous Apollo stage in "Get on Up."

Rock music royalty Mick Jagger is one of the film's producers.

"The fact that someone like Mick Jagger has produced a film about James Brown and then he talks about all those things he liked about James Brown, all those things are things from the church -- and that is the influence that sometimes we forget these things came from church," Carpenter said.

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CBN News
Efrem Graham

Efrem Graham

News Anchor & Reporter

Efrem Graham is an award-winning journalist, who comes to CBN News from the ABC owned and operated station in Toledo, Ohio.  He received his master's degree from the Columbia University Journalism School. He also holds a bachelor's degree in English Literature from the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.  Follow Efrem on Twitter @EfremGraham and "like" him at