THE ONE: The Life and Music of James Brown. By RJ Smith. New York: Gotham Books. 2012.
James Brown died an American icon at 73 on Christmas Day, 2006. That the world mourned the loss of a man who grew up impoverished in the backwoods between Georgia and South Carolina (“Georgialina”) and went on to revolutionize popular music remains as remarkable as the tales he spun about himself. Then there were his myriad contradictions: Brown was born in the segregated South, wrote anthems declaring black pride, yet also actively supported white race-baiting politicians. Awarded for his lyrics advocating social and personal responsibility, Brown’s own life contained considerable tumult.
RJ Smith delves into these complexities, ties them together and crafts a compelling, sometimes darkly funny, narrative for The One. The title is twofold: it refers to the way an early accent in a musical measure is hit that creates what is known as funk. Brown and his band created that genre, but the book’s title could also refer to the singular nature of the man himself.
Some authors have examined Brown’s cultural significance, such as Cynthia Rose in Living in America: The Soul Saga Of James Brown (1991). But nobody has brought the level of depth to this investigation that Smith accomplishes here. He traces the history of racial politics in Georgialina, starting the book by going as far back as describing the role of drums in eighteenth-century slave rebellions. Smith connects all of this to Brown performing in 1966 to civil rights marchers in Mississippi when Stokely Carmichael began articulating the concept of black power. Smith’s research also offers a new perspective on Brown’s celebrated performance in Boston that helped keep the city calm during aftermath of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination.
Along with such cultural insights, Smith digs deeply into what made Brown’s music so influential. He interviewed a large number of Brown’s colleagues, some famous (Bootsy Collins) and others who made contributions that were bigger than their scant accolades (drummer Clayton Fillyau). Smith has as firm a grasp as academic writers like Anne Danielsen in understanding Brown’s innovations, but he has a stronger way of illustrating what it all added up to, like in describing the polyrhythms of drummers Jabo Starks and Clyde Stubblefield: “That old swing vibe, the hip knowingness that came from laying a 3/4 feeling over 4/4 time, was challenged by this new way of feeling, which allowed more influences into the music, and which, once dancers were educated, spoke more eloquently to the body. Hips don’t lie: This was the way ahead.”
Smith never glosses over Brown’s public failings, including domestic violence and drug abuse. But Smith avoids lurid sensationalism as much as he shuns easy excuses. His diligence tells the story. That includes extensive interviews, traveling throughout the region and digging into archives, correspondences and thickets of press clippings. One of the most revealing sources is Al Sharpton, who was a surrogate son to the Soul Godfather. The author also knows when to step back and provide a balanced perspective of each situation without losing his sense of empathy.
Reviewed by Aaron Cohen, Wright College