The One: The Life and Music of James Brown

By Hatschek, Keith | MEIEA Journal, January 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

The One: The Life and Music of James Brown


Hatschek, Keith, MEIEA Journal


RJ Smith. The One: The Life and Music of James Brown. New York: Gotham Books (Penguin Group), 2012. www.us.penguingroup. com.

There has been no shortage of writing about the seminal singer, bandleader, and self-appointed "Godfather of Soul" James Brown. Brown is a fascinating figure, larger than life, often serving as a lightning rod for controversy throughout his career. Personally, I found myself looking forward to picking The One up from my bedside nightly as I journeyed through Smith's fascinating narrative, drawn along by his recounting of James Brown's long, productive, yet troubled life. In many ways, Brown looms as large as Louis Armstrong in the pantheon of genre-establishing, original American musical and cultural voices of the twentieth century. However, much of what has been published by and about Brown was filtered through his own prodigious PR, marketing, and hype machine. Refreshingly, RJ Smith's biography offers an engaging, thoroughly objective, and vivid portrayal of this deeply flawed, but supremely gifted artist, showman, and entrepreneur. As did Armstrong, Brown grew up on the fringes of society, and learned how to fight to defend himself. That scrappiness and willingness to go head to head with anyone in authority that he perceived as a threat or disagreeing with his frequent and sometimes eccentric edicts is one of the threads that tie The One together.

Brown's rise from the depths of abject poverty, his imprisonments, battles with state and federal tax authorities, and his frequent brushes with the American legal system are not romanticized in any way, instead they provide the reader with a solid basis for understanding Brown's lifelong insistence on being wholly self-sufficient and trusting of very few persons. This story is told in a manner that allows the reader to draw one's own conclusions about Brown's business acumen, which seemed to vary throughout his career. Smith explains that Brown built up his extensive financial empire and investments without the help of the well-connected lawyers, accountants, and managers that we take for granted in today's music world. Nearly all of his close advisors lived in or near his home in Georgia. Not long before his 2006 death, Smith reports that Brown had set up two trusts, leaving the substantial receipts that his songs, image, likeness, royalties, and annuities would generate to benefit his grandchildren and impoverished children near the region he called home on the GeorgiaSouth Carolina border. He also continued to draw a salary of $100,000 per month in his dotage, illustrating that even at the last stage of his career, he had marshaled his resources carefully enough to provide for himself and his extended family.

For a student of the music business, the book is a rich repository of Brown's dealings with all levels of the industry. …

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