James Brown Is Really Fun to Read About

A new biography confirms the Godfather of Soul as the ultimate subject for storytelling.

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James Brown doesn't talk too much in The One, RJ Smith's excellent new biography of Mr. Dynamite. He's not on Smith's extensive interview list, and although the writer has clearly read and listened to hundreds of conversations with the late Godfather of Soul—right down to Mr. Please Please Himself's guest shot on the Nixon White House tapes—the book often goes pages without quoting its subject. It doesn't need to. Almost without the author's assistance, James Brown leaps from the binding, pulling mid-air splits in bedazzled SEX jumpsuits, howling, pleading, getting on the good foot, opening up the door and getting it himself. Just as much as through albums, film clips, and bandmembers' recollections, the singer's voice barks unmistakably out of the pages.

Once so vivid in real life and on record, Brown is almost impossible to mistranslate.

"Hair and teeth," Brown would tell people about the importance of keeping up one's appearance, and Smith circles back to the phrase often. But, like any good writer, Brown didn't merely tell; he showed. That made for a potent literary subject in need of no translator at all, but whose words and gestures were capable of sustaining as much explication as a David Lynch film. Because The One is a nearly perfect biography, it is to take nothing away from Smith to say that Brown is a nearly perfect subject. This is also perhaps why there's also so much good writing about Brown. Once so vivid in real life and on record, he is almost impossible to mistranslate. In large part, this is exactly Smith's point, and what makes The One such a vital contribution to Godfather studies: It explains exactly how the Godfather assembled and consolidated his power, both artistic and otherwise.

"He couldn't play an instrument that well and he didn't read music," Smith notes of Brown's particular gift. "He couldn't really give musical directions in a way that musicians give to one another... Suddenly he was traveling with his drummer in his car and talking to him alone before or after a show... If the band was becoming the engine of the show, Brown was making sure the engine of the band was firmly under his control." For as notorious a bandmaster as Brown—it's actually true that that while spinning around onstage he would dole out fines to his musicians for mistakes they had made—this is saying a lot. Throughout, Smith pays particular attention to Brown's relationship with his drummers (who could be the subject of a volume unto themselves) as he builds towards the rhythmic metaphor of the book's title which, in the context of Brown's music, isn't a metaphor at all.

Adherence to the One, the mystical beat that remained more central to Brown's music than the songs themselves, was what sometimes caused the spin-and-fines. But it was also the musical device that allowed Brown to even be able to pull them off in the first place. Perhaps the most elegant rhythmic concept of all time, it also provided framework for the band's miraculous segues, the near-schizophrenic song transitions that Brown perfected (first documented on Live at the Apollo) and were what made his best bands among the best bands of all time. It was a way for Brown's sense of control—and thus his very personality and self—to manifest itself as music.

Again and again, Smith uncovers the ruthlessness and frequently paranoid logic behind Brown's smarts. Those smarts hid themselves in Brown's often cryptic personal style so that—in later years, when he bordered on PCP-infused actual insanity—it probably wouldn't have aided Smith much even if he was able to interview Brown. Except on stage, it remained next to impossible to get anything out of the singer, be it love, money, or a straight answer to a question, even as Brown was able to extricate seemingly anything he wanted from the people around him.

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Jesse Jarnow writes for the Village Voice, Indy Week, and elsewhere, and hosts the Frow Show on WFMU. Gotham Books will publish his Big Day Coming: Yo La Tengo and the Rise of Indie Rock in June.

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