Two years after James Brown's death, the expected upswing in books about him has hit. This summer saw the enlightening anthology The James Brown Reader, September brought Don Rhodes' personal-reminisces collection Say It Loud!, and more biographies are forthcoming. So The Hardest Working Man: How James Brown Saved The Soul Of America, a retelling of one of the most legendary concerts of the 1960s, was probably inevitable. What wasn't was a write-up this good: Boston Globe contributor James Sullivan has produced one of the most vivid music books in recent memory.
The Hardest Working Man has loads of detail about its subject, a Brown concert at Boston Garden the night after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s murder; the show was broadcast several times on local television, helping ease tensions in the area. (That show was also explored in a documentary that Shout Factory included on the recent three-DVD set James Brown In The '60s.) As befits a local, Sullivan digs up acres of background on nearly every aspect of the event and the times: deep, fascinating historical nuggets on the history of civil rights in Boston, the city's status as King's "second home," and the local disputes leading up to and emerging from King's death. Sullivan is a scrupulous reporter, and he's especially gifted at choosing and placing quotes, particularly Brown's.
Sullivan comes up with some noteworthy quotes of his own, particularly regarding Brown's work. This book doesn't focus on Brown's music as closely as Douglas Wolk's sharp volume James Brown's Live At The Apollo, but Sullivan's is an adept critic: Discussing Brown's 1964 single "Out Of Sight," he says it contains "brassy bursts of punctuation, like the multiple exclamation points of an action comic book"; later, he describes Brown's whoops and screams as "verbal projectiles… the diaphragmatic grunts of a man throwing off a heavy burden," and he terms 1965's world-changing "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag, Pt. 1" an "experiment in bop commercialism."
The relative peace Brown helped achieve in Boston didn't stay long. Many of the city initiatives that came out of the aftermath of King's assassination would unravel by the '80s, and so would Brown, whose career plummeted in the mid-'70s, resurged in the mid-'80s, and never recovered after Brown went to prison in 1988. Leaving no ends loose, Sullivan conveys all of this in less than 250 pages, with an admirable sweep.