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Book Reviews

RJ Smith: The One - The Life and Music of James Brown

By Published: June 26, 2012
In terms of musical influence, Brown is fundamental. He virtually invented funk: Smith tentatively locates the origin of funk in Brown's "I've Got Money," a 1962 B-side, which is as good a starting point as any. The music of Sly and the Family Stone, Prince and Michael Jackson
Michael Jackson
Michael Jackson
1958 - 2009
would be inconceivable without Brown. The wildest of them all, George Clinton 's Parliament-Funkadelic family, owes its success in part to the defection of Brown's bassist William "Bootsy" Collins: "In one of history's biggest cases of industrial espionage, Bootsy had brought Brown's prime directive, the One, with him to the P-Funk camp, and Clinton delighted in the secrets it unlocked. The One became for him less of a way to structure rhythm and more like the Masonic secret of how everything worked." Later, Brown would become the most sampled source of hip-hop beats: "Nineteen eighty NINE! The summer—sound of the 'Funky Drummer,'" intoned Public Enemy in "Fight the Power" (1989), explicitly citing the 1970 James Brown track that underlay so many rap records.

Brown's influence also loomed over jazz: trumpeter Miles Davis
Miles Davis
Miles Davis
1926 - 1991
' tectonic, controversial late-1960s/early-70s electric brews—especially A Tribute to Jack Johnson (Columbia, 1970) and Agharta (Columbia, 1975), and most of the records in between—bore the unmistakable imprint of Brown, both in the primacy of rhythm and the mesmeric funk grooves sought by Davis. More recently, pianist Nik Bartsch
Nik Bartsch
Nik Bartsch
's Ronin group—particularly drummer Karl Rast, a disciple of Brown's drummer John "Jabo" Starks—has drawn amply upon the Godfather's musical practices on a series of albums including Stoa (ECM, 2006).

Smith insists on Brown's artistry in the following terms:
What the Brown bands of the late 1960s and onward do is make a paradoxically freedom-drenched art out of radical acts of discipline. That discipline began in Southern black notions of community building through polish and enterprise, through work that, when exerted, would uplift all.

At least three elements in Brown's artistry are noteworthy here. First is the elevation of musical collective action to a prime aesthetic principle. Part of the charge of any good musical performance by a band is the magic of the ensemble achieving what an individual musician or singer cannot. In Brown's case, this is emphasized to an extraordinary degree. The precision underlying this achievement is driven by Brown's legendary martial discipline (fining his musicians for fluffed notes, for example, or indeed for wearing unshined shoes onstage). "Get On The Good Foot" (1972) is an especially good example of the joy the group dynamic creates. Every second of sound seems to be occupied by exactly one instrument, arranged with economy and syncopation. Smith hears the precision principle at work in "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag" (1965): the record "seemed to pull apart the elements of the band and scatter them around, making their relationships visible, like an exploded-view diagram."

Second, Brown brought a radical restructuring of the popular song, based on norms of live performance, to the radio airwaves. Brown's first big hit— "Please Please Please" (1962)—found the band stripping the blues classic "Baby Please Don't Go" down to its instrumental hook and the vocal refrain. This reductionism sounded odd and thrilling to audiences. With time, Brown would go further, largely eschewing chord changes altogether in latter classics, emphasizing rhythm and turning all the instruments into percussion instruments. This is the source of the "deep African thing" that Miles Davis wrote about in his autobiography and sought in Brown's music.

In the structural foregrounding of percussion and rhythm, Brown was well served by a succession of remarkable drummers, all of them amply documented in Smith's biography: Charlie Connor (right out of the French Quarter and Little Richard's band); heavy-footed Nate Kendrick; Clayton Fillyau (who brought the notion of "the One" into the band, transmitted by the drummer from Huey "Piano" Smith's New Orleans band, and who later chose to become the bus driver for Brown); John "Jabo" Starks and his "sanctified rhythms"; Clyde Stubblefield's "pinball machine" sound. Equally important was guitarist Jimmy Nolan, who played like a drummer (and whose deathbed wish, after more than a decade with the Godfather, was that Brown treat his replacement better than he had treated Nolan).

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