The first record I remember listening to was “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” by James Brown. I was enthralled by the funky horns, the guitar break, and Brown’s raspy voice. That song turned me into a lifelong fan of Brown’s music. But as I grew older and learned more about Brown, I realized that “the hardest working man in showbiz” lived a complicated life that was influenced by poverty, segregation, crime, and the vices associated with the entertainment business.
Author RJ Smith takes a deep dive into this complex artist in his book, The One – The Life and Music of James Brown. The book draws on interviews with more than 100 people who knew Brown personally or played with him professionally. Using these sources, Smith draws a portrait of a man whose twisted and amazing life helps us to understand the music he made.
Born in Barnwell, SC in 1933, Brown and his family were extremely poor. The One goes into great detail to explain the depths of this poverty describing it as being similar to the poverty that existed in medieval times. Brown’s family struggled mightily just to meet their basic needs. In addition to his substandard living conditions, Brown had to contend with his parents’ tattered relationship and eventual separation. To make matters worse, Brown’s father sent him to live with an aunt who ran a bordello.
With all of these things going on in his life, Brown never made much time for school. Although Brown dropped out in the seventh grade, he gained an education by hustling on the streets. He earned money shining shoes, sweeping out stores, committing petty crimes, and singing in talent contests.
Music was the thing that finally gave some purpose to wayward Brown’s life. The One explains how musical pioneers such as Bobby Byrd and Little Richard, helped to transform Brown from a petty street hustler to an influential, musical legend. Playing 350 shows a year at his peak, with more than forty Billboard hits, Brown was a dazzling showman who transformed American music.
While reading The One, you will experience a wide range of emotions such as pity, joy, and anger. My opinion of Brown changed radically after reading this book. Although I knew he was no boy scout, I actually felt revulsion at times as I read the book. Smith does an excellent job of evoking types of reactions with being gratuitous or smarmy.
The One presents a complete picture of a complex artist. Whether you love him or hate him, you will gain a newfound respect for Brown after reading this book. Although The One chronicles all of Brown’s personal struggles, it never forgets to celebrate his musical genius.