A new biography confirms the Godfather of Soul as the ultimate subject for storytelling.
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.
Smith traces Brown's cunning back to the Terry, the Augusta neighborhood where Brown was raised and lived in his aunt's brothel. Even as Brown slips from forgivable behavior (he could strip a car in near seconds, Smith writes) to unforgivable, Smith doesn't judge his subject. He doesn't need to. While delving into familial relationships and desires, his explanation for Brown's persona feels less psychoanalytical than historic. "Some kids learn about the world through reading," he writes. "This one learned from watching money move around. Here are some of the jobs had before he was sixteen: He picked cotton, cut down sugarcane, collected bottle caps, ran errands, delivered liquor, shined shoes, racked balls at a pool hall, and helped out at a Chinese grocery." But that's just one place where one might look for the One's origins.
People have written books about Brown before and people will write books about Brown again, and, short of a writer phoning it in, there seems to be a nearly unlimited amount to write about. There have been biographies, of course. But there have also been brilliant single-concert monographs, like Douglas Wolk's 33 1/3 entry on Live at the Apollo, the revolutionary album recorded in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis. In that book, Wolk breaks down "Fats" Gonder's stage patter and uses it as a springboard into Brown's world. There's James Sullivan's The Hardest Working Man: How James Brown Saved America, which begins with his concert at Boston Garden the day after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. There are countless wonderful profiles. "There are no computers in the office of James Brown Enterprises," begins a particularly great section of Philip Gourevitch's 2002 New Yorker piece. "He's got this strange feeling they can see back at you," one of his staffers explained. There was Jonathan Lethem's Rolling Stone profile from around the same time. There will be great James Brown writing for years to come. Smith doesn't even mention Brown's career as a semi-pro baseball player.
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After he died on Christmas in 2006—a fact Smith doesn't mention either, not that he needs to, given that Brown topped the Google Zeitgeist that week over Saddam Hussein and Gerald Ford, who all died within days of one another—Brown continued to create chaos for months. Even in death, the Hardest Working Man in Show Business continued to stay busy generating copy between paternity suits, changed locks on his ex-wives, and the brief period when Brown's body was even kept in a temperature-controlled room in his own house while his estate sorted out where to bury him. Given the scope of Brown's life, there will likely be plot turns to uncover for generations. One result of the legal scramble was an estate auction at Christie's in New York, held July 17, 2008, which returned some $850,000 for the family—less than hoped for. And one result of the auction was the publication of The James Brown Collection, a singular 208-page catalogue that might provide the Rosetta Stone for Godfather studies.
In it, Brown's possessions are sorted by color, with Grammy Awards by gold SEX jumpsuits. There are plaques and bracelets and Fender basses, living-room sets and capes. There is a bag of hair-rollers with a self-taken Polaroid of Brown in curlers. Smith has clearly studied the items, working the catalogue's richness into his own, but The James Brown Collection is probably as close to true autobiography as Brown might ever get, his 1986 autobiography notwithstanding. All other books, Smith's The One included, are mere tributaries to the true source that still rushes underneath it all. It's part of why, arguably more than any other musician, celebrity, or any other type of famous dead person, Brown's presence stands the best chance of surviving the ages undiminished: loud, proud, and James Brown.
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