RJ Smith doesn’t draw an exact line marking when James Brown, the 5’6” son of a South Carolina turpentine maker, became James Brown, Sex Machine/Black Elvis/Mr. Please, Please, Please/etc. But I will.
It happens about a third of the way through Smith’s remarkable new book, The One: The Life and Music of James Brown. Brown’s smash album, Live at the Apollo, has just spent 66 weeks on the pop charts, vaulting the performer from the sweaty dives of the chitlin’ circuit into a higher, neon-lit level of exposure. Money is pouring in fast enough for Brown to buy a mansion in Queens with a moat, and, after $65,000 in renovations, an interior lined with faux leather and pictures of himself. The singer has renovated his body, too. He pays a California dentist to fix the gap between his teeth and hires a traveling hairstylist to whirl his hair into shining bouffant praised, in the slang of the time, as “expoobident.”
Meanwhile, Brown’s tour is becoming more militaristic. He hires goons to clear the way to and from shows. Onstage, he fines his musicians for missed notes or wrinkled uniforms. Offstage, he is armed and ready. “You notice how many pictures of James Brown, he’s got a coat over his arm?” the Rev. Al Sharpton asks, in the book. “That’s because he had his gun under it.”
Most importantly, Brown is leaving behind blues, rock, doo-wop, and gospel in favor of a raw sound filled with screams, popping bass, and furious counter-rhythms. He is inventing the genre we currently refer to as “funk.” Smith describes the singer’s February 1965 stop in at a converted barn in Charlotte, N.C., where a control booth sits in the old hayloft. “It was time to record a tricky piece of rhythm Brown had been thinking about for a while,” he writes:
The musicians set up, playing this and that while waiting for the boss to arrive. Finally, Brown’s customized white Cadillac with the tinted windows appeared, and the singer swaggered in. “He stopped the place. You just knew that somebody of significance was present,” said Clay Smith, Arthur’s [the owner of the studio] boy. Constantly in motion and talking so fast he could have used a translator, Brown was not one of the guys. “James was in charge,” Arthur Smith remembered later. “I knew I owned the studio, but I knew he was going to do what he wanted to there.”
What Brown wanted to do was lay down a strutting, macho anthem marked by explosions of brass and a guitar that sounds like chrome wheels spinning. He hums a melody to the sax player and a bass line to the bassist. He thumps out a beat for the drummer. He watches a trumpet player struggle, fires him, then re-hires him moments later. And when the singer is ready, he screams out a set of lyrics scratched on a sheet of paper. The song is called “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.”
“Keep on Fighting” is the title of the chapter in which all of this takes place. And no matter how many superhero movies you have seen, the transformation it describes is exhilarating. Like Bruce Wayne becoming Batman or Clark Kent becoming Superman, we have just watched James Brown become Soul Brother Number One.
A former Los Angeles magazine editor and contributor to Blender, Spin, and The Village Voice, Smith is not the flashiest, most purely talented writer to take on the Godfather of Soul. That title, I believe, goes to Jonathan Lethem for his dazzling 2006 Rolling Stone profile, “Being James Brown.” (More on that in a minute.) In the beginning of The One, Smith struggles slightly to find the tone to tell this story. Some of his images fall flat, like when he writes that the chord structure of “Cold Sweat” was “as visionary and protean as Frida Kahlo’s one eyebrow.” At other times, his voice cracks when he reaches beyond his natural range. His description of the “lachrymose mood” of Brown’s early ballad “Try Me” feels over-academic for a performer as lusty and physical as Brown. Elsewhere, Smith sounds uncomfortably un-academic. After a street fight with estranged band members early in his career, Smith ventures inside Brown’s head. “At least them motherfuckers weren’t gonna be calling him Monk Brown to his face anymore,” he writes, in an ill-advised estimation of J.B.’s inner monologue.
As a funk nerd (an oxymoron, but still true), I have other quibbles with the book. I would have liked to learn more about the nine children Brown fathered with nearly as many mothers. We see them playing Monopoly with real money during one scene, then suing for royalties later on, and that’s about it. I would have also relished a glimpse or two more inside the marathon, early-’70s recording sessions that produced “Talkin’ Loud and Sayin’ Nothing,” “Mind Power,” and other predecessors of modern hip-hop.
But, it would be unfair to judge Smith’s book on a few slip-ups, especially when the majority of the book feels so good. Like his subject, Smith is man of stamina and drive. The fruits of his prodigious reporting are evident on every page: a secret tape of Richard Nixon whining “I don’t want any more blacks, and I don’t want any more Jews, between now and the election,” before a visit from Brown at the White House; a heartwrenching moment when Brown’s guitarist, Jimmy Nolen, asks his wife to pass on a message to Brown after Nolen’s death. “’The next person you get to work for you,’ the wife dutifully reports to The Godfather, ‘I hope you treat them better than you did us.’”
