ISBN-10: 1592406572

ISBN-13: 978-1592406579

James Brown, of course, was more than a musical pioneer—he was an iconic figure known for his trend-setting hits, his dynamic showmanship, as a focal point in the Civil Rights movement, and as a controversial personality off the stage. Gratefully, RJ Smith’s new bio of the “Hardest Working Man in Show Business” offers much more than a straight-forward account of Brown’s trajectory from poverty to riches to excess and death on December 25, 2006. Smith sees Brown as a multi-dimensional man in his own right, but also in a larger context. As a result, The One is perhaps 2/3 biography and 1/3 a study of Brown from historical, cultural, musical, and even anthropological perspectives.

For example, Smith begins by describing the history of the rural South Carolina and Augusta, Georgia area where Brown grew up. There, Brown was hardened by poverty, segregation, and a broken family resulting in a youth of street hustling, incarceration for armed robbery, and an outlook on life based on tough individualism that was demonstrated in his argumentative, combative and often violent behavior. Believing he had been still-born and survived, Brown felt a sense of invulnerability that added to his sense of personal power. Then, Smith chronicles Brown’s rise in the music business beginning with his association with Little Richard, his performances on the “chitlin’ circuit,” and the long tumultuous relationship with King Records.

Then, Smith’s exploration of Brown’s involvement with the “Black Power” movement of the 1960s points to important distinctions neglected by other sources. For example, while Brown respected martin Luther King, Jr., he didn’t support the idea of group participation in social change—he urged rugged individualism where black entrepreneurship would bring economic clout to African-Americans. He did not oppose the war in Vietnam and worked hard to perform for the troops. He supported Richard Nixon even after releasing the anthem, “Say It Loud-I’m Black and I’m Proud.” While Brown’s connections with Nixon cost him popularity in some circles, he was able to ride with the times and become the “Godfather of Soul,” a definer of funk, and an influence on later rap and hip-hop artists.

Through it all, Brown does not come off as the most sympathetic of figures. He was known for keeping a tight discipline on his bands, but to such extremes he’d leave them stranded on the road or fire anyone who dared ask for better treatment. He did not give fair credit to musicians who provided licks or song ideas he incorporated into his hits. He was notorious for his abuse of women as with Tammi Terrell who abandoned Brown after one of his rages. While he was given credit for performing in Boston the day after Martin Luther King was killed and thus ostensibly saved the city from potential riots, he virtually blackmailed the Mayor into paying him $60,000 to make up for lost concert sales. On the other hand, he urged black students to stay in school, did perform at benefits, and mentored a young Al Sharpton.      

While Smith drew from interviews with more than 100 people who knew Brown, this biography is more than credible but short of being definitive. In particular, many of Brown’s signature songs, notably “I Got You (I Feel Good” are not mentioned nor analyzed. To be fair, a full anatomy of Brown’s recording output would be a book unto itself. But Smith clearly did considerable digging into the myths surrounding Brown—many of which Brown created himself—and gives as accurate and rounded a portrait as possible. On its own, The One is a readable and valuable contribution for anyone interested in an objective biography of James Brown as well as the progression of “race music” from the 1950s to the present. In addition, Smith provides insights into the connections between African rhythmic patterns and Brown’s music, reasons why Brown was the hard as flint man he became, and why his legacy will endure long after his passing. In short, Smith treats his subject, and his readers, with astute intelligence.

   

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