Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The One: The Life and Music of James Brown by RJ Smith (2012)

I remember reading an essay by my favorite music critic Robert Christgau quite a few years ago.  He described a poll that he and his fellow critics had taken.  They were asked one question: who did they consider the greatest musician of the Rock and Roll era?  Nearly every single person gave the same answer: James Brown.

If you want to better understand how all those guys could reach that decision, I strongly recommend reading RJ Smith's magnificent new book, The One: The Life and Music of James Brown.  In just under 400 pages, Smith delineates the many tribulations of Brown's life and makes clear that without him, a huge portion of popular music as we conceive it today would not exist.  Superbly paced and focused yet brimming with vivid analyses, incidents and characters, this is the biography that this titan of American music deserves.

James Brown's musical career began in the chitlin circuit in the 1950's.  It took off with the evolution of soul in the 1960's and helped give birth to funk, fusion jazz and disco in the 1970's and hip-hop in the 1980's (and that only covers American music; Smith notes briefly in a later chapter Brown's influence on reggae and the music and culture of numerous African and South American countries).  Brown attributed much of his success to his discovery and embrace of "The One," a concept which had historical and even mystical significance for him.  In purely musical terms, it means emphasizing the first and third beats or "upbeat" in a measure rather than the second and fourth beat or "downbeat."  He describes it this way in his 2005 autobiography I Feel Good:

The "One" is derived from the Earth itself, the soil, the pine trees of my youth.  And most important, it's on the upbeat--ONE two THREE four, not the downbeat, one TWO three FOUR--that most blues are written in.  Hey, I know what I'm talking about!  I was born to the downbeat, and I can tell you without question there is no pride in it.  The upbeat is rich.  The downbeat is poor.  Stepping up proud only happens on the aggressive "One," not the passive Two, and never on lowdownbeat.  In the end, it's not about music--it's about life.  (p. 72)

Starting with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," James Brown made the One the rock upon which he built his music.  It gave almost everything that he recorded from 1965 on its relentless, hard-driving beat.  It became the eye of his hurricane of bass, guitar, keyboards, horns, shouts, screams, raps, chants and, most of all, drums.

Smith seems to take a cue from his subject, turning loose a tremendous amount of information and centering it all around the one and only Hardest Working Man in Show Business.  He takes the reader to northwest Siberia in the 1890's and describes a persuasive archetypal precedent for Brown's cape act (i.e. the part of the show where Brown collapses and a guy rushes over, covers him with a cape and starts to lead him off-stage only to have Brown toss it off and stagger back to the mic).  In the book's introduction, Smith links the power of Brown's funky drumming to the largest slave rebellion in the eighteenth century.  Of course, these passages would seem like mere flights of fancy without Smith's detailed depictions of the people who helped make Star Time possible.  This group includes not just musicians like prototypical hype man Bobby Bird, dynamic-duo drummers Jabo Stark and Clyde Stubblefield and freewheeling bassist Bootsy Collins but obscure figures like Brown's boyhood idols, 30's boxer Beau Jack and preacher/huckster Sweet Daddy Grace.

While Smith eloquently describes the progression and power of his music, he doesn't shy away from the less savory aspects of Brown's life and character.  He shows that the same drives and instincts that fueled Brown's audacious, groundbreaking recordings and stellar live show also led him to run his band like a tyrant, brutalize his women, fight or shoot people at the slightest provocation, develop an addiction to PCP that went unchecked until his death and support such less-than-charitable political figures as Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Strom Thurmond.  However, without excusing or apologizing for anything, Smith also enables us to see how Brown's drives and instincts stemmed from growing up dirt poor in a volatile, violent, segregated society.

Probably knowing that a dry, scholarly tone would go against the spirit of James Brown's music, Smith writes in a conversational, sharp-witted style that belies the prodigious amount of work that went into the researching and crafting of The One.  He makes it look so easy, so effortless.  In this too, Smith seems to take a cue from the man himself.

The One is available now in hardcover.

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