These facts and details provide a driving, powerful rhythm for the book, and, over time, the story seeps into your bones. In a scene that is jarringly reminiscent of the first chapter of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, we learn that, as a young man in Augusta, Ga., Brown was blindfolded and thrust into a boxing ring for a “battle royal,” while wealthy white men smoked cigars and looked on. Later in Brown’s career, we learn that country musicians in Nashville recorded a white-response to “Say it Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud” with the lyrics, “I’m proud and I’m white with a song to sing…” We are also there inside Brown’s Learjet when the engine stalls and the plane begins to drop precipitously. After the engines kick back in, Brown calmly turned to an acquaintance and asks if he was scared. When the man says, “Yes,” Brown responds, “It’s not your time. You with me.”
Smith’s reporting is never better than his account of the singer’s 1967 trip to perform for troops in Vietnam. From the USO press release describing “primitive and somewhat savage” beat of Brown’s music to a walkie-talkie squawking, “Get ‘em out of there, there’s a mortar attack coming in” as the band traveled between shows, we are not simply reading, anymore. We are being hauled across time and space to an amphitheatre carved out of a hillside east of Saigon:
At the end of a song, from behind the stage, the musicians suddenly heard the unmistakable ack-ack-ack of American guns firing on VC to the rear. Everybody was watching the band, and now they were really watching, as confusion and then anxiety played across the musicians’ faces. Finally, one of the guys sitting cross-legged at the front of the stage spoke to the band: “Aw, don’t worry. We won’t let Charlie get ya!” And then Brown took the microphone and continued the show: “Hit me!”
Indeed, it Smith’s dogged research that leads to the book’s greatest achievement. James Brown was a man who went to extreme lengths to conceal any signs of weakness. The author includes plenty of examples of this — going back on tour the day after his son Teddy’s funeral, for example — but he also provides access to the man during rare moments of distress. We watch Brown nearly knock out his teeth as he learns the tip-the-mic-drop-to-a-split-then-bounce-back-catch-the-mic trick that would later appear effortless. As his grip on the singles charts weakens in the late 1970s, we see him tell his trombonist, Fred Wesley, to write knockoffs of other artists’ hits, like David Bowie’s “Fame.” (This was “a head-scratcher,” Smith writes, “because ‘Fame’ itself is a pale version of Brown’s 1970s sound.”) And when the IRS comes searching for millions in unpaid taxes we watch the collision of Brown’s colossal ego with one of the few forces strong enough to tame it. With the government threatening to throw a padlock on his mansion, Brown summons his accountant, Fred Daviss, to downtown Augusta one night, where they sit quietly in the singer’s van. His hair was tousled. He was sweating. “Finally, he reached under the seat and pulled out a sack of money, like he was extracting a molar,” Smith writes. “’Hold on to it as long as you can,’ he told Daviss, ‘But then pay ‘em.’”
“Someday, someone will write a great biography of James Brown,” Lethem wrote in Rolling Stone in 2006. “It will by necessity, though, be more than a biography. It will be the history of a half-century of the contradictions and tragedies embodied in the fate of African Americans in the New World; it will be a parable, even of the contradictions of the individual in the capitalist society, portentous as that may sound.”
Smith has written such a book: a clear, linear, trustworthy account of one of the most complex and influential musicians in American history. His biography upholds the mystique of a man whom characters in the book call “black messiah,” “the personification of Blackness,” “the ultimate god of funk,” a man with “more musical genius than Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart put together,” and, in the case of a disgruntled former drummer, “a black Hitler.” At the same time, it gamely steers through the cloud of myth and misinformation that Lethem identified as “The James Brown Zone of Confusion,” and returns the singer back to earth.
Toward the end of Brown’s life, the author ushers readers into a new James Brown Zone of Confusion — one based entirely in reality. The elderly Brown’s life was marked, on one hand, by laurels from the Kennedy Center and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and, on the other, ever-stranger behavior due to drug abuse. The collision of these two worlds, as Smith reports, was often surreal. At one point Brown gets a young Wall Street investment banker to secure a $30 million loan against his future music royalties. When they meet each other to finalize the deal, Brown asks the startled banker, “You ever smoke gorilla [PCP]?”
All of this is not to say that The One is the “definitive biography of James Brown,” as the book’s promotional copy reads. Such a book will never exist. Smith’s book is not a substitute for Fred Wesley’s indispensable, Hit Me, Fred: Recollections of a Sideman or many of the pieces (including Lethem’s) in 2008’s The James Brown Reader: 50 Years of Writing About the Godfather of Soul. “Entire forests have been decimated to build the newsprint mountain that recounts his exploits, declarations, and influence,” wrote Nelson George in the introduction to that anthology. The term “definitive” attempts to seal off a man whose music, if not his heart, still thumps on.
On vinyl, on YouTube, and in the musical DNA of countless current performers, James Brown lives for a new generation of writers like me, who want to drop to the floor in splits; to dance, scream, and sweat, in his honor. RJ Smith has perhaps gone further than any writer before in telling this man’s story, but his book is not definitive. It is merely expoobident.
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