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.
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Q: One of the most popular Super Bowl commercials this year featured his great song "Get Up Offa that Thing." It inspired me to look for the song online, and I found a brief and amazing video of him performing it on YouTube. He's in his 40s but dances like he's… well, my friend put it this way after watching it: "he certainly does shake that thing, doesn't he?" Where on earth did he find all that energy, that BAM! factor?Skip to next paragraph
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A: It came from fear. This was somebody who grew up with so little and with so little control over what he had that he was always aware everything could go away. All his money could disappear, and it did from time to time, and all his friends and love could disappear. He didn't take his talent for granted either. Every show was a test of his ability to still be him, still get the things he loved, the respect and the feedback.
Q: He grew up in Augusta, Ga., and spent much of his life there. What did you discover about Brown and his world there?
A: Augusta is very commercial. It's always been the waterfront, with a lot of cotton and tobacco, not only a port but a place of exchange. That must have had some kind of effect on Brown.
It's a place where people roll up their sleeves and go to work. You see that in Brown. He’s all about being the hardest-working man in show business.
Q: What I know about Augusta is from "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil": "We have a saying: If you go to Atlanta, the first question people ask you is, 'What's your business?' In Macon they ask, 'Where do you go to church?' In Augusta they ask your grandmother's maiden name. But in Savannah the first question people ask you is 'What would you like to drink?'" Was it hard to break through the bonds that hold people together in Augusta?
A: Going in, I wondered about the biggest obstacle I would encounter to doing interviews and having people be willing to sit down and talk.
I'm a white West Coast guy, and I'm not in any sense fluent in the South. I thought naively that the biggest obstacle would be the racial one, that I’d have to put people at ease.
In truth, I found it was that I wasn't from around there, wherever there was, most of all Augusta. I had to go there a lot and put people at ease. The fact that I was an outsider was the first thing, whatever color.
They were always incredibly polite and friendly, but they'd not want to talk to me until they'd seen me around a few times. That Southern thing was fascinating to me.
Q: Unlike some other black singers of his era, Brown didn't let his race speak silently for itself. He embraced and celebrated being black. What was behind that?