The One: The Life and Music of James Brown is a serious examination of the legacy of the late Godfather of Soul. RJ Smith has written an unflinching biography of “the most important musician of the 20th century,” as Brown is described on this hardcover volume’s dust jacket. Smith has clearly done his homework, having conducted interviews with dozens of subjects. Nearly 50 pages of notes detail an exhaustive number of sources. The One presents a complex portrait of its subject, focused equally on Brown’s personal and professional life.
For anyone who loves and respects the music of James Brown, Smith’s book fills a hole that not even Brown’s own pair of autobiographies could. Though Brown’s Godfather of Soul (written with Bruce Tucker in 1986) and I Feel Good: A Memoir of a Life in Soul (written with Marc Eliot in 2005) are not without merit, they are scrubbed clean, sanitized, “official” accounts. Smith gets into some very dark territory, including harrowing details of Brown’s abuse of women. Another problematic aspect of Brown’s books was their inability to effectively place his artistic achievements in context with the rest of the music world. Smith communicates the impact of Brown’s innovations in a way few other writers have.
Smith gives credit where it’s due as he chronicles the contributions of Brown’s musicians over the years. Brown is, of course, hailed as a funk pioneer with a trailblazing vision. However, his impeccable ear for talent is a recurring theme throughout The One. Trombonist Fred Wesley is repeatedly (and justly) cited as a major component of Brown’s music. While Smith in no way attempts to refute Brown’s status as “the hardest working man in show business,” he doesn’t shy away from detailing examples of the artist’s occasionally faltering work ethic. Upon being contracted to score the film Black Caesar in 1973, Brown initially thought he could simply recycle his old songs to match various scenes. Though Brown did end up contributing new material to the score, Wesley was stuck with the task of completing much of the music. Brown’s band members were constantly fighting for credit that their megalomaniacal boss was often unwilling to give.
The story of James Brown involves more than just his music, and Smith does an exemplary job of placing Brown at the center of the civil rights movement. Brown’s controversial political affiliations, including his endorsement of Richard Nixon and his longtime friendship with Strom Thurmond, are explored. Among the stories related is the time Brown confronted Nixon face-to-face about making Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday. As the years go by the IRS catches up with Brown’s tax evasion. Brown fell into the habit of contacting one U.S. president after another in a vain attempt to have his debt forgiven. According to Smith, Brown even implored President Clinton to excuse African-Americans from paying taxes altogether.
The story eventually turns very sad as Brown’s demons overtake him. Smith documents the mounting personal tragedies that devastated Brown, including the untimely (and unrelated) deaths of his son Teddy and wife Adrienne, as well as his legal problems. The PCP-fueled antics that led to a two year incarceration in the late ‘80s apparently didn’t deter Brown from continuing to use the dangerous hallucinogen well into his senior years. Smith doesn’t scold or otherwise judge Brown, even when dealing with his most unsavory behavior. The respect Smith obviously has for his subject has resulted in an even-handed account of a fascinating life.