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May 3, 2012

Filed under: culture»america»usa

The One

One of my favorite sections in The One is when author R.J. Smith tells the story of James Brown firing his backing band and hiring Bootsy Collins' band, the Pacesetters, as a replacement (renaming them the JBs). The JBs are rawer, less tolerant of his fines and his abuse, but they're also talented and on the cutting edge of the new funk sound. Few artists would have had the nerve to make such a huge change--particularly few artists whose music was so dependent on the sound of their backing players. But the change revitalizes Brown: the result is the classic "Get Up (I Feel Like Being Like A) Sex Machine (Parts One and Two)."

Byrd grunts "Get on up!" like a hog hot on some truffles, and then the guys enthusiastically second the boss--yes, as a matter of fact, a sex machine sounds like an excellent thing to be in the present situation. The brothers are laying down a whole new sound: Bootsy's bass a flickering, alive thing, [guitarist] Catfish evoking the metallic chank of Nolen but lighter, freer. Brown spontaneously sat and decanted a little aromatic piano. Two takes and they were outta there. Seeya.
Or maybe my favorite section is when Smith describes Brown's habit of shooting up clubs in Georgia:
In the emergency room, a witness remembered the scene as nothin' but "Who shot you?" "James Brown."

"Who shot you?" "James Brown."

"And who shot you?" "James Brown."

One person came in who was stabbed. "Who cut you?" "James Brown."

He was a bad, bad man. But then again, since I was reading a biography of the original b-boy on the way to the International Soul Society Festival, I also loved this passage near the end of Smith's book about the qualities of Brown's dancing:
He is more than good enough, an embodiment of what Zora Neale Hurston called "dynamic suggestions," a quality she considered the essence of black dance. However explosively or fiercely he moved, Brown telegraphs that there's more we don't get to see--his actions exert maximum impact with a minimum of exertion (coolness), a withholding that compels the viewer to follow the gesture through in the imagination. His dance wasn't supposed to be appreciated with detachment. It was meant to pull you over to where he was, to engage you in the act. You can't sit still.

Asked to demonstrate the boogaloo by a TV show host, Brown danced around a Hollywood soundstage in a way that looked exactly like a boxer throwing punches and owning the ring. To Brown, dancing was competition--"Can you jerk? Watch me work/Can you do the slide? Then watch me glide..."

I could quote this book all day. It would be hard to write a boring book about James Brown: the hardest working man in show business, his drive and temper were both legendary. The great strength of Smith's book is that it's based on an enormous number of interviews dating back to Brown's childhood friends and family. As a result, we not only get a ton of great stories like the ones above, but it also makes a strong case for why James Brown was who he was. A man who grew up in a constant blur of conflict and motion, he didn't know any other way to be: when his younger band members thank him one day for pushing them to be more disciplined, Smith writes that Brown's reaction was one of surprise, as if the concept of a relaxed workplace had simply never occurred to him.

Smith's book is roughly chronological, but he still finds ways to give each chapter an approximate theme. Some of these are more interesting than others: the chapters midway through the book that examine Brown's complicated political views and alliance with Nixon are particularly fascinating: Smith notes that "Say It Loud" and "I Don't Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing" were recorded only a few months apart on opposite sides of the election, forming a bizarre diptych. But later, as Brown's music falls out of style and his work ethic begins to exhaust even his energy, Smith turns to darker subjects, like Brown's abusive relationships with women, his shaky financial arrangements, and his use of PCP before his death in late 2006.

Today is James Brown's birthday, and it's hard to think of many people who had such a tremendous effect on popular music. Rooted in gospel but (more importantly) riding on that always-important downbeat, James Brown's music was a worldwide sensation that influenced musicians from Atlanta to Africa. It was the soundtrack to the early hip-hop movement (literally!). It kicked off careers ranging from Parliament to Al Sharpton. That's a lot of ground to cover, and The One does it well--even if, as Smith told NPR, there are still stories from those interviews that remain untold. And maybe it's best we don't know quite everything. He was super bad, that James Brown. Say it loud.

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