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

Jeff Dayton-Johnson By

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The One: The Life and Music of James Brown

RJ Smith

Hardcover, 464 pages

ISBN: 978-1592406579

Gotham Books

2012

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 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.

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