James Brown was never a big man, but even as a troubled young man growing up in abject poverty, he was larger than life. RJ Smith's The One: The Life and Music of James Brown crackles with the same intensity Brown used to overcome his destitute beginnings to become the Godfather of Soul, who could whip audiences into a sweat-drenched frenzy with his primal screams and electrifying dance moves.
PHOTOS: James Brown through the years
"He was pint-size, lacking a formidable build, but Brown compensated with a way of moving that gave off waves of energy," writes Smith, a music writer based in Los Angeles. "Even as a teenager, he was able to command attention just by skimming along. He communicated that he was not to be trifled with."
Brown, who was born in Barnwell, S.C., in 1933, was the hardest-working man in show business (at his peak, he did more than 330 one-nighters a year), but he was also a hard man to work for and an even harder one to live with. He was a taskmaster who kept his bands in line with fines, firings and fists. He was also a possessive, abusive womanizer. He had a need to be in control and have things his way. That was reflected in his music, which defied conventions with its driving rhythms. It reshaped R&B in the 1960s and 1970s and had lasting influence beyond.
Smith's excellent biography draws upon more than 100 interviews with band members and studio musicians, ex-wives and girlfriends, business associates, record executives and his inner circle of friends to piece together the story of a musical genius who became a cultural icon and a lightning rod for controversy. He grounds the story in the context of the times through which Brown lived — segregation, the civil rights movement, the disco era — and illustrates how events and social conditions influenced the choices he made.
Through firsthand accounts by those who knew him, Smith digs out the truth behind the many legends surrounding Brown (the genesis of the cape act; the motivations by the famed Boston concert in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination; rivalries with other singers). Those stories also explain Brown's obsession with grooming (he had his hair done every morning and before and after shows) and how his need to be the center of attention affected everything he did. He once told protégé Al Sharpton: "Whatever you do, don't follow the crowd. You got to stand alone and have your own style, your own way of doing things."
In later years, Brown found doing things his way increasingly difficult. In the late '70s, disco slowed his momentum, and his artistic progeny attracted younger fans. Smith chronicles his decline with the same rich detail that he traces the glory years. Despite sporadic hits and renaissances fueled by such films as The Blues Brothers and Rocky IV, the former trendsetter was suddenly desperate to keep up. Tax troubles, a tumultuous marriage to Adrienne Rodriguez and an addiction to PCP took their toll, but Brown was still performing a month before he died at 73 on Christmas 2006.