DUMBO — On Thursday, March 22, from 7 to 9 p.m. at the powerHouse Arena, 37 Main St., Los Angeles-based music critic R.J. Smith will read and discuss his new biography of James Brown with writer Dave Tompkins.
In the early 1970s, a PolyGram Records press release announcing the signing of James Brown provided these remarkable statistics:
“James Brown will perform 335 days this coming year, losing as much as seven pounds each performance. In an average month, he will give away 5,000 autographed photos and 1,000 pairs of James Brown cuff links. He will wear 120 freshly laundered shirts and more than eight pairs of shoes. He will change his performing costume 150 times and will work over 80 hours on the stage, singing, dancing and playing at least 60 songs on one of more than eight instruments.”
According to Smith’s The One: The Life and Music of James Brown, the energy and tenacity described here can be applied to nearly all of Brown’s 50-year career and makes clear why he was known as “the hardest-working man in show business.” But how did Brown develop into this force of nature and what drove him to perform at such exhaustive levels night after night, year after year, even into his 70s, when he could have coasted as a legacy act?
Smith, an award-winning author and journalist, seeks to answer that question, delving into Brown’s painful and lonely childhood, his evolution as a performer, the sources that influenced his unique, unforgettable style, his family life, his forays into politics and business, and, most of all, his role as leader of the band.
To understand Brown, Smith suggests, one needs to understand “The One.” This was a type of beat with roots in slave rebellions and New Orleans funeral parades that was responsible for much of the James Brown sound, especially after 1965 or so. For Brown it was a way of existence, a philosophy for surviving and succeeding, musically and otherwise.
That will power also made Brown a difficult man to work for and live with. In the best light, Brown was a strict disciplinarian and taskmaster who brought the best out of his band. In the worst, he was a bully, an abuser, a womanizer, an absent father, and finally, a drug addict. Still, Smith asserts, Brown was a musical genius who should have been considered a greater talent than his white rock-and-roll counterpart, Elvis Presley.
The One provides a detailed history of rhythm and blues during the James Brown era — from Brown’s first hit “Please, Please, Please,” to the black power anthem “Say It Loud” and the patriotic “America is My Home,”
Smith also details Brown’s importance as an icon of black culture during the tumultuous 60s and 70s, including his encounters with Martin Luther King Jr., his presence during significant turning points of the civil rights movement, and his somewhat ambivalent support of its cause. According to Smith, “The idea of a mass movement, of an appeal based on shared beliefs rather than on superior individuality, was not in Brown’s makeup.”
Once an established star, Brown sought out political leaders and presidents, from Johnson to Nixon to Clinton, with mixed results, sometimes supporting their causes and sometimes seeking their intervention in his tax issues.
Whom Brown chose to support continually surprised his fans and the black community and helped create the aura of mystery that surrounds him to this day.
R.J. Smith is a Los Angeles-based writer. His first book, The Great Black Way: Los Angeles in the 1940s and the Lost African American Renaissance (Public Affairs) won a California Book Award in 2006. He also contributed to A New Literary History of America (Harvard University Press, 2009).
Dave Tompkins, a former columnist for The Wire, writes frequently about hip-hop and popular music. His work has appeared in Vibe, The Village Voice, The Believer and Wax Poetics.