Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The One: The Life and Music of James Brown

Because I have been an on-again-off-again fan of James Brown’s music since the mid-sixties, to me it feels like the man has always been there.  I remember him best as the ultimate showman, an impression that is easily confirmed by watching some of the many James Brown videos that are readily found on YouTube today.  Brown, because of the controversy surrounding his death and his multiple funerals, was a performer even in death, and I think he would have enjoyed and been pleased by that.  I thought I knew James Brown – or, at least, everything I needed to know about him, but R.J. Smith’s new James Brown biography, The One: The Life and Music of James Brown, showed me just how wrong I was.

The One (which actually refers to the way that he emphasized the upbeat rather than the downbeat in his music) focuses on Brown’s career path, as it should, but manages to get inside the man’s head in a way that helps explain where much of his chronic reckless behavior originated.  James Brown, like all of us, was the product of his environment, his deeper culture, and his upbringing.  Unfortunately for those around him, he often embraced the worst elements of all three, making life for his several wives, his children, and his employees miserable, at best – and unsustainable, at worst. 

Smith documents Brown’s troubled life in great detail.  The failed marriages, the thousands of women who kept him company on the road, the children (most of whom he hardly knew), the drug abuse of his later years, the susceptibility to physical violence he could not always control, his mental abuse of band members – it is all there.  James Brown was an extreme control freak; band members did not work for him – he owned them – but few would argue with the results of his musical vision or his impact on popular music and culture.

R.J. Smith
One important part of Brown’s legacy is seldom spoken of today.  Largely because his music would eventually find a passionate white audience, he became an important figure in the civil rights movement of the sixties, often rubbing shoulders with the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr. and other leaders of the era.  Brown saw himself as someone capable of unifying the races and he did his best to make it happen - even to the point of offending those of his own race who did not believe in the nonviolent tactics of Dr. King.  National politicians of the day, although they sometimes abused his trust, recognized the importance of having his support – support that would eventually trigger a financially crippling boycott of Brown’s music led by vocal elements of the black community.

The One is for anyone interested in music history, pop culture, the civil rights movement, or simply what makes all of us tick.  It is easy to forget (if we ever even realized the extent to which it was true) that James Brown was a real player in his prime, one of those important, but tragically flawed, people who comes around only every so often.  The One will go a long way in setting the record straight. 

(Below you will find one of the most famous live performances of all time, Brown's appearance on the TAMI show, which includes his signature song, "Please, Please, Please."  Enjoy

Rated at: 5.0

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)


  1. WOW what an outstanding review! I never realized the extent of his involvement in the civil rights movement and how it led to a boycott of his music. What a fascinating life he lead! Thank you so much for being on this tour.

  2. Thanks for that, Lisa. I appreciate the opportunity to read this one; I probably would have missed it otherwise.


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