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


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The One: The Life and Music of James Brown

RJ Smith

Hardcover, 464 pages

ISBN: 978-1592406579

Gotham Books


James Brown (1933-2006): singer, bandleader, composer, impresario, self-made man— Amiri Baraka called him "our number one black poet." Brown describes himself, in the pages of RJ Smith's biography, as "75 percent businessman and 25 percent entertainer." Readers may quibble with the percentages, but if by "business," Brown referred to "show business," then it is hard to argue with the claim that he was all business. Smith devotes particular attention to his capacity to enthrall an audience, offering a satisfying rumination on the so- called "cape act"—the most celebrated enactment of which is included in the concert film The T.A.M.I. Show (1964):
[Brown] sings "Please, Please, Please," and experiences what at first seems to be a full-scale breakdown, his body and spirit overtaken by a shadow. He falls to his knees, and the Flames, his considerate handlers, drape a cape over him and escort Brown to the side of the stage. They are distressed for his well-being, and though in retrospect a cape is a weird way to express your concern, at the moment it seems like the only possible thing to do.

...The first time he falls to his knees, the crowd sounds shocked, and Danny Ray drapes a generous frock as he slumps... The second time he falls to his knees, we get a closeup of Brown's face as he is being guided off the stage, the guys now intent on delivering him from this unsafe place... Is he speaking in tongues? So gone he's lost bodily control? He seems barking mad, overwhelmed by emotional forces...

It becomes easier and easier to notice: The man is falling to the ground on the One. The first beat of the measure. He also throws off his cape each time on the One. He's conducting his band from the depth of his paroxysm.
This passage is a tour de force, and illustrates nicely several strengths of Smith's writing on Brown, particularly his wit in interpreting Brown and his musicians in performance. (Elsewhere: ..."the guys enthusiastically second the boss—yes, as a matter of fact, a sex machine sounds like an excellent thing to be in the present situation.") It also highlights the quasi-mystical notion of "the One" that gives the book its title: technically emphasizing the first beat of the measure, but more generally never losing control of the rhythm, no matter how complex it gets.

What is equally on display at the T.A.M.I. Show—or in the most cursory review of YouTube material featuring Soul Brother Number 1—is Brown's prowess as a dancer, a subject to which Smith devotes a chapter near the end of the book. Brown used his grueling touring schedule to systematically survey new dance trends in each city, dexterously incorporating them into his act to the delight of the audience in the next city. "The "dance was what the music was about." It is no wonder that guitarist Keith Richards of the The Rolling Stones has declared that taking the stage following Brown and his band at the T.A.M.I. Show was the worst decision the group had ever taken.

Smith furthermore recounts the "business" part of "show business" in all its sordid glory: the hardscrabble chitlin circuit ("as was true of pig tripe, pleasure was squeezed from hardship"), promoters palming bills, thugs stealing your pay on the way back to the dressing room, payola to get radio play, five-show-per-day schedules; but also promoters and managers, like Clint Brantley of Macon, Georgia, Syd Nathan of King Records in Cincinnati, and booker Ben Bart, who carefully schooled Brown in the dark ways of this market. Not to mention many of Brown's subsequent ill-starred forays into black capitalism, which demonstrated his tireless entrepreneurship, perhaps, but not his business acumen.

Brown the Artist

What is obscured in Brown's businessman/entertainer self-definition is that he was an artist of the highest caliber, and an aesthetically radical one at that. In fact, few commercial megastars of the last half century in any medium could claim to be as innovative as Brown.

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 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' 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 Bärtsch'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).

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.

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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