All About Jazz

Home » Articles » Book Reviews

5

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

Jeff Dayton-Johnson By

Sign in to view read count
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.

Tags

Related Video

comments powered by Disqus

Building a Jazz Library
Book Reviews
CD/LP/Track Review
Read more articles
 

Jazz

Warner Bros. Records
2007

buy
 

Soul Sessions Live /...

Warner Bros. Records
2005

buy
Soul On Top

Soul On Top

Verve Music Group
2004

buy
 

Sunny / Uncle

Warner Bros. Records
2001

buy
 

Foundations of Funk

Polydor Records
2000

buy

Related Articles

Read The Universe and John Coltrane: The Physics of Cosmic Vibrations Book Reviews
The Universe and John Coltrane: The Physics of Cosmic...
by Victor L. Schermer
Published: January 18, 2018
Read Good Morning Blues Book Reviews
Good Morning Blues
by Richard J Salvucci
Published: January 11, 2018
Read Never Say No to a Rock Star: In the Studio with Dylan, Sinatra, Jagger and More Book Reviews
Never Say No to a Rock Star: In the Studio with Dylan,...
by Nicholas F. Mondello
Published: January 2, 2018
Read Music From Out There, In Here: 25 Years Of The London Jazz Festival Book Reviews
Music From Out There, In Here: 25 Years Of The London Jazz...
by Ian Patterson
Published: December 20, 2017
Read The Great Jazz and Pop Vocal Albums Book Reviews
The Great Jazz and Pop Vocal Albums
by Roger Crane
Published: December 19, 2017
Read Listening For The Secret: The Grateful Dead And The Politics Of Improvisation Book Reviews
Listening For The Secret: The Grateful Dead And The...
by Ian Patterson
Published: December 10, 2017
Read "Good Things Happen Slowly: A Life In And Out Of Jazz" Book Reviews Good Things Happen Slowly: A Life In And Out Of Jazz
by Mark Corroto
Published: September 13, 2017
Read "All That's Jazz" Book Reviews All That's Jazz
by Phil Barnes
Published: December 6, 2017
Read "The Art of Conduction" Book Reviews The Art of Conduction
by Riccardo Brazzale
Published: June 30, 2017