- - Friday, April 6, 2012

THE ONE: THE LIFE AND MUSIC OF JAMES BROWN
By R.J. Smith
Gotham Books, $27.50 464 pages

You knew James Brown occupied a special rung on the socio-cultural ladder when the New Yorker published a lengthy profile of him in 2002. Except for the over-long list of nicknames (including “the Godfather of Soul,” and two particularly apt ones, “the Hardest Working Man in Show Business”and “His Own Bad Self”), it was a serious, respectful piece that brought the singer to the attention of many readers who knew of him, but little about him.

There have been several biographies over the years, but R.J. Smith’s “The One” is being hailed as the definitive book on the late singer, dancer and legend. This reviewer has some reservations about the accuracy of “definitive,” but there’s no doubt the man himself emerges from the pages of this serious, multifaceted and well-documented work.

In a way, that’s somewhat surprising, because while Mr. Smith, the white author of two books about the black experience in America and a contributor to major media outlets for years, never interviewed Brown. But the long list of those he did interview, which runs from A (Akbar, Haji) to Y (Young, Bob), includes dozens of people who knew James Brown well, from band members to the Rev. Al Sharpton, an early employee and devotee.

Brown loved to tell the story of how he was “born dead,” then saved by an aunt who blew air into his apparently stillborn body until his lungs began to function. As he did with so many other touchstones in his life, Brown took that as a sign he was special, a description affirmed by anyone who ever saw him perform.

Brown’s early life was hard, but, as the author carefully documents, it fueled his desire to become not just a showman, but the Ultimate Showman. Good enough was never good enough for James Brown. And woe betide the musician who broke one of his many rules. In his act, as Brown did his trademark spin moves while singing, he faced his band and, with hand signals, let the errant members know how much of a fine they’d have to pay him for an infraction such as poorly shined shoes or missing a beat.

The beat was everything to Brown, and Mr. Smith does an admirable job, right upfront, of explaining how putting the stress on the first beat radically changed the tune and made the artist’s funky music so distinctive. He quotes Brown:

“‘The ‘One’ is derived from the Earth itself, the soil, the pine trees of my youth. And most important, it’s on the upbeat - ONE two THREE four - not the downbeat, one TWO three FOUR, that most blues are written [in]. Hey, I know what I’m talking about! I was born to the downbeat, and I can tell you without question there is no pride in it. The upbeat is rich, the downbeat is poor. Stepping up proud only happens on the aggressive ‘One,’ not the passive ‘Two,’ and never on the lowdownbeat. In the end, it’s not about music - it’s about life.’ “

If that passage surprises you, then a great deal that Brown is quoted as saying will also surprise - and impress - you. He may have dropped out of school (in Augusta, Ga.) in the seventh grade, but he never stopped learning. And in his life as in his music, he was rarely off-beat or off-message, which at times put him at odds with his own people.

Brown did not want reparations or set-asides or quotas. All he wanted was a fair chance to prove he was as good as the next man, because he never doubted that if given that chance he would prove he was better. That’s exactly what he did in 1964 when, insulted by the producers of a television special who scheduled him before, not after, the Rolling Stones, he went on and blew the roof off the place.

When he supported Richard Nixon in 1972, it was because he thought that Nixon would do more for blacks (even if his motives for doing so were less than pure). Brown paid for that at the box office.

“The One” is by no means a hagiography. R.J. Smith gives us James Brown, warts and all, and did he ever have warts. It’s all here, the wife- (and girlfriend-) beatings, the gunfire, the shoe boxes filled with cash that never got reported to the IRS, the control-to-the-point-of-domination of his employees and family, and the jail terms.

He also reveals the insecurity, rooted in color and class and caste, that fueled so many of the entertainer’s excesses. Granted, Mr. Smith has an enormously rich subject, but he is a very good storyteller who more than does it, and the man, justice.

I confess to having some problems with the author’s style - it’s too self-consciously “hip” for my taste - and I think some of the local color is both too local and too colorful, sometimes at the expense of his main narrative (on page 364, he’s still writing about the mid-1970s).

But, to give credit where due, Mr. Smith is very good on the music and the many musicians who came and went in the bands of James Brown. Still, one can’t help but wish J.R. Smith could have been one of the ones to interview “the one” and only James Brown.

• John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.