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Book review: 'The One: The Life and Music of James Brown' by RJ Smith

The author, in a digressive but absorbing biography, persuasively lays out the case that the soul singer was an important social figure.

March 25, 2012|By Steven Zeitchik, Los Angeles Times
  • James Brown performs as part of HM Tower Of London Festival Of Music's inaugural jazz and opera festival on July 4, 2006, in London.
James Brown performs as part of HM Tower Of London Festival Of Music's… (Gareth Cattermole, Getty…)

The One

The Life and Music of James Brown

RJ Smith

Gotham Books: 455 pp., $27.50

Music is well said to be the speech of angels, the 18th century Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle wrote. But then, he never spent any time with James Brown.

In a five-decade career as one of the most successful recording artists of all time, Brown influenced generations of musicians and reached millions of fans with his fierce talent. He was also far from angelic — demanding, egotistical and prone to pulling a gun on those who disagreed with him. Brown used his fists when he needed to (which, in his view, was not infrequently), letting the punches fly on various victim (and included women he was bedding).

Most notably, as R.J. Smith persuasively lays out in "The One," his digressive but absorbing new biography of the soul icon, Brown was an important social figure. Beneath the cape-wearing, lyrics-belting, hair-coiffing persona was a man whose life intersected with some of the 20th century's most significant racial trends.

Known for a deep catalog of hits such as "I Got You (I Feel Good)," "Get Up (I Feel Like a Sex Machine)" and "It's a Man's Man's Man's World," Brown was, as most of us recognize, a titan of music who created a host of innovations in soul and funk. Never adept at playing instruments and incapable of reading music, Brown, who died in 2006, did it all with a sense of intuition — "feel," Smith calls it.

He borrowed from earlier black musicians and inaugurated plenty on his own, all the while honing a mesmerizing stage act. Though his relationship with white audiences was complicated — first pioneering, later polarizing — Brown was more influential than anyone might have dreamed at the time. Smith implicitly makes the (plausible) case that every time a white suburban teenager puts on a hip-hop record, he owes a debt to Brown, who, long before the era of Kanye West and Li'l Wayne, made such an act both musically worthwhile and socially fashionable.

A frequent music writer and former editor at Los Angeles magazine, Smith also wrote "The Great Black Way," a book about African American culture in Los Angeles circa the 1940s. The author expands his scope considerably in his new book.

Smith begins at the beginning — in fact, he goes back a lot further than that, starting his story with 18th century slaves and then continuing to a segregated South in the early part of the 20th century. It was this culture that shaped Brown's upbringing. Born in 1932 in rural South Carolina, Brown spent his childhood in Augusta, Ga., and was marred by poverty and crime, including a stint in jail.

But a musical future began to coalesce with the formation of his band the Flames in the mid-1950s and some lucky breaks filling in for Little Richard. Brown would make unannounced last-minute appearances in place of the newly popular singer, one of many good bits with which Smith packs his book. The move would allow him to hone his act and expand his fame, and even when the crowd caught on that this wasn't Little Richard and became annoyed, it didn't matter. "[B]y the time he was done," Smith writes, "the crowd was cheering the impostor.".

Although music was, like much of the pre-civil rights South where Brown performed, deeply segregated, Brown's songs began a process of commingling audiences in a way that had seldom been done in America before.

The biographer writes vividly about the 1964 concert film "The T.A.M.I. Show," in which Brown performed as though possessed by holy demons. The concert reveals Brown as a harbinger of modern showmanship, while also highlighting, tellingly, that there was a time when musical performance was an act of spontaneity or at least autonomy, not the product of a team of image-minded "American Idol" coaches.

The author paints his portrait with the colors of those who worked with, for and against Brown. (These are, it should be said, sometimes all the same people.) Brown had a tendency to alienate even those seeking to help him and was not averse to flashing a piece, as he did when another musician, aggrieved because of a dispute over a woman, mocked him onstage. (No shots were fired — that time.) But Brown also could be generous, stopping his limousine to pick up a young fan who had been following it to give the fan life lessons and some money.

Possibly because of his diminutive stature and his hardscrabble past, Brown was often on the defensive, a man whose id was inseparable from his talent. "Instinctively, the singer responded to obstacles in his path with a display of money and aggression," Smith writes of Brown's oil-and-water dynamic next to a pacifist such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. That hardened exterior led later in life to his infamous run from the police and a considerable jail sentence — and an unwillingness to admit he might have had a drug problem. (Jail, on the other hand, made him a martyr, Smith suggests.)

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