Soul power: If James Brown didn't invent it, he named it and declaimed it.
He also embodied it, and like a diptych painting, that two-word term shows the duality that ran through the man. His singing, songwriting and unmatched live performances were powered by pride — personal and racial — creating transcendent art and enormous success. But he was also a damaged soul, driven by hurt and shame, his life distorted by abuse and his need for dominance. The Godfather of Soul, who died in 2006, took both funk and force to rare extremes.
That duality runs through an important, insightful new biography with a singular title: The One: The Life and Music of James Brown, by RJ Smith. As Smith, a journalist and author of a previous book on African-American culture in Los Angeles, explains it, The One is the galvanizing, rhythmic heart of Brown's sound.
In his big-band R&B and pioneering funk, Brown said, he put the emphasis on the upbeats, the first and third beats in a four-beat measure: ONE, two, THREE, four, rather than the second and fourth downbeats stressed in much of pop music, including blues. Smith cites the 1969 single I Don't Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing, in which "the whole band leans into that first beat. . . . it hits like a wrecking ball.'' (Listen for yourself on YouTube.)
To Brown, this was more than a musical construct. "I was born to the downbeat,'' he said, "and I can tell you there's no pride in it. The upbeat is rich, the downbeat is poor. In the end, it's not about music, it's about life.''
Poor and lonely as a child in Georgia (his mother left him and his father when he was 4) Brown was mocked for both his poverty and his dark complexion. At 16 he was imprisoned for breaking into cars. As Smith shows, the young gospel singer and drummer was inspired by the hard-rocking bands at the Pentecostal House of Prayer in Augusta. That was the province of the extravagant — and showily wealthy — black preacher Sweet Daddy Grace. Grace helped shape Brown's flamboyant persona, as did Little Richard.
So insistent was Brown on his kind of time that his band once carried six drummers. Smith does keen musical forensics on these rhythm-makers, while noting that Brown also used their numbers to foster competition and fear.
Smith's at his best analyzing the music and evoking the astonishing impact of Brown's live bands. Though JB couldn't read a note, these orchestras were his true instruments. "Each member or section is playing a pattern, and when the patterns overlap and lock, they have a staggering power. This music pulls you out of your life, out of time — it destroys time — and leaves [you] lost in a crowd of pure action.'' As the author points out, most of Brown's songs don't tell stories; they're declarations, bold repeated assertions of how JB feels: good; super bad; like being a sex machine. That may be why they still sound so immediate and alive.
Where other singers had melodic tone and range, Brown had inimitable timbre, rasp — and that hair-raising vibrato-tinged scream. His entire performance was a primal scream. Smith cites "the depth of Brown's hunger, the need that is there in every great entertainer's act but never . . . so nakedly the point of the celebration.''
Smith doesn't use this word, but Brown was the ultimate narcissist. He craved affection; attention would serve as the closest substitute. He'd punish himself and others to see an aggrandized self-image reflected back at him from admiring audiences. "I been hurt all my life,'' Brown told the Rev. Al Sharpton, "and I learned how to turn the pain around and get energy . . .'' That desperation was the sad component of his mythic work ethic, what made him the Hardest Working Man in Show Business.
His narcissism also meant Brown had little empathy for others. He beat his women and treated his musicians so badly one called him a black Hitler. Obsessed with money, he hoarded it, including the IRS's share. (He once owed $17 million.) Late in life, with his career fading, this hyperdisciplined survivor betrayed himself by taking to the foul drug PCP. He died at age 73.
Smith also tells of the Godfather's complex role in the civil rights struggle, showing his uneasiness with Martin Luther King Jr. as well as younger "militants.'' Smith deftly questions the conventional wisdom that Brown single-handedly prevented rioting in Boston after Dr. King was killed.
Smith's writing is energetic, lively with imaginative choices; he describes Brown's heart-rending Please, Please, Please as "powerful secular magic.'' But his style can veer a bit too much from the elegiac to the vernacular, as when he describes JB "macking like an outlaw galoot.''
At 400-plus pages, The One is mightily researched. In one reporting coup, Smith shows that Brown's abandonment by his mother may not have been as absolute as the singer maintained. He makes an irrefutable case for Brown's cultural impact, reminding us that in the mid 1970s, James Brown and Muhammad Ali were "the two most famous black people on earth.''
At times Smith offers too much history, too many connectors. To begin the book invoking the drumming in a 1739 slave rebellion seems a reach. James Brown as shaman is an intriguing concept, but do we really need to know how the Ostiak people of Siberia once venerated their leader?
Just when it seems he is straying too far, though, Smith, like his protagonist, comes back to the beat: his deep, focused study of this impossibly real character. To a life of extremes, Smith gives nuance and balance. It's a story of glory and misery unified, the two as inseparable as James Brown's rhythm and his blues.
John Capouya. a writing professor at the University of Tampa, is at work on a history of rhythm and blues music in Florida.