If you ask author R.J. Smith why he chose the life of James Brown as the subject of his second book, the answer is more or less another question: Who else?
“On some level I just could not think of anybody I would rather spend several years of my life to trying to understand,” said Smith, whose biography, The One: The Life and Music of James Brown, hit stores in mid-March.
Indeed, the legendary performer had a musical career that broke barriers and destroyed conventions while building new musical genres and influencing generations of other artists.
Smith’s book dives into the many facets of Brown – the performer, entrepreneur, civil rights activist and at times, walking contradiction who parleyed with Black Panthers and endorsed both Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon for president.
Above all, Smith said, Brown was an individualist, who constantly remade himself and relied on an inner compass to chart his far-ranging course.
“We celebrate someone like Bob Dylan for his chameleonlike qualities, but Brown’s zig-zags were more complicated and amazing,” Smith said.
In some ways, Brown’s transformations and influence as a musician and performer can only be compared to someone like Frank Sinatra, who changed his image and musical style twice during his long career, Smith said.
“It’s like Bob Dylan plus Sinatra equals James Brown,” said Smith, a former senior editor at Los Angeles magazine.
His first book, The Great Black Way: LA in the 1940s and the Lost African-American Renaissance, was a Los Angeles Times bestseller and won a California Book Award.
Smith’s new book traces Brown’s story to his early years in Barnwell, S.C., where his father worked in turpentine camps to their move to “the Terry” in Augusta, where Brown learned the ways of the streets while living in the Twiggs Street brothel of his aunt, Hansone “Honey” Washington.
Smith said he began researching the book about a year after Brown’s death on Christmas Day 2006.
“I knew right away I had to start going to Augusta and introducing myself to people,” he said. Part of that led him to sit in on court hearings of family members and former Brown associate David Cannon, who was accused of misappropriating the singer’s money.
Smith said those hearings provided a crash course into the business dealings of Brown, but he ultimately decided not to include them in his book.
“I started thinking it was taking the story in a whole different direction,” Smith said. “It was opening a whole new can of beans.”
What the book does do is delve deep into Augusta history, intertwining Brown’s story with Augusta politics and personalities, from famed boxer Beau Jack to the late U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond. The index reveals some of the books breadth, beginning with country music great Roy Acuff and ending with former Augusta Mayor Bob Young.
Smith’s research yields a closely examined account of how Brown latched on to a small-town gospel group in Toccoa, Ga. and out-worked and out-performed everyone he encountered to become the kind of musical force that could quell a riot with a televised concert, which he is credited with doing in Boston in 1968.
At the height of his influence in the 1970s, Brown came to represent the essence of “blackness” in America, the subject of other poets, performers and political observers, Smith says.
“For these performers and critics, to discuss Brown was to discuss race and politics, and, then life and magic. Brown represented an intersection of a great many things,” Smith writes.
Although Brown compiled a deep catalog of hits over his career, from Please, Please, Please in 1956 to Living in America in 1985, his true magic as an entertainer was difficult to capture on vinyl, Smith said.
The seminal Live at the Apollo album from 1963 was a breakthrough for Brown at the time, but the one performance that really reveals how different and powerful he could be onstage is the film of The T.A.M.I. Show from 1964.
Smith writes how Brown’s performance of Please, Please, Please, before an audience of mostly white California teens, becomes a shamanistic experience “placing him on the plane of pure performer.” Brown repeatedly collapses to the stage, in what became known as the “cape act.” Members of his band, the Flames, cover Brown with a cape, console him and help him to his feet and off stage, until Brown shrugs off their ministrations and repeatedly returns to the microphone.
“The man is falling to the ground on the One. The first beat of the measure. He also throws off the cape each time on the One. He’s conducting the band from the depth of his paroxysm,” Smith writes.
The passage explains the title of the book, which refers to Brown’s penchant for building songs around the upbeat, or the first beat of the measure. It also refers to the singular vision and personality of the man himself.
Smith said although many of Brown’s performances were caught on television, not enough was done to capture him at the height of his powers on film.
“He sure deserved one high-budget, state-of-the-art documentary, but he never got it,” Smith said. “He wasn’t three-dimensional, he was five-dimensional.”