Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

RJ Smith: The One: The Life And Music Of James Brown

James Brown was a lot of things, even beyond the many stage nicknames he bestowed upon himself: The Hardest-Working Man In Show Business, Soul Brother No. 1, Minister Of The New New Super Heavy Funk, etc. In the late ’60s, he called himself “75 percent businessman and 25 percent entertainer,” right before several long-term investments not related to music went belly-up. He spoke out loudly and frequently against drugs, only to become addicted to PCP—a major contributing factor to his infamous 1988 arrest, and the high-speed car chase that preceded it.


More than anything, as Los Angeles music writer RJ Smith portrays him in The One, James Brown was a product of his environment. That’s nowhere near as pat as it might sound. Smith digs deeply into the political, social, racial, and musical climate of Brown’s childhood and adolescence in rural Georgia, as well as the Southern “chitlin’ circuit” where he made his bones as a performer. In the process, Smith draws a man whose refusal to take even a hint of guff from anyone was rooted in the virulent racism of his hometown of Augusta, which during Brown’s early years, was run by the candidly named Cracker Party.

That fighting spirit enabled Brown to remake pop music in his own fashion—spotlighting the rhythm, turning horns and guitars into extensions of the drum, and more or less inventing funk. (Not to mention disco, hip-hop, drum and bass, and many more styles that work from Brown’s rhythmic ideas.) Smith also shines a bright light on the band members who put Brown’s ideas, hums, and grunts into motion: drummers Charles Connor (a New Orleans native who played with Little Richard, and whom Brown credited for “putting the funk in the music”), Clyde Stubblefield, and Jabo Starks, and teen bassist Bootsy Collins, who spent a year in the first group Brown dubbed The J.B.’s. Smith sums up that group’s work aptly: “They changed everything,” starting with 1970’s “Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine.”

But the fighting urge also made Brown a cruel, sometimes tyrannical man. A brawler from childhood, he was sent to a juvenile home for petty thievery. Picking fights became his unfortunate specialty as time went on. He abused his wives and girlfriends horribly, and alienated countless members of his own band, especially when the tides of funk changed in the mid-’70s: “In 1975, Maceo Parker, [Fred] Wesley, and trumpeter Kush Griffith all left to play with George Clinton. They’d had it. After years of discipline and fines, of drinking that James Brown Kool-Aid and making sure the bells of their horns hit the same compass point when the boss was watching, now they were getting paid to play funky music for a much looser boss. You drank Clinton’s Kool-Aid, and you didn’t remember the next forty-eight hours.”

Smith doesn’t touch upon every aspect of Brown’s life, in large part because no writer could—not in one volume. But no one has written a more complete overview of this most monumental of American artists.