R.J. Smith dissects James Brown in 'The One'
"The One: The Life and Music of James Brown" (Gotham Books), by RJ Smith
Saturday, March 17, 2012
When James Brown was imprisoned in 1988 after leading police on a two-state car chase that ended only when his tires were shot out, many people felt he was guilty of nothing more than driving-while-black and called on authorities to free the Godfather of Soul.
Those closest to Brown — long aware of the star's increasingly erratic behavior and penchant for driving fast, high on the powerful hallucinogen PCP — saw things differently.
"We wondered what took them so long, if you want to know the truth," guitarist Ron Laster says in "The One: The Life and Music of James Brown."
That's just one of the many nuggets that author RJ Smith has unearthed in his unflinching portrait of the conflicted and contradictory superstar.
Smith interviewed dozens of the singer's associates but didn't talk to Brown, who died in 2006. That may be for the best: Philip Gourevitch's 2002 profile for The New Yorker magazine showed Brown to be a highly unreliable, often unintelligible, source.
The portrait of Brown that emerges in "The One" is that of an ornery charmer with an outsized sense of vanity, who is almost maniacally driven to rise to the top.
Brown also has a disturbing knack for having his worst behavior forgiven.
The description of Brown brutally beating Tammi Terrell, his then-girlfriend, is all the more shocking for how easy the reader will find it to return to rooting for Brown as the book proceeds.
"The One" does a good job of untangling the psychological elements that came together to make James Brown, tracing his almost prescient ability to read audiences back to his days dancing for spare change from sailors and growing up in Georgia with a violent, unpredictable father.
It also shows how Brown cribbed from New Orleans back line drumming, colorful Chitlin' Circuit performers like Esquerita and Little Richard, and gospel preachers to develop his signature sound and style and land his first hit with "Please, Please, Please" in 1956.
The story really gets going, though, in the '60s, when Brown dashes off signature records such as "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" and "Sex Machine," not to mention the classic LP "Live at the Apollo."
The '70s, however, bring the beginning of Brown's decline in popularity following his surprising endorsement of Richard Nixon for president and his struggle for relevance as disco and rap come to dominate the urban contemporary charts.
Strangely, Smith makes no mention of two important tracks, "The Funky Drummer," which became the basis for dozens if not hundreds of hip-hop records, and "Static," where Brown berates rappers for stealing his sound.
Smith does, however, discuss how the late career hit "Living in America," written by outside songwriters, proves difficult to incorporate into the live show since it doesn't conform to the One — Brown's trademark rhythmic scheme.
But the One proves hard to define, and the more Smith delves into it, the more slippery it proves — not unlike the mercurial subject of his book.
Finally, he offers this take on it from Brown's longtime musical director:
"It's really — it's a joke," scowled Fred Wesley. "He didn't know what the One was to him. To him it's the downbeat. But he didn't know what it was. The emphasis on the one of the bar ... his music kind of emulated that, but as far as it being some kind of concept — I don't think so."
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