Feature

Book of the week: The One: The Life and Music of James Brown by R.J. Smith

Smith tackles every aspect of Brown’s story, bringing Brown’s demons to life “with the same rich detail” he uses to trace the glory years.

(Gotham, $27.50)

“With his primal screams and electrifying dance moves,” James Brown “could whip audiences into a sweat-drenched frenzy,” said Steve Jones in USA Today. R.J. Smith’s new biography of the Godfather of Soul “crackles” with a similar energy. Smith tackles every aspect of Brown’s story, from his impoverished childhood in Augusta, Ga., through his artistic peak in the ’60s and ’70s, and on into late-life PCP addiction and spousal abuse. This book brings Brown’s demons to life “with the same rich detail” it uses to trace the glory years.

Smith’s tone is just right, said Preston Lauterbach in The Wall Street Journal. It’s a steep challenge to make oneself fluent in Augusta-style racism, in the myriad tributaries of Brown’s music, and in the political currents that would inspire a ’60s black icon to publicly embrace Richard Nixon. Smith hasn’t merely done his homework, though; throughout the book, he sounds like a veteran Brown sideman—a sage “who has seen too much to be awed but has too much fun to grow jaded.” Among his insights is that Brown’s arrest for a car break-in at age 16 was the event that most shaped the career to come. During his three-year youth-camp incarceration, Brown not only picked up the music of black Appalachia, he learned discipline. “And if any one thing other than talent made James Brown, that thing would be discipline.”

“Lovability was not Brown’s salient attribute,” and Smith doesn’t ask for our love, said Janet Maslin in The New York Times. As a bandleader, and as a husband, Brown was a terror. But by the time we see him at his height, we have also seen “a childhood so tough and raw” that we’re beyond surprise. Harder to read about is “the painful post-glory era,” when this perfectionist responded to his diminishing powers with “volcanic episodes of gun-toting craziness.” Nobody wanted to see things end that way. This was a man, after all, who’d spent every day of the previous 40 years trying to look like a man you’d pay to see.

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