PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

That Thing That Makes Funk Funky: 'The One: The Life and Music of James Brown'

Photo: Heinrich Klaffs (Wikipedia)

James Brown – an untrained musician, mind you, operating on not much more than feel, instinct and desire – revolutionized black pop music, setting off depth charges that would still be exploding a decade hence.

The One: The Life and Music of James Brown

Publisher: Gotham
Length: 455 pages
Author: RJ Smith
Price: $27.50
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2012-03

Not to get all John Edwards-y about it, but apparently, there really were two Americas for a stretch during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. There was the America that hung on James Brown’s every last whoop, holler, scream, cry, and exhortation of “good God!” “hit me!” or “Maceo!” (the latter being fully enunciated, as in “may-see-oh!”). This America – which was pretty much all-black -- saw Brown as the epitome of its attitude and brashness, at a time when said qualities were already a highly visible part of its zeitgeist.

This was the period when Brown – an untrained musician, mind you, operating on not much more than feel, instinct and desire – revolutionized black pop music, setting off depth charges that would still be exploding a decade hence. Just about every record he put out was an event, and his concerts were not to be missed. And he was doing this while managing an enterprise far beyond the norm: between 1969 and 1971, he had three different aggregations of musicians behind him.

But there was that other America, which was anything but all-black, and those folks had no idea in the world all this was going on. Other musical geniuses – Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, Sly Stone – were dismantling the boundaries of black music in their own ways, but they were doing it in full view of everybody, at festivals and rock clubs and on the sales charts. And their messages weren’t as undeniably and unabashedly black as Brown’s was.

Even if Brown wasn’t a card-carrying militant (he made it his business to curry favor with Richard Nixon, something the Black Panthers never considered), his music exuded blackness in its rawest form. That, apparently, was a bit much for that other America. Even at his peak Brown never enjoyed the pop crossover success of Sly, or of any of the countless acts that followed in his footsteps, nor did he get anywhere near the credit from critical circles that his singular accomplishments deserved.

Now, of course, it’s all different. It took a while, but folks finally came around to seeing, hearing and feeling the full extent and power of his work. A new generation of undeniably and unabashedly black music performers used much of Brown’s oeuvre as cornerstones; by sampling his records early and often, hip-hop gave Brown’s art new prominence (and helped launch various reissues of it) at a time when he was getting more headlines for his private and legal misadventures. Key musicians in his band – bassist Bootsy Collins, guitarist Jimmy Nolen, drummers Clyde Stubblefield and John “Jabo” Starks, trombonist Fred Wesley, and the aforementioned Maceo Parker on sax -- received praise for their contributions, something that didn’t happen much if at all in their time. Scholarship, reportage and critical appreciation of his music grew so much, The James Brown Reader emerged three years ago to collect the best of it. He was recognized as an American cultural treasure by no less august a body than the Kennedy Center.

So it seems a bit odd to realize that RJ Smith’s brand-new The One is the first major biography of Brown to cover his entire life, from his hardscrabble youth in '30s South Carolina to his death on Christmas Day 2006. Smith’s numerous interviews, prodigious research, close study of Brown’s music and performance, and pitch-perfect writing tone resulted in a work that is exhaustive, illuminating, and as fun a read as such tomes can be.

“The one,” in James Brown lore, is the source of that which makes funk funky, and everybody knows by now that James Brown more or less made funk a world onto itself. Specifically it’s the first beat in a measure, but “the one” is not so much a musicological place as it is a spiritual place, as the navigation of that beat is invested with age-old rhythms and nuances that end up propelling the rest of everything else – the tune, the band, the audience and Brown himself – into a strutting, rump-shaking beatitude. Smith illustrates how Brown’s background – a street-dancing kid whose artistic role models included a boxer and a charismatic preacher – led him to the essence of the one. And he gives extensive space to the mostly unheralded sidemen from Brown’s band of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s (Lewis Hamlin, Nat Kendrick and especially New Orleans-bred drummer Clayton Fillyau) who gave shape to Brown’s basic musical vision.

There’s a mighty good reason one of Brown’s nicknames was “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business” – he probably was. After the success of his very first record, 1956’s “Please Please Please” (has a debut song ever established its singer’s artistic character more convincingly?), Brown spent months on the road and countless trips to the studio in search of hit number two. He finally got it (“Try Me”, 1958), but had gained something else far more critical – the ability to construct a memorable concert experience. That, combined with the money to be made from said experiences, enabled Brown & company to become a rare thing by 1962 – a swaggering, road-tested juggernaut that flew all but completely beneath the radar. Even a lot of black folks had no idea who he was.

That changed with the release of Live at the Apollo, his 1962 concert album (a recording Brown paid for out-of-pocket, thanks to all that money he’d made on the road). With apologies to Pet Sounds and the rest of the ‘60s rock canon, this was the first release to tap the artistic and cultural potential of the album format for pop music. He and his band whipped the notorious Apollo Theater audience into a frenzy, displaying uncommon mastery of emotional dynamics and musical precision (the latter doubtlessly sharpened by Brown’s lifelong practice of fining musicians who screwed up on stage). It became a phenomenon, with deejays playing pre-release demos of it all the way through for its entire 33 minutes (not that you could easily or properly separate one song from another, such is its flow and intensity). That word-of-mouth forced the irascible Syd Nathan of Cincinnati’s King Records, Brown’s recording home since day one, to get over his issues about the album and give it a proper release. Its success gave Brown the upper hand in his prickly relationship with King, and made him a full-fledged star, no longer an underground phenomenon.

