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Book Reviews

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

By Published: June 26, 2012
Third, Brown's songs were not only structurally odd for Top 40 radio, they were also odd in their narrative content. Most hit songs told a kind of story—Frank Sinatra imploring his beloved to come fly with him on an exotic vacation, Billie Joe McAllister jumping off the Tallahatchie Bridge, Michael Jackson stridently claiming that Billie Jean was not his lover. Some of those stories might be a little surreal, like Bob Dylan's "Ballad of a Thin Man," say, or Nirvana's "Smells Like Team Spirit," but they're still stories. Brown's songs are not stories; to use the term from classical composition, they are a kind of absolute music. If "Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine" (1970) is "about" anything, it's about a group of men performing a song entitled "Sex Machine." Brown's vocals are sometimes conventional singing, but just as often they provide stage direction and musical conducting, taking the band and listeners to the bridge or the drum break, or commentary on the elephantine qualities of the groove itself.

Each of these innovative characteristics of Brown's artistry bears a family resemblance to jazz, even if what Brown was doing was not jazz. Jazz, too, relies fundamentally upon intelligent interaction among group members and the primacy of rhythm. And when a jazz performer lays into a standard like "Sweet Lorraine," the performance is not always, or even usually, "about" Mitchell Parrish's lyric.

Brown the Man, in Context

Smith's biography is not an encyclopedic account of its subject's musical output, nor a month-by-month account of every tour and venture. There are no weighty discographical appendices. Smith's book is a long essay in interpretation. The effort is serious, though the prose is never overly ponderous. Indeed, Smith's style sometimes sounds a little like Ross Macdonald ("Strangers coming, strangers going. It was a smart place for somebody to set up a whorehouse. Aunt Honey was smart enough."). Other times it reads a bit like Junot Díaz ("With far more dexterity than Humphrey dancing the boogaloo, Nixon sold his urban policy... Dude had skills.")

Above all, Smith (who is the author of a critical history of the African-American cultural scene centered on Central Avenue in 1940s Los Angeles) takes to heart the injunction of Amiri Baraka in Jazz and the White Critic in 1963. Baraka (then known as Leroi Jones) argued that critical understanding of African-American musicians is impossible without attention to the attitudes (sociological, emotional, and others) that surrounded that music's creation, and which that music in turn created. That is, making the case for Brown's artistry is impossible without situating Brown culturally and emotionally in his proper context.

Accordingly, Brown's story is deftly enmeshed in the history of its time, and even before—the book opens with a slave rebellion in South Carolina in 1739, not far from where Brown was born. The biography provides support for the notion that America's greatest cultural innovations are born of hybridized societies: just as jazz was born amidst the juxtaposition of black, white and creole musical cultures in New Orleans' Storyville district, so too courtly Southern plantation society overlapped with the rough, brawling backwoods in whose interstices Brown was born, as did opulence and stark poverty in Augusta, where he came of age.

Readers will encounter "Georgialina," (a term coined by none other than Sen. Strom Thurmond, later a close friend of Brown), the Savannah River Valley, straddling the border separating South Carolina and Georgia. They will also come to know mountainous "Affrilachia," where the teenaged brown was interned at a work camp, and where he created a name for himself as a musician, to be eased into parole with help of the family of Bobby Byrd, who would become his lifelong collaborator in business and entertainment alike. It was in Byrd's hometown of Toccoa where Brown and his band would be discovered by Little Richard. Smith introduces the Terry (short for "Territory"), the violent Augusta neighborhood where Brown lived off and on in his aunt's bordello, and the turpentine camps to which his father, Joe Brown, disappeared for weeks at a time.

Above all, Smith situates Brown's life story in the larger one of racism and the struggle for civil rights. An astonishing passage, reported by Smith with a sickening inevitability, finds Brown and band pulled over by the cops (a frequent occurrence) in 1959. The cops request that Brown show them his dance steps, as they fired their guns at his feet.

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