RJ Smith’s prose style in The One: The Life And Music Of James Brown (Gotham Books) crackles with static electricity like a fatback bass pounding the funk. It’s a wild ride through a unique American life of a complex and conflicted man. James Brown changed popular culture just as much as Dylan and Elvis and maybe even more considering his international reach in influencing Fela Kuti in Nigeria and Bob Marley in Jamaica.
But try being in his band. The way Elvis treated his entourage is nothin’ compared to how you were treated in JB’s band. Hell, Elvis wanted to be your friend. JB, who was fascinated by Elvis, did not, under any circumstances, want to hang out with you. In fact, his set of rules and fines if he caught you hiding a bottle of Jack in your drum case, for instance, was so ridiculous that he lost many a great musician who couldn’t wait to get the hell out. He’d leave his own band stranded in the middle of nowhere by hopping in his private plane to get out of town. He’d knock you down, blacken your eye and break your nose if you forgot a receipt. And try to being married to him!
Violence was always part of his life. An Augusta, GA juvenile delinquent, he was jailed early as an adult. He liked to say how he was born dead and he wasn’t wrong, having been born stillborn but miraculously revived. His first great band, The Flames, had him tearing up houses like you wouldn’t believe. It was Little Richard who discovered him and hooked him up with management. JB feuded early and often with other soul singers, including Joe Tex and Jackie Wilson. If you were too talented, too much the entertainer who people loved, JB hated you. Reverend Al Sharpton was a kid back then. He served as JB’s right-hand man. As Rev. Al says, “you notice how [in] many pictures of James Brown, he’s got a coat over his arm? Could be 95-[degree] weather in Miami, you’d see him with an overcoat over his arm. That’s because he had his gun under it.”
Smith writes provocatively and rhythmically about the era when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. started his march on the spot where civil rights activist James Meredith was murdered. He brings back the essence of that struggle in Technicolor terms. When Dr. King was murdered, with race riots breaking out all over the country, JB was to perform in Boston. The town fathers wanted to cancel the concert. History shows that the singer single-handedly prevented Boston from lighting itself on fire. Later, when the same thing threatened to happen in D.C., the Mayor there called JB to quell the potential violence. JB went on TV but this time it didn’t work and people were killed.
He went to Vietnam to perform for the troops. He bought up a string of radio stations. He became Soul Brother number one but went too far with “Say It Loud (I’m Black And I’m Proud),” totally scaring off white audiences and white-owned radio stations. It would be 17 years with no pop hits because of that one song. Yet, because of that song, he turned into an icon and his music turned from soul to pure raw Black funk that influenced everyone from Miles Davis to Sly Stone to George Clinton.
One time he fired his whole band after a concert and had a new band flown in. The new band was a bunch of super-talented local Augusta kids who stared wide-eyed at the legend before them, furiously trying to keep up with him. The bassist was Bootsy Collins, who had turned down an offer from Jimi Hendrix to join his band. Bootsy took so much LSD before, during and after the shows that JB had to get rid of him, but not before Bootsy redefined the role of the bass within funk, influencing a generation on his own.
Smith recounts story after story in gripping dramatic fashion. I can’t tell you how many nights I stayed up past 2 a.m. not wanting to go to sleep because I just had to read a few more of its 455 pages.
By the time of his decline, brought on by problems with the IRS (JB didn’t care for banks and would have suitcases filled with money all over the house and in the walls), drugs (he sprinkled PCP and angel dust on his joints and became a raging addict), total insanity, diabetes, prostate surgery, the death of a son, a lawsuit against him from his daughters, you feel for this legend (who petitioned the president that Blacks shouldn’t have to pay taxes because of slavery), and who didn’t know anything but violence growing up.
The ups still outweigh the downs. James Brown won back his white audiences. And he didn’t do it by crossing over. The white audiences came back to him at a time when his music was more Black, raw, funkified, lean, mean and uncompromising than ever.