In the early 1970s, James Brown typically performed 335 days a year; each month, he gave away 5,000 autographs and 1,000 pairs of cuff links, and went through 80 pairs of shoes.When he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 with the inaugural class—Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Ray Charles and others—he was the only one with a new hit song at the time, “Living in America.”
His work ethic was prodigious, his longevity almost unparalleled, but the essence of his talent more mysterious. The talk show host David Frost asked Brown what soul was. “The truth,” he replied.
But soul wasn’t easy. If you wanted to play with James Brown, you would play by his rules: no distracting hobbies (“Black people don’t play golf!” he shouted at band members while throwing clubs off the tour bus); fines for misbehavior; and corporal punishment. “They were scared stiff,” said a girlfriend. “He used to hit them grown men!”
Brown made “a paradoxically freedom-drenched art out of radical acts of discipline,” RJ Smith writes in this new, extravagantly detailed biography. In early, plaintive songs like “Please, Please, Please,” and, later, in funk-infused tunes like “Get Up (I Feel Like Being) a Sex Machine,” Brown’s music is the id unleashed. “I feel good!” Brown sang with his trademark lung-scorching shout—a sound, Smith notes, that “shows the control Brown has over a technique most often used to signify a loss of control.”
Smith, whose first book, The Great Black Way, told the story of African-Americans in 1940s Los Angeles, sets the singer-songwriter against the backdrop of the nation’s racial legacy. Brown was an emblem of the possibilities that opened to black people in the second half of the 20th century. “I was able to speak to the country during the crisis,” Brown said after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, “and they followed my advice.” If that claim seems extreme, it was also true. “Say it loud,” Brown sang, “I’m black and I’m proud.” Thousands sang along with him.
Brown’s early years, as is well known, were rough: born in Barnwell, South Carolina, in 1933; left school in the seventh grade; caught breaking into cars in 1949 and locked up; earned a reputation in jail for singing; paroled with the help of a local musician. A break arrived in 1955, when Brown filled in for Little Richard after he abandoned his tour; he’d passed through a Toccoa, Georgia, club one night and seen Brown perform.
Brown wrote or co-wrote almost all of his hits, like “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” but he described himself as 25 percent entertainer and 75 percent businessman. He started a trading stamp company and a chain of restaurants, and bought radio stations. “Brown made entrepreneurialism groovy,” writes Smith. Yet he did not open a bank account until the early ’60s, keeping his money in cardboard boxes and buried in his yard, and he didn’t file a tax return until 1967. By 1980, his U.S. tax tab was $17.3 million. More than his finances were a mess. He beat his third wife; relations with his fourth were also violent. He became addicted to PCP and, after a high-speed highway chase, was arrested and convicted of running from police; he spent two years in jail. No matter how low his fortunes sank, his music soared. In 1989—while Brown was incarcerated—the Florida A&M marching band traveled to Paris as the lone American representatives at the centennial celebration of the French Revolution. As they paraded down the Champs-Élysées, they played just one artist: James Brown. He died in 2006.
The imperatives of biography are to record, to correct and to carve out historical significance, and Smith’s lively account succeeds on all three fronts. It’s an often inspiring chronicle of an American original, bookended with reminders of how far the dirt-poor performer traveled; it ends with an inventory of the deceased singer’s house, which included antique leg irons and sprigs of cotton. There was ugliness and meanness in Brown’s life, but it’s the triumph—over the limits of his education, the poverty of his background and the prejudices of his era—that Smith’s portrait impresses upon us
The One: The Life and Music of James Brown