Tuesday, April 17, 2012

"The One" by R.J. Smith (2012)

Author R.J. Smith has done a superb job in this stunning biography of the Godfather of Soul, James Brown. As a matter of fact, he almost eclipses James Brown's "I Feel Good" in this painstakingly researched analysis of one of the most remarkable show business careers.

The author begins the book with a brief, but compelling, introduction, which he uses to explain the historical background of slavery in the Charlestown area of South Carolina. He further extends this introduction as a means of explaining the origins of Rhythm and Blues, as well as Soul Music. It's all in the Upbeat, not the downbeat. James Brown called it "The One", from which the title of this book is taken.

Born in Barnwell, South Carolina; a cotton growing area that was pretty much played out when James Brown was born; the roots of oppression were still palpable in the Jim Crow South of his youth. These roots would have a profound effect on his life, and later, his career. This background is where he got his toughness from, and that quality would serve him well for his entire life.

Born on May 3rd, 1933, Mr. Brown described his birth as "stillborn". His mother wept, while the midwife blew the breath of life into him, taking precious minutes to bring life to the motionless body that had emerged from his mother's womb. Technically, the term "stillborn" describes a baby that is already dead in its mother’s uterus, but the implications to Mr. Brown were the same; he was born dead; and perhaps that is why he worked so hard to live his life to the fullest.

Variously, Brown claimed to be Cherokee, Japanese, and even believed himself to be descended from Geronimo. By the time he passed away, he was undoubtedly related, in some way, to everyman. His music cut across boundaries and created new sounds, with his inimitable style fostering the Soul music of the 70's, along with ushering in Funk, the precursor of today's Rap/Hip Hop music.

James Brown was undoubtedly one of the most complex of individuals. His thoughts, and beliefs, are all given great scrutiny by the author, while not falling prey to the over examination which can turn a good book into a boring one. But, then again, how can James Brown ever be described as boring. This man was on the road for months at a time, working about 300 days a year for decades. His travels took him from the Chitlin' Circuit of his native America, to the jungles of Vietnam; and later to the jungles of Africa with Muhammad Ali; and near the end of his life to the great opera house in Milan, where he sang with Luciano Pavarotti in a stirring combination of musical styles.

His politics, like the man himself, were a puzzle in many ways. He was patriotic, during a time when that emotion could cost a star some of his fan base. He supported the War in Vietnam, even as he realized that the draft affected the black community in a disproportionate way.

This is the man who took a young Harlem preacher named Al Sharpton under his wing, teaching the younger man how to talk, walk, and even how to wear his hair.

When Martin Luther King was killed in April 1968, it was James Brown who kept the peace in Boston. In a scheduled concert, which was also aired on local TV as a way to keep the younger people off the streets, his fans took to the stage, causing the Police to make an attempt to protect him. He waved them off, while at the same time scolding the audience not to embarrass him, or their own race. There was no trouble in Boston that night.

During the 1968 Presidential primaries; after the assassination of Robert Kennedy; he gave his endorsement to Hubert Humphrey, a man who had been spearheading Civil Rights in Congress, and the Senate, for almost 20 years before attaining the office of Vice President. But even as Brown endorsed the man, he challenged him to deliver on his promises.

Creatively, James Brown opened the doors for much of the music we hear today. His landmark live recording, "James Brown Live at the Apollo", recorded in 1962 with the singer's own money, is still one of the best live recordings ever made. The story of how it almost didn't get recorded is a tribute to the guts that defined the life of this musical giant.

Long known for his excesses with women and drugs, this book is a more accurate look at the man beneath the hype. Carefully researched, and filled with the words of those who knew him best; as well as his own; the author has drawn the most complete portrait of James Brown written to date. Future biographers will undoubtedly be quoting from Mr. Smith's extraordinarily researched work in order to tell the story of James Brown's life in a fair and balanced way.

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