Old School Americana & Nostalgia


How Sylvester Stallone’s ‘Rocky IV’ Revived Soul Legend James Brown’s Career

How Sylvester Stallone’s ‘Rocky IV’ Revived Soul Legend James Brown’s Career

James Brown made a name for himself with hit records but found his career on the skids until Sylvester Stallone and Rocky came along. Brown, the legendary “Godfather of Soul,” was pushed to the side when disco took over the music scene in the 1970s. The crowd didn’t have time for Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag anymore. They were more into Disco Inferno and Stayin’ Alive, disco balls, and Studio 54.

“You’ve got punk happening, disco happening, all getting mixed up,” Mick Jagger, who is an executive producer on the A&E documentary James Brown: Say It Loud, said. “A lot of other people were sort of left behind in this, ’cause this is a huge change, a sea change, in the musical scene.”

Meanwhile, James Brown gives himself some credit for disco. “I’m the one who started disco,” he said in the documentary. “Disco is really the vamp of a soul record.”

James Brown Found Music Left Him Behind

Still, some of James Brown’s fans were in high places. Decision-makers, the ones who could speak something almost into immediate existence. And Brown was not doing well, what with a lack of hits and losing support from his record company.

In 1980, comedians John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd are putting out The Blues Brothers. This movie, directed by John Landis, was an extension of a skit and real musical act these guys did. They knew about James Brown, and musical director Paul Shaffer did as well. Brown gave a rollicking performance as a spirit-filled preacher, whooping and hollering to the Lord.

That helped put James Brown back into the spotlight. Sylvester Stallone, though, had more ideas for him. He was working on another Rocky film and he needed a new song for it. He turned and asked Brown to write one. Brown delivered.

With the help of Rocky IV, “Living in America” soared up to No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. James Brown’s funky beat and presentation in the film itself brought him a whole new generation of fans. This was his last Top 10 single. “Living in America” was produced and co-written by disco star Dan Hartman, known for “Instant Replay” and “Relight My Fire.” This hit song returned the funk beat to its rightful owner.

‘Godfather of Soul’ Picked Up Second Grammy Award

“It’s almost like the Village People. That’s really what it sounds like,” Dr. Jason King, who is the dean of the USC Thornton School of Music, said. “It sounds like YMCA or Macho Man or something like that. But it just works.”

His work here produced a second Grammy Award for James Brown. It was for the Best Male R&B Vocal Performance. Those close to Brown also noticed how life changed for him in the blink of an eye. “When Living in America was released, it changed James Brown’s career at that point, ’cause he hadn’t had a big record in quite some time,” Brown’s former manager Jack Bart says in Say It Loud. “His money went up, his popularity went up. And James Brown was in heaven again.”

James Brown found himself appearing on late-night talk shows like The Arsenio Hall Show and Late Night with David Letterman. His concerts drew big crowds again. Brown and his band even performed at Glastonbury in 2004, too. He died on Christmas Day in 2006 at 73 years old.

Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, who co-produced the Brown documentary with Mick Jagger, said, “James Brown’s genius sort of got used and eaten up and borrowed by every other band.” Still, James Brown’s work remains alive and well for new generations to find.