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James Brown: the electrifying one and only

Journalist RJ Smith explores the magic and mayhem of James Brown in a new biography of the legendary performer.

By Randy Dotinga / March 16, 2012

James Brown "wanted to walk in a room and not have people say 'Where is he?' but 'There he is!,'" says journalist R.J. Smith said of James Brown.

Matt Dunham/STF/AP

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"This is a man's, a man's, a man's world," sang James Brown. But when he was on stage, it was one man's world and one alone. He danced like his pants were on fire and sang as if his soul felt the heat. If he felt good – and he did, never mind all those trials and tribulations, the drugs and the arrests, the grooves that he couldn't get back – you did too. RJ Smith, a Los Angeles-based music journalist and author of the new book The One: The Life and Music of James Brown, may have come closer than anyone to understanding how James Brown became James Brown. "This book’s sparkle speaks for itself, as does Mr. Smith’s ability to take on his screaming, moaning, kinetically blessed, unbeatably shrewd subject," wrote Janet Maslin in The New York Times.

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In an interview this week, Smith talked about the best of Brown's music, the singer's bold choices regarding race and the challenges Smith himself faced in getting Southerners to be more than just hospitable when he came a-knockin'.

Q: If a Martian landed in front of you and asked about James Brown, how would you describe him?

A: He's the ultimate intersection of singing, dancing and stagecraft. If you had one line for great performers, like a Fred Astaire or Michael Jackson, and another line for a great soulful vocalist, and another line for great people who knew how to command your attention, respect and response – at the intersection of all these lines would be James Brown.

He was one of the most important creative forces in the world in the 20th century, the rare artist who was able to be incredibly creative and transform the culture around him – somewhat in the '50s, hugely in the '60s and '70s, and somewhat in the '80s.

He had this amazing influence. Other than maybe Bob Dylan, I can't think of an artist who's done anything like that.

Q: Do you remember the first times you heard James Brown?

A: As a kid, I was the proverbial boy with the transistor radio glued to his ear and under my pillow at night. I remember there was one guy who didn't sound like everyone else on the radio. There I was in Detroit listening to Motown, and here he was with these screams, grunts and groans.

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