The Life and Music of James Brown
The definitive biography of James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, with fascinating findings on his life as a Civil Rights activist, an entrepreneur, and the most innovative musician of our time
Playing 350 shows a year at his peak, with more than forty Billboard hits, James Brown was a dazzling showman who transformed American music. His life offstage was just as vibrant, and until now no biographer has delivered a complete profile. The One draws on interviews with more than 100 people who knew Brown personally or played with him professionally. Using these sources, award-winning writer RJ Smith draws a portrait of a man whose twisted and amazing life helps us to understand the music he made.
The One delves deeply into the story of a man who was raised in abject-almost medieval-poverty in the segregated South but grew up to earn (and lose) several fortunes. Covering everything from Brown's unconventional childhood (his aunt ran a bordello), to his role in the Black Power movement, which used "Say It Loud (I'm Black and Proud)" as its anthem, to his high-profile friendships, to his complicated family life, Smith's meticulous research and sparkling prose blend biography with a cultural history of a pivotal era.
At the heart of The One is Brown's musical genius. He had crucial influence as an artist during at least three decades; he inspires pity, awe, and revulsion. As Smith traces the legend's reinvention of funk, soul, R&B, and pop, he gives this history a melody all its own.
I’m not gonna show you the secret, James Brown would tell people who asked about the One, but . . . Then he would start talking.
Brown refused to reveal the mystery because the One was a trade secret. It would remain a puzzle because the more mystique it had, the more mystique he had, and mystique was good for business.
The One was a way to find yourself in the music, it was a means for drummers to come together with one another. It was a small element in a life’s work, but like the drip was to Jackson Pollock or the footnote to David Foster Wallace, for Brown the One was bigger than it first appeared, a trifling that embodied the world he made.
Maybe most of all, for James Brown, the One was an anchor, an upbeat that put him in touch with his past and who he had become.
As he once explained it: “The ‘One’ is derived from the Earth itself, the soil, the pine trees of my youth. And most important, it’s on the upbeat—ONE two THREE four—not the downbeat, one TWO three FOUR, that most blues are written. Hey, I know what I’m talking about! I was born to the downbeat, and I can tell you without question there is no pride in it. The upbeat is rich, the downbeat is poor. Stepping up proud only happens on the aggressive ‘One,’ not the passive Two, and never on lowdownbeat. In the end, it’s not about music—it’s about life.”
To Brown it was a heartbeat that connected him to the dancers and singers and time keepers who came before him. The One put him on a timeline, though the way he talked about the beat, it put him at the end of the line: the ultimate expression of a heritage.
He wasn’t gonna show you the secret. But if you listened . . .
“The One is the first of its kind to represent James as the social and cultural force he was, not just for black Americans but for all of America—in fact, all of the world… I recommend reading [The One] for it will give you and unparalleled view into the man, the consummate entertainer, his music, and us as a nation.” — Al Sharpton, The New York Times Book Review
“I recommend reading [The One] for it will give you an unparalleled view into the man, the consummate entertainer, his music, and us as a nation.” —Reverand Al Sharpton, The New York Times Book Review
“A showstopper. This book’s sparkle speaks for itself, as does Mr. Smith’s ability to take on his screaming, moaning, kinetically blessed, unbeatably shrewd subject.” —Janet Maslin, The New York Times
“As illuminating as it is definitive.” —Rolling Stone, 4.5 stars
“[A] supreme, sublime biography.” —ELLE
“RJ Smith may have come closer than anyone to understanding how James Brown became James Brown.” —The Christian Science Monitor
“The imperatives of biography are to record, to correct, and to carve out historical significance, and Smith’s lively account succeeds on all three fronts.” —Smithsonian
"The One: The Life and Music of James Brown crackles with the same kind of exuberant energy that explodes out of grooves of one of the Godfather of Soul's classic sides." -The Boston Globe
“Top Spring Music Choice” and a “…compelling and detailed portrait of one of our greatest musicians… Smith’s compelling and detailed portrait of one of our greatest musicians reveals affectionately and honestly the reasons we jump up every time ‘I Feel Good’ comes on the radio.” -Publisher's Weekly
"This bio should be a cornerstone of soul-music-literature collections." -Booklist
“Smith never loses the beat.” -Los Angeles Magazine
“Required Reading.” -New York Post
"RJ Smith's authoritative, keenly intelligent bio of one of the most protean of American musical giants." -Philadelphia Inquirer
"Unflinching portrait of the conflicted and contradictory superstar...untangl[es] the psychological elements that came together to make James Brown, tracing his almost prescient ability to read audiences back to his days dancing for spare change from sailors and growing up in Georgia with a violent, unpredictable father.” -Associated Press
“Great telling of a really interesting man...captures the rhythm of the man” -On Point, WBUR
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