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Title: The One: The Life and Music of James Brown

Author: R. J .Smith

Publisher:  Gotham

Formats:   Hardcover (464 P.) , Kindle edition

Release date:  March 15, 2012

“James Brown will perform 335 days this coming year, losing as much as seven pounds each performance. In an average month, he will give away 5,000 autographed photos and 1,000 pairs of James Brown cuff links.  He will wear 120 freshly laundered shirts and more than eight pairs of shoes.  He will change his performing costume 150 times and will work over eighty hours on the stage, singing, dancing and playing at least 60 songs on one of more than eight instruments.”—1970s Polygram press release.

We’ve all heard that James Brown was the hardest working man in show business, but in his new biography of the Godfather of Soul, R. J. Smith leaves no room for doubt.  Brown’s drive, his stamina, his utter determination to lift himself up and keep on going in the face of adversity are traits that Smith explores throughout the book.

The book’s title The One is a bit of a double (or triple) entendre. Few could dispute that Brown held a preeminent position within the music industry. He was, after all, the one and only Godfather of Soul. In Brown’s mind he was also inherently  special, invincible, a chosen one―not only was he “born dead” (then resuscitated by an aunt)―he miraculously survived an accidental electrocution when he was twelve.  Yet most important, as Smith relates, “the one” was Brown’s secret formula—the emphasis on the upbeat that led soul music into funkier territory—a formula that reached nearly mythic proportions in Brown’s mind.

After an introduction that very briefly traces the African origins of drumming in the Antebellum South, Smith traces Brown’s origins in “Georgialina.”  Born in South Carolina in 1933, Brown departs five years later with his family for a new beginning in Augusta, Georgia, where they move into  the black section known locally as “The Terry.”   By the time Brown turns 16, he has made his way through various odd jobs: “he picked cotton, cut down sugar cane, collected bottle caps, ran errands, delivered liquor, shined shoes, racked balls at a pool hall, helped out a Chinese grocery,”  and also picked up pocket money as a boxer.  All of which created a “powerful sense of determination” while delivering a valuable lesson about following the money.  The opening of the military Camp Gordon ca. 1941 brought new economic opportunities as well as new entertainment venues to Augusta , which also exposed young James to a wider variety of music.

Other very important early influences were Brown’s idols, boxer Beau Jack and the preacher Sweet Daddy Grace, both of whom were as adept at creating spectacles as they were at generating cash. Add to this the music emanating from Daddy Grace’s United House of Prayer and other local churches, and you start to get a sense of the people, the events, and the culture that profoundly shaped James Brown and his music.  Like Ray Charles and other soul singers, Brown was able to harness the emotions, the storytelling, the vocal delivery, and the rhythms of the Black church―in his words, the “formula” of gospel music―to create a powerful new form of secular music.

The story of Brown’s early stint in prison is well known, but Smith fleshes out his relationship with Bobby Byrd and formation of The Famous Flames following Brown’s release.  Later, while standing in for Little Richard, Brown meets drummer Charles Connor , who introduces him to syncopation that’s steeped in the second lines  of New Orleans.  A couple of years later, in 1955, Brown records his first hit song “Please, Please, Please” which Smith refers to as a “standalone emotional workout” that “communicated a soul in turmoil.” This would become Brown’s signature style for the rest of his career, his way of reaching audiences by projecting his emotions and then soaking up their responses until both singer and listener were transformed in a near religious experience.  Smith does an especially good job at describing these techniques and bringing the performances to life for the reader.

The remaining chapters trace Brown’s recordings for King Records and his relationship with owner Syd Nathan and other King employees, and later with Polydor; the evolution of Brown’s band over the years, with a special emphasis on the drummers, as well as the entrance of Bootsy Collins when “the funk moved from the drums to the bass”; Brown’s role in the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, his performances in Vietnam and Africa, and his relationship with politicians and Presidents ; and his radio stations and other business enterprises.  From beginning to end, the story of James Brown follows the transition from R&B to soul, funk, disco, and hip hop, all of which were profoundly influenced by Brown.

Throughout the book, Smith does an excellent job of analyzing Brown and his music, but always from a respectful distance.  Though Brown certainly had a sensational life, Smith does not sensationalize, a temptation some biographers are only too happy to indulge.  Better yet, Smith knows his way around music and African American history.   His extensive research for the book included interviews with many if not most of the key figures still living—Brown’s band members, relatives, managers, and friends.  Overall, The One is a major accomplishment, a superb biography of a man who was one of the major figures of American music in the 20th century, and who left an indelible imprint on the popular music and culture of several continents.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Editor’s note:  Interviews with Bobby Byrd from the Portia K. Maultsby Collection at the Archives of African American Music and Culture were used by Smith for this book.  The AAAMC also holds the Charles Connor Collection, which includes an autobiography of Connor’s early years as a drummer.