BOOK REVIEW by Rev. AL SHARPTON -- THE ONE: The Life and Music of James Brown, by R. J. Smith (603 hits)
REVIEWED BY AL SHARPTON, N.Y. TIMES, June 3, 2012 -- When James Brown’s children and I brought his body back to Harlem from Georgia after his untimely death in 2006, tens of thousands greeted us in the streets upon our arrival. There were no stars, no concerts; just everyday folks paying homage to the Godfather of Soul (and so much more) in person. As we laid him in state at the Apollo Thea¬ter, we took a moment to absorb this extraordinary show of support. I remember walking the streets of Harlem and shaking hands with many gathered outside the Apollo that day, and I’ll never forget a writer who came up to me and said he was shocked by the sheer numbers of people, and taken aback by how much of a revered figure James Brown was.
People were often surprised at his relevance, but James never doubted his own significance, or the fact that he was a historic figure and an undeniably game-changing artist. His showmanship and art altered the music world. But James didn’t bring blacks to the mainstream; instead, he brought the mainstream to blacks and made them appreciate and internalize black music and culture themselves. “The One: The Life and Music of James Brown,” by RJ Smith, is the first book to capture this remarkable reality.
For years, writers have attempted to tell James’s story and to dissect his complex and multilayered life. Either too naïve or just unaware of the nuances of societal challenges and cultural norms alike, they failed to fully grasp the depth of value that James and his music played in transforming American life as a whole. Going to great lengths researching and interviewing those closest to the music icon (myself included), Smith not only effortlessly highlights James’s unmatched musical career, but also provides a well-studied historical context for the basis of his artistic expression. Chronicling the legacy of resistance through music, Smith explains how James’s artistry was closely linked to the struggle for civil rights as well as the cultural expression of blacks, from Africa through slavery and the journey into the 20th century. It would after all be impossible to discuss 20th-century music and the civil rights/black power movement without putting James Brown at the top of that list. And “The One” is the first serious book to explain precisely why.
When you reflect on the life and legacy of James Brown, it cannot be explained without taking into account the period in which he was raised and the experiences that shaped his identity. But just as important is how he incorporated his social/political views into his music in a way that was soulful and entertaining beyond belief. Smith, the author of “The Great Black Way,” accurately tells us about the rhythm, the beat, the “one” that moved James, and how his every dance move invoked the spirit of something bigger than himself. Though I disagree with some of the conclusions and some of the facts in the book, “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.
As powerful as he was, James remained an enigma — much by his own desire. As one who was like a son to him, I know that he would rather be viewed as a puzzle no one could figure out, instead of someone whom everyone knew intimately. Though Smith makes a concerted effort to explain the events, people and places that shaped James’s identity, he falls a bit short in articulating why he was such a complicated figure, with varying personalities by design. But Smith redeems himself by correctly portraying him as perhaps the most significant American musician in modern history in terms of style, messaging, rhythm and originality.
By no means did James Brown have an easy ride on his road to exemplary success, nor did he enjoy a carefree existence. His life was made up of constant challenges and hurdles, but his perseverance and tenacity — coupled with sheer talent — provided the world with a lens on the American black experience. Though Smith touches on some of James’s family dynamics, he doesn’t really delve into the intricacies that James was dealing with. His family life, tumultuous at times, was important. There are also only passing references in this book to James’s involvement with the black church. As one who witnessed his intense dedication to the church firsthand, I can attest that it was by no means insignificant or minute.
“The One” thrives in highlighting how James’s irrefutable genius and artistry transcended social blockades and eventually drew audiences from all sectors of society. The funk originator never compromised his roots and never sold out in order to be accepted; rather, he made the world revolve around him. But despite his tremendous achievements, his success was still limited. One area where Smith could have dug deeper is in discussing the Godfather’s direct interplay with competing artists at his peak, as well as how he dealt with the notion of becoming an aging musician while watching Michael Jackson and others take bits of his panache and find commercial success.
It’s never easy to fully comprehend a man’s life, especially when that man lived such a rich and multi¬faceted one. Many have tried, but it appears Smith is perhaps the only one who has been able to put James in the proper context of his contribution to both pop culture and our way of life. As “The One” clearly proves, James not only made us black and proud, but he made America start to accept and be proud of all that we had to offer. The ¬hardest-working man in showbiz epitomized entertainment, but he also possessed a soul rooted deeply in equality and justice for his people. And he carried that mantra with him every time he stepped onstage, every time he created a new song and all throughout his astonishing career.
He not only changed black music; he changed all music and put the entire planet on a new beat.
For those who simply do not know the legacy of James Brown, I recommend reading Smith’s book, for it will give you an unparalleled view into the man, the consummate entertainer, his music and us as a nation. History often tends to gloss over our accomplishments and the environments that helped create moments of brilliance. When it comes to James, “The One” reads over all as a concise depiction of an unconventional man out to make his message resonate with whoever would listen.
I remember James Brown used to tell me that he took the world from a two-four beat to the one. I still don’t know exactly what that means, but I know when I hear it, and I do know that RJ Smith has written the one.
You on a roll with the classic hit!!!
My parents love "James Brown" they often talked about how they waited in line as youngsters for blocks at the Apollo to hear the "Godfather of Soul"!!!!!!
Sunday, June 3rd 2012 at 12:33PM
Well RJ Smith's book on James was reviewed in today's NY Times. I read Rev. Al's review--and he liked it. so that put me in the mood to hear "I FEEL GOOD" one more time--and marvel at how James could hit that quivering shimering high note in 'WHEN I HOLD YOU...IN MY ARMS..."