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Monday, 25 February 2013 11:00

Book review: 'The One: The Life and Music of James Brown' digs deep, dispels myths + Video

Book review: 'The One: The Life and Music of James Brown' digs deep, dispels myths commons.wikimedia.org / Heinrich Klaffs
Written by Chris Lawyer
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"The One: The Life and Music of James Brown"
RJ Smith
Gotham Books

"The One: The Life and Music of James Brown" is without a doubt the definitive work on one of the most significant and influential figures in 20th century popular music.

Having read numerous books about James Brown, including more than one autobiography as well as his declassified FBI file, I was shocked to learn that so many of the things that I believed true were, indeed, false. In this exhaustively researched tome, Mr. Smith interviews many of Brown's intimates and subordinates, to create a portrait that is at once amazing and revelatory, a product of the America that bore him and one indelibly changed by his presence.

More than a mere chronicle of his life and achievements, Smith illuminates the social and historical context within which Brown lived and how those forces shaped the man and his art. His music certainly wasn't created in a vacuum, nor was he completely independent. As I have learned through the years, soul music is often a collaborative and racially mixed form, even though the Godfather would have you believe otherwise.

This is not to discount the many obstacles Brown surmounted. Even the myth of his upbringing --abandoned by his mother, raised in a whorehouse - furthered the notion that his success was the result of one man's unwavering faith in himself and his singular genius. Some of these tales are disproven or at least called into question by Smith. A simple inquiry into occupancy and housing records casts a shadow on the narrative that he perpetuated. His determination in the face of resistance and his incredible success is no less stunning because of these inaccuracies. There never was another like JB, and his place in the pantheon of musical greats in undeniable.

Singular though he may have been, the title speaks to the beat, the "one" (rather than two-four time), on which many of his musical innovations were based. We are shown how it was directly related to the tribal drumming of slaves and African tribesman, and how it demanded cathartic movement from those who heard its call. The dancing, marathon performing and even the "cape routine" are given context and are part of a greater confluence of time and purpose. Many of his drummers had apprenticed in New Orleans, where the second-line tradition of funeral processions informed their playing. James often kept several employed at any time, their distinct talents driving his next move.

Sainted by his admirers, and I consider myself one, James Brown was no saint. A thief, violent abuser and drug addict, his warts are depicted in unflinching detail. Smith offers shocking tales of his treatment of women, of which he had many, because most of all he couldn't stand to be alone. Tammy Montgomery -- later known as Tammi Tyrell, Marvin Gaye's sometime duet partner -- is beaten with a hammer for the slightest transgression (not watching JB's every move from backstage). She was eventually rescued from his touring entourage by family members who feared for her life.

Still, the lofty heights of his success, despite the blockades thrown in his way, are remarkable. James was a man who loved America and communed with presidents politicians from both sides of the aisle. They recognized in him a rare artist whose music transcended categorization and racial boundaries. They used him to further their goals; Brown returned the favor. His was a uniquely American life.

I cannot recommend this book more highly. For those who wish for an insight into his amazing story, there isn't a better book on the subject. As a historical record of popular music and cultural change in the mid-20th century United States, its insight is unparalleled -- just like its innovative, revolutionary and unstoppable subject.

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