Bobby Byrd and James Brown were on different teams when the two met in 1952. Brown was a pitcher on the baseball team in the Georgia youth prison where he was an inmate after being convicted for burglarizing cars.
Byrd played on a local team that came to the prison for a game. The two became teammates of a different sort after Byrd's family sponsored Brown, which allowed the future "Godfather of Soul" to earn early release.
Byrd, who died Wednesday, September 12, at the age of 73, and Brown had more in common than baseball. The two men also shared a common bond of music.
Byrd eventually recruited Brown to his group - which was called The Avons. That group would become world reknown as the Flames with Brown as the lead singer.
This is where the story could go in one of two directions. Byrd could either become Florence Ballard to Brown's Diana Ross and leave the group he founded - remember Ballard founded the Supremes - for a risk fraught attempt at a solo career. That's obviously the well-traveled path taken by plenty who had considerable talent and even more ego.
Or, Byrd could serve as the trusted - if sometimes overlooked collaborator - soul/funk's version of jazz's Billy Strayhorn/Duke Ellington relationship. It is a tribute to Byrd's foresight and positive self-image that he chose the latter path, because Byrd had considerable talent. Byrd - to use another tortured sports metaphor - stepped aside and let Brown become the starting quarterback. In doing so, he went from being a real good player on a pretty good team to a key contributor on the musical equivalent of the Jordan's Bulls.
Byrd stayed with Brown until 1973. He saw James Brown become the face of the group. The band's name and sound changed in the late 1960s. They became the Famous Flames - or James Brown and the Famous Flames.
The sound evolved from do wop to a full R&B/soul to funk band. Byrd became a backup singer and a sideman. However, his voice remained strong. He often served as the counterpoint to some of Brown's vocal flourished. When Brown shouted "get up," on "Sex Machine," the voice responding "get on up," belonged to Byrd. Byrd supplied vocals to many of Brown's greatest hits, "Talkin' Loud and Sayin' Nuthin," "Get Up, Get Into It and Get Involved."
The thing that I've always loved about jazz is that the boundaries between bandleaders and sidemen historically never existed. Today's sideman could and often is tomorrow's bandleader.
Byrd cut his share of tunes throughout the 1960s and 70s. The most noteworthy song is the funkily infectous "I Know You Got Soul." Byrd continued to release music after he left Brown in 1973. His most recent recording, "Back From the Dead" was released in 2005.
By Howard Dukes