J.B. bio gets on The One

Of course James Brown’s 1986 autobiography, The Godfather of Soul, begins outrageously: “I wasn’t supposed to be alive…I was a stillborn kid.” It’s a contradiction and a medical impossibility, but no bother. When Brown died on Christmas Day 2006, aged 73, he’d played more than 80 shows in the preceding year, many of them in Europe. He’d been a PCP addict for over two decades and still performed acrobatically enough that he required post-show painkillers. In other words: Don’t talk to James Brown about medical impossibilities. His whole life was one long affront to his potential limitations.

The stillborn anecdote might seem like typical self-mythologizing bluster, but the biggest takeaway from R.J. Smith’s new biography, The One (Gotham, 2012), is that Brown’s weapons-grade ego was the product of profound emotional scars. Smith doesn’t dwell on this fact, but it lurks behind his every page and quote. Brown was abandoned by his mother and abused by his dad and was dancing for strangers’ money before he hit puberty. He literally knew how to hustle before he knew how to love.

“Communicating basic emotional information to human beings was something [Brown] only learned later, after he found a way to make people care,” Smith writes. “The one place he did get emotionally heard, and fed, was on stage.”

Offstage, the Star Time aura faded fast. Brown routinely exploited even his most devoted band members, most of whom eventually quit in anger. He had no meaningful artistic collaborations with other artists during his prime and barely ever co-wrote a song (though he often included others, including his own children, in the songwriting credits to ease his tax burden).

In one confidant’s telling, he was incapable of anything other than sexual relationships with women and he had no one, male or female, that he’d consider a friend. He was ceaselessly creative, but creativity was just another way of asserting himself and proving his domination over others.

The key irony of Brown’s life, and the thing that has made him such a rich muse for generations of writers, is that his very pathological selfishness made him an ideal civil rights idol. By merely following his natural, surely unhealthy need to be the alpha dog, he communicated that such a desire was even possible for a black American.

His assertiveness was revelatory for a community in desperate need of self-respect. But he always reminded them who came first: When Brown taught his audience how to “do the James Brown” during his late-1960s performances of “There Was a Time,” he showed black Americans how to be themselves by acting more like him.

Brown’s relationship and importance to the Civil Rights Movement is complex enough to warrant the kind of multivolume biography that Robert A. Caro and Taylor Branch have afforded other icons of the era. The One isn’t nearly so ambitious, though Smith’s research is often stunning and his critical treatment of Brown’s music and performances is always insightful.

He neglects to mention what year Brown was born and makes no significant mention of the man’s nine kids, for example, but he situates Brown’s career within a larger African-American cultural context stretching from the plantation field to Afrika Bambaataa. He also deserves credit for his book’s title, which emphasizes the rhythmic structure of Brown’s work over his many fawning nicknames. By laying heavily into the downbeat, Brown anchored his huge bands as they chopped the rest of the bar up into jagged, staccato syncopations. The one was his organizing principle, the fundamental ingredient to his visionary style that, in Smith’s words, “created a new kind of space” in pop music.

In retrospect, it seems significant that “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” supplanted Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour” on the Billboard R&B chart in June 1965. Pickett’s song, brilliant though it is, thrives on anticipation and privacy. From “Papa’s” onward, Brown’s music occupied what Smith calls “an enduring, dominant present.” The band’s pulsing repetition and the hook’s cool, swinging restraint are the perfect complement to Brown’s boastful, frank lyrics. No need to wait till midnight—Brown’s hour was always now, now, now.

Three years later, New York Times critic Albert Goldman wrote that Brown’s “whole vast success…is based less on talents and skills than it is on a unique faculty for sizing up the black public and making himself the embodiment of its desires.” While it’s insane to denigrate Brown’s superhuman “talents and skills” as a dancer, arranger and performer, Goldman nevertheless correctly gauges the subtext of black fans’ reverence for the man.

Smith quotes dance historian Mura Dehn, who saw Brown at Madison Square Garden in 1966 and said he spent the set creating “a tremendous scream for something that he wants more and more of—and gets—and is ready to give his life in order to retain it forever.”

It’s no surprise that Brown inspired people with this display, though it’s also understandable that he had a standoffish attitude toward the civil rights cause throughout his life. In the thick of the bus boycotts and Freedom Rides, Brown and his band were ruthlessly single-minded.

“They had a job to do,” Smith writes, “and a protest, let alone a bloody melee, was an obstacle to fulfilling a contract.” He adopted an Afro reluctantly, after years of styling his hair in the exact conk that Malcolm X begged black people to abandon in his Autobiography. Later on, Brown publicly revered Reagan and Strom Thurmond; he sympathized with the Republicans’ purported doctrine of self-responsibility because he himself had risen from nothing.

It’s clear that Smith has spent years thinking about his subject’s still-futuristic 1967-1971 work, where the rhythms roll and tumble like an ever-cresting tidal wave. “What the Brown bands of the late 1960s and onward do is make a paradoxically freedom-drenched art out of radical acts of discipline,” Smith writes, summarizing decades of James Brown scholarship. Perhaps if you believe you were born dead, paradox and freedom are your only natural states.