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Book Reviews

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

By Published: June 26, 2012
Brown, a tireless Horatio Alger, would not have appreciated being analyzed in historical or sociological terms. Smith demonstrates nevertheless how Brown's attitudes to race and politics evolved over time. Brown and his band, touring, found themselves between freedom riders and white supremacists in the violent aftermath of a sit-in in Birmingham, Alabama in 1961: "Whoever he thought he was—apart, independent—he'd gotten a vivid lesson that observers thought otherwise. To them he was just another Negro to chase out of town." There would be other brushes with the violence brought to bear upon the civil rights movement. By June 1966, Brown would perform for marchers supporting James Meredith.

Smith traces Brown's wary relationship with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. "'We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality,' King believed of all Americans. Brown was not so sure." If anything, their bond deepened after Dr. King's assassination; Brown famously calmed crowds at a Boston concert the day following the murder. Brown would later be a vigorous campaigner for the establishment of a national holiday honoring Dr. King.

Smith makes a strong case that Brown's life is better understood in the light of the social and political currents of his time. But Soul Brother Number 1 remains something of a singular point in history, a relentlessly individual personality.

This is seen in his quixotic political odyssey. Brown was transformed from an idiosyncratic supporter of civil rights to an ardent promoter of conservative Republicans. He became a close friend to both conservative political strategist Lee Atwater (who visited him regularly during his 1980s prison hitch) and segregationist poster boy Senator Strom Thurmond.

It's precisely Brown's exaggerated individuality that makes the biographical (as well as the musicological) elements of Smith's book so rich. There is, for example, Brown's attention to his physical appearance, which Smith traces back through early mentor Little Richard to gender-bending tent show performers, charismatic preachers and boxers. Apparently, Brown sought to look "expoobident" (a neologism due to pianist Babs Gonzalez).

Smith also recounts Brown's abiding enthusiasm for Africa, which he toured repeatedly, discussed with others almost not at all, and where he befriended at least one strongman president, Omar Bongo of Gabon. (Longtime Brown lieutenant Charles Bobbit even moved to Gabon, where he served as Bongo's adviser for over a decade.)

Strangely, and despite Smith's skill, Brown emerges fully formed practically from his earliest appearance in these pages: aggressive, sometimes to the point of brutality, but also endowed with a finely honed capacity to charm, cajole, intimidate or otherwise manipulate another person, a crowded room, or an audience. From the start there is his outstanding musical capability (he was known in juvenile detention as "Music Box"). At the same time Brown was relentlessly optimistic about his chances for betterment, about the return that accrues to hard work.

These features characterize Brown during a late-career appearance at the Grand Ole Opry, but they also describe Brown the teenager earning a dollar in the vicious "battle royal" free-for-all boxing matches of Augusta, or out-dancing the other street kids in a competition for the coins tossed by soldiers from the troop transport trains.

To his credit, Smith does not engage in speculative psychoanalysis, though some hypotheses are easy to make. If Brown is brutal, it is surely in part because he was brutalized from his earliest days, from all sides. Surely his acute emotional intelligence arose as an adaptive mechanism in perilous circumstances. His extraordinary drive and energy are not so easy to explain in this way. Whatever the case, there is little evolution in Brown's character.

Brown's persona, so fixed and steadfast from childhood, does change in Smith's telling, in the last long twenty years of his life: beset by bad business decisions and unpaid income taxes, succumbing to crippling PCP abuse, subject to indifferent commercial success, and jailed for over two years, Brown began to lose his dogged optimism. Only the viciousness of the world remained for him. "Everything in this world disappears and vacates," he told a journalist at the time. This abbreviated emotional progression on Brown's part lends Smith's book its poignancy. For all its quirkiness, Brown's faith in the rewards to self-sacrifice and labor is uplifting; his abandonment of that faith is profoundly sad.

What Smith does, and very well, is to cast Brown's story as a great American story, and—in case the point needed reaffirming—Brown's music as great art.

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