From that point, the music deepened as the star rose. Brown seemed to be possessed of a drive to please, to exceed, to put on not just a show but a spectacle. And that he did, as a one-man barnstorming carnival: for all his extensions into the modern world, Brown never left behind the black show-biz traditions of his youth, the tent show and the chitlin’ circuit. A typical James Brown extravaganza came complete with many of those really-old-school conventions: multiple acts, razor-sharp showmanship and a showstopper of a finale, the cape act (which Smith gives its own chapter, such is its centrality to Brown’s art). And oh yeah – a helluva band, largely made over from the early ‘60s group, which in only a few short years put its own stamp on black pop, and recorded its own incendiary live album at the Apollo.

By the late ‘60s he’d had a few pop hits, but that’s not where his impact was. His effect resonated everywhere within black life: there was the emotional urgency of soul music, there was the hopeful ambition of R&B, and there was James Brown, a genre onto himself encompassing both urgency and ambition, plus the self-asserting audaciousness of his bold, fearless funk. He became a cultural marker for more than just music: poets saw him as the very essence of blackness incarnate; politicians glommed onto his mojo; and he became a hero to the global downtrodden (even Bob Marley worked in some Brown references in one of his early records).

But it seems that music was the only thing that Brown did well, according to Smith’s work. He raked in the cash on the road, but for years never bothered with anything so much as a bank account, and paid the price once the IRS caught up with him. He got some attention for his business acumen as a radio station owner with his fingers in other pies, but all those ventures collapsed. He was King’s cash cow for years, but after the label’s demise in the late ‘60s, his new label, Polygram, was somewhat less forgiving of his excesses. He had a bunch of wives, and even more women on the side. And it was his mercurial temper, stubborn pride, and drug addiction that famously landed him in jail after a two-state police chase in 1988.

The last two decades of his life contained virtually no new music, just drugs, women, guns and tours with a much lesser band and a greatly diminished spotlight. It’s as if he never stopped being that hungry, restless kid who used to dance for nickels on the street; his appetite wouldn’t let him rest even after he’d had more than several bites at the apple. Yet, although Brown’s music and influence circled the planet, he died right where he’d kept a home most of his life, in Augusta, Georgia.

But all his excesses are forgiven, or at least artfully explained, within The One. Smith’s writing here is much more concise than in his previous book, the insightful but often all-over-the-map The Great Black Way (Public Affairs, 2006), even as he considers the long arc of a man whose art took him literally from the streets to the penthouse. The former book is fascinating in stretches for its exposition of little-known history, but suffers from the lack of a clear focus for the reader’s attention. There’s no lack of focus here, even as Smith takes on and fleshes out virtually every conceivable aspect of Brown’s career. It’s as if Smith himself learned from Brown the virtues of staying on the one.

The One is so complete a portrait of a complicated, talented and driven man, that after reading it, it’s hard to imagine anyone who isn’t James Brown playing the lead were there ever to be a James Brown biopic. One might instead envision a new, funkier take on the whole Mount Rushmore concept, with Brown alongside Hendrix, Davis and Stone as the four men who reshaped black American music simultaneously, on parallel tracks, during a most volatile period in American culture. Smith convincingly establishes Brown as a triumphant product of the uniquely American tangle of race, art and commerce, a point proven long before his final hit, the jingoistic-by-design “Living in America” (1986). On that point, it’s safe to say, all the various Americas floating about these days would probably agree.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.


The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.


The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.


The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.


When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.


20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.


The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.


Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.


Kimm Rogers' "Lie" Is an Unapologetically Political Tune (premiere)

San Diego's Kimm Rogers taps into frustration with truth-masking on "Lie". "What I found most frustrating was that no one would utter the word 'lie'."


50 Years Ago B.B. King's 'Indianola Mississippi Seeds' Retooled R&B

B.B. King's passion for bringing the blues to a wider audience is in full flower on the landmark album, Indianola Mississippi Seeds.


Filmmaker Marlon Riggs Knew That Silence = Death

In turning the camera on himself, even in his most vulnerable moments as a sick and dying man, filmmaker and activist Marlon Riggs demonstrated the futility of divorcing the personal from the political. These films are available now on OVID TV.


The Human Animal in Natural Labitat: A Brief Study of the Outcast

The secluded island trope in films such as Cast Away and television shows such as Lost gives culture a chance to examine and explain the human animal in pristine, lab like, habitat conditions. Here is what we discover about Homo sapiens.


Bad Wires Release a Monster of a Debut with 'Politics of Attraction'

Power trio Bad Wires' debut Politics of Attraction is a mix of punk attitude, 1990s New York City noise, and more than a dollop of metal.


'Waiting Out the Storm' with Jeremy Ivey

On Waiting Out the Storm, Jeremy Ivey apologizes for present society's destruction of the environment and wonders if racism still exists in the future and whether people still get high and have mental health issues.


Matt Berninger Takes the Mic Solo on 'Serpentine Prison'

Serpentine Prison gives the National's baritone crooner Matt Berninger a chance to shine in the spotlight, even if it doesn't push him into totally new territory.


MetalMatters: The Best New Heavy Metal Albums of September 2020

Oceans of Slumber thrive with their progressive doom, grind legends Napalm Death make an explosive return, and Anna von Hausswolff's ambient record are just some of September's highlights.


'Avatar: The Last Airbender' Nudges Out Conscience in Our Time of Crises

Avatar shows us that to fight for only the people we know, for simply the things that affect us personally, is neither brave nor heroic, nor particularly useful.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.