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.

Matt Dunham/STF/AP
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.

"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.

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.

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?

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?

A: Look at Aretha Franklin, whose music had lots of resonance but didn't feel comfortable sitting down with interviewers period, and wasn't going to talk about politics or candidates or the issues in any kind of divisive way.

Brown didn't mind being divisive. He spoke to everybody, he didn't mind stating an opinion, and he made sure that he had opinions and made sure you knew them.

The great thing was that as his success got bigger, he kept growing as a mind, a thinker, a public figure. When reporters started asking his opinion on issues, he made sure he could say something intelligent and useful. The only person who changed and had so many different sides that I can think of in culture would  again be Bob Dylan.

Q: Do you think his outrageousness was a hindrance?

A: For lots of people, he became a bit of a joke, someone who wasn't human. And that’s really sad.

Q: What's his best work?

A: Ultimately some of those live shows at the Apollo Theater, and one from Paris that’s incredible. You can sense his connection and closeness to the audience and the energy he picked up and projected back to them.

"Cold Sweat" is pretty hard to beat, Suddenly the pace is coming forward and each instrument is playing like a drum, whether it's a guitar or even Brown's voice. They're making a rhythmic pattern that when they all fit together it has this three-dimensional pull.

Q: What's his worst work? Was it around the era of disco?

A: He made some decent funk music in the late 1970s and into the 1980s, but he made too many bad attempts to be of the time with disco. He was at his best trying to be himself, whether he was of the moment or not.

Q: Do you think he was happy despite his life's troubles?

A: He was poor, and he was beaten a lot as a kid, and mocked for not having wearable clothes. Kids would take his overalls off him and throw them in the trees.
In the end, I know he had fun, he was capable of going out and enjoying himself. But by the '80s and the '90s, I think he was pretty lonely and not easy to be around.

Q: Where can we find his legacy now?

A: In many ways it's in hip-hop, the whole culture of pride and love of self in socially conscious ways. And certainly the ego, the huge lavish ego of a Kanye West.

It was much more socially acceptable after Brown was out there talking about himself in the third person and pumping himself up. There's this idea that any publicity is good publicity. That's part of why he liked his hair looking so crazy. He wanted to walk in a room and not have people say "Where is he?" but "There he is!"

He didn't care if people giggled a bit. He thought if you made a first impression you got people's attention. He didn't care what kind of noise he made as long as it was a loud one.

He was one of a kind.

Randy Dotinga is a Monitor correspondent.

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