The One: The Life and Music of James Brown

By Calvin Lawrence Jr., Black Books and Reviews

The Life and Music of James Brown
By RJ Smith
Illustrated. 455 pp. Gotham Books. $27.50.

Singer James Brown was no more inclined to explain his interpretation of the “One” than he was his penchant for abusing some of the women in his life. But that didn’t stop the late Godfather of Soul from using the “One” — his signature though mysterious rhythm count — to his advantage, as when band members fell short of his notoriously unforgiving stage directives to find that beat.

“You just ain’t on the One,” Brown would grumble to a barely-20-year-old Bootsy Collins in the early-’70s, the funk bassist recalls in The One: The Life and Music of James Brown. “As far as he was concerned,” Bootsy, now 60, says, “we were never on the One.”

Jazz and funk trombonist Fred Wesley was more put off and even less impressed by Brown’s efforts to maintain the upper hand. “It’s really — it’s a joke,” he tells The One author RJ Smith. “He didn’t know what the One was to him. To him it’s the downbeat. But he didn’t know what it was … as far as it being some kind of concept — I don’t think so.”

Smith has little trouble drawing out such bluntly revealing and often-sobering recollections that span Brown’s schoolboy days in Augusta, Ga., 60-plus years ago to his Christmas Day death in 2006 at age 73. The old reliables are here: the Rev. Al Sharpton, a Brown disciple who revered the master showman right down to his pressed hair; Harlem’s Apollo Theater, the “chitlin’ circuit” venue that helped launch Brown’s ascent to mainstream stardom; and even the late Sen. Strom Thurmond, the segregationist whom Brown fondly remembered as the man who had employed his father years before.

What Smith didn’t already know about his subject he hit the road to find out: from Augusta and Macon, Ga., to Miami and Tampa, Fla., to St. Paul, Minn., to New York, to Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio., to Nashville, Tenn.

Indeed, the “Hardest Working Man in Show Business” deserves nothing less than Smith’s expertly researched, full-bodied compilation of what could have just as easily been subtitled “The Best and Worst of James Brown.”

Start with the grade-school student Brown and his stealing the lunch of students who later become his best friend. That’s the same knucklehead whom school officials had sing the national anthem before classes began, Smith tells us.

Or take Brown’s arrest a few years later in 1949 for breaking into four cars and stealing, among other things, a dark-blue suit and a pair of men’s green gabardine pants. That’s the same petty thief who served his juvenile-facility time forming a gospel quartet.

The destructive PCP addiction came years later, along with the escalating “crazy rage” that eventually hit home: Third-wife Adrienne called 911 to report domestic violence once in 1984, three times in 1985, once in 1987 and at least seven times in 1988, writes Smith, who has been a Los Angeles magazine senior editor and Village Voice columnist.

Among the most gripping chapters is “America,” which includes the never-tiring account of Brown’s performing a concert in Boston a day after the 1968 assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and being credited with helping to keep the peace there while other cities burned in the days after.

Such defining moments fill the pages of Smith’s biography, even if a satisfying definition of the “One” is nowhere to be found. That’s OK, though, because we all know the moment it hits us, and that, as Brown all-but guaranteed in his 1973 hit “Doing It to Death, “We’re gonna have a funky good time.”

About the Book Review Author

Calvin Lawrence Jr. is an online editor in New York City.

One comment on “The One: The Life and Music of James Brown

  1. Beverly Hal says:

    Calvin Lawrence’s review of James Brown’s biography was a sterling piece of soul-felt insight combined with journalistic integrity combined with an impressive, comprehensive understanding of African American
    roles in historical and cultural heritage of this country. His review is “on the one.”

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