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

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.)

Smith writes of Brown’s well-documented woman-beating with a chilling matter-of-factness, a reminder that, for all the justifiable outrage over Chris Brown, the syndrome is disturbingly not new in pop music or anywhere near its worst point. (Brown’s other relationship with women was of the sexual sort: One associate recalled he had a different female in his bed practically every night — which Smith neither mythologizes nor condemns.)

Predictably, the book offers plenty of airtime to Brown’s showmanship, including his trademark cape, his dancing and his hair — oh, yes, that hair — which his former fashion consultant suggests Brown “loved … better than he loved his women.” Which, for Brown, was saying something.

Brown’s inner life sometimes feels at a remove from us in Smith’s account, possibly because of his reliance on so many outside voices and his penchant for details (there are nearly 50 pages of footnotes) and patience-testing tangents. Do we need several pages, for instance, on the beat measures favored by various Brown drummers? And the author’s attempts at shifting into meditative-critic mode can fall flat. “This music pulls you out of your life, out of time — it destroys time — and leaves an impression of being lost in a crowd of pure action.” Such remarks might have read better on his computer than they do on the page.

The author is in peak form, however, when writing about race. To pen the biography of James Brown is to tell the history of black-white relations in America, not only because of the star’s own rise from shoeshine boy to global symbol but also because of the many events with which he found himself entangled. Smith evokes colorfully the moment when Brown turns the table on presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey at a public rally, making Humphrey commit to a host of black causes before Brown offers his endorsement.

The musician had an almost Zelig-like ability to pop up in history, whether it was at a Richard Nixon inauguration, a controversial performance for the troops during the Vietnam War or a Boston Garden concert after the assassination of King, when Brown’s decision to move forward with the show may have staved off a riot. (Brown claimed it did anyway.)

Initially eschewing racial activism — Brown was hardly a Jackie Robinson-style trailblazer — the musician became a racial lightning rod of sorts. He was accused, Smith compellingly writes, of being an Uncle Tom and a bigotry apologist with “America Is My Home.” Then, confounding expectations, Brown turned around a short time later and released “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud,” a song that was widely read as a black power anthem and set the singer on a more ideological course.

The book’s title, “The One,” is a triple entendre — a reference to Brown’s emphasis on playing the right beat, the anointment of Brown’s iconic status and, finally, a wry reference to Brown as the primary advocate of that anointing. It’s a fitting choice for this sprawling story, one that convincingly honors the Brown legend while also subtly questioning it.