Famous Flames' Bobby Byrd dies at 73


Bobby Byrd, a longtime collaborator with James Brown and co-founder of the Famous Flames, died this week at his home near Atlanta. He was 73.

Byrd died Wednesday, a spokesman for Willie A. Watkins Funeral Home in Atlanta said. News accounts attributed the death to cancer.

One of the chief architects of Brown's trademark sound, Byrd's contributions can be heard on early James Brown soul tracks and on hits that laid the foundations of funk, like "Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine." The punctuating phrase "Get on up," which repeats throughout that song, was sung by Byrd.

"You listen to those records and those voices together, it was incredible," Keith Jenkins, a member of Brown's Soul Generals, told the Augusta Chronicle. "Whether they were singing in harmony on something like 'Licking Stick' or doing call and response on 'Sex Machine,' it was always something special."

Brown, who was born and raised in poverty, was serving a sentence in a north Georgia reform school for breaking into cars when he met Byrd, and Byrd's family arranged to take Brown into their home. Byrd also took Brown into his gospel group. Soon they changed their name to the Famous Flames and their style to hard R&B.

Byrd stayed with the Famous Flames, and the JBs after that, until 1973. Later, he would have a string of modest R&B hits.

Jenkins said Byrd was no longer playing with Brown during his tenure with the band, but he remained a strong presence and often accompanied the band. "He (Brown) didn't always call him out to do anything, but he liked having him there. He was family," he said.

Byrd performed at the James Brown Arena in Augusta during Brown's memorial service in December.

Brown's daughter Deanna Brown, who refers to Byrd as Uncle Bobby, told the Chronicle that one of her fondest memories is of her father and Byrd performing, in tandem, at her wedding. She said it's the sort of impromptu performance only those two men could give.

"I mean, when you go back that far, some 50 years, you are family," she said. "Uncle Bobby and Daddy, they were like brothers. They wrote the music that lifted people up, you know. It's an important lesson and one people, I hope, can recognize."

Services for Byrd are scheduled for Sept. 22 at Ray of Hope Christian Church in Atlanta.