The One: The Life and Music of James Brown

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The definitive biography of James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, with fascinating findings on his life as a Civil Rights activist, an entrepreneur, and the most innovative musician of our time

Playing 350 shows a year at his peak, with more than forty Billboard hits, James Brown was a dazzling showman who transformed American music. His life offstage was just as vibrant, and until now no biographer has delivered a complete profile. The One draws on interviews with more than 100 ...

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The One: The Life and Music of James Brown

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The definitive biography of James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, with fascinating findings on his life as a Civil Rights activist, an entrepreneur, and the most innovative musician of our time

Playing 350 shows a year at his peak, with more than forty Billboard hits, James Brown was a dazzling showman who transformed American music. His life offstage was just as vibrant, and until now no biographer has delivered a complete profile. The One draws on interviews with more than 100 people who knew Brown personally or played with him professionally. Using these sources, award-winning writer RJ Smith draws a portrait of a man whose twisted and amazing life helps us to understand the music he made.

The One delves deeply into the story of a man who was raised in abject-almost medieval-poverty in the segregated South but grew up to earn (and lose) several fortunes. Covering everything from Brown's unconventional childhood (his aunt ran a bordello), to his role in the Black Power movement, which used "Say It Loud (I'm Black and Proud)" as its anthem, to his high-profile friendships, to his complicated family life, Smith's meticulous research and sparkling prose blend biography with a cultural history of a pivotal era.

At the heart of The One is Brown's musical genius. He had crucial influence as an artist during at least three decades; he inspires pity, awe, and revulsion. As Smith traces the legend's reinvention of funk, soul, R&B, and pop, he gives this history a melody all its own.

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Editorial Reviews

Janet Maslin
R J Smith does not have to explain why his big new biography of James Brown is such a showstopper. This book's sparkle speaks for itself, as does Mr. Smith's ability to take on his screaming, moaning, kinetically blessed, unbeatably shrewd subject…Some of these stories come from Mr. Brown's 1987 book, The Godfather of Soul, but Mr. Smith culls, shapes and amplifies them very well.
—The New York Times
Chris Richards
…a superb new biography of a tireless entertainer who spent decades tightening his grip on the boundless energy he radiated. While investigating the hardest-working man in showbiz, Smith breaks a sweat of his own. This is a meticulously researched book that tracks Brown's childhood in the segregated South, his rise as a musical innovator, his tangled relationship with the Black Power movement, his connections to a handful of U.S. presidents and his golden years, tarnished by debts and drugs. Like Brown's music, Smith's writing is both airtight and full of life, conversational and reflective.
—The Washington Post
Al Sharpton
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…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.
—The New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly
Drawing on in-depth interviews with Brown’s many friends and music partners, journalist Smith powerfully chronicles Brown’s rapid rise from his early days in Augusta, Ga., singing gospel through the pinnacle of his fame in the late 1960s and early 1970s to Brown’s sharp fall from grace in the 1990s with headline-grabbing arrests for domestic battery. Brown loved the spectacle of religion that the famous religious itinerant preacher, Daddy Grace, put on at the United House of Prayer in Augusta, and he learned rhythm from the house band there. Later, in his own shows, Brown got so caught up in the spectacle of entertaining that he became a force unto himself whose hungry passion and energy—expressed forcefully and fitfully through his trembling dancing and call-and response singing—transformed his audiences. Brown’s music still sounds so alive and continues to mystify because Brown brought others into a world he created that made his art a total experience. Through the pulsing rhythms of “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” the funky, hypnotic beat of “(Get on the) Good Foot,” and the Black Power anthem, “Say It Loud,” Brown, as Smith demonstrates, reshaped rhythm and blues, pumping it full of an energy that moved listeners to ecstasy. Smith’s compelling and detailed portrait of one of our greatest musicians reveals affectionately and honestly the reasons we jump up every time “I Feel Good” comes on the radio. (Mar.)
Stephen Davis

"Unh! Good God! RJ Smith has written a sex machine of a book and it''s called The One: The Life and Music of James Brown. Get up-get on up!"

The Boston Globe

"The One: The Life and Music of James Brown crackles with the same kind of exuberant energy that explodes out of grooves of one of the Godfather of Soul's classic sides."

"This bio should be a cornerstone of soul-music-literature collections."
Atlanta Journal Constitution

One of the "Best New Books Around the South"

Los Angeles Magazine

“Smith never loses the beat.”
Rolling Stone

“The rhythm revolutionary who changed pop forever finally gets he bio he deserves...A biography as illuminating as it is definitive.” (4.5 Stars)
ELLE Magazine

"The late James Brown famously said, 'The one thing that can solve most of our problems is dancing.' Not your bag? Read The One (Gotham), RJ Smith’s supreme, sublime biography of the Godfather of Soul—son of the segregated South, social activist, go-for-broke businessman, self-professed thug—and you’ll get up offa that thing."

“The imperatives of biography are to record, to correct and to carve out historical significance, and Smith’s lively account succeeds on all three fronts.”
New York Post

“Required Reading”
Philadelphia Inquirer

"RJ Smith's authoritative, keenly intelligent bio of one of the most protean of American musical giants."
The New York Times

"[A] showstopper...This book's sparkle speaks for itself."
The Christian Science Monitor

“R.J. 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.”
Associated Press Staff

"Unflinching portrait of the conflicted and contradictory superstar...untangl[es] the psychological elements that came together to make James Brown, tracing his almost prescient ability to read audiences back to his days dancing for spare change from sailors and growing up in Georgia with a violent, unpredictable father.”
On Point

“Great telling of a really interesting man...captures the rhythm of the man”
Library Journal
James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, was an absolutely electrifying live performer most famous for his work in the 1960s and 1970s, cranking out hit after hit from "Please Please Please" to "I Got You (I Feel Good)." In this ambitious biography, Smith (The Great Black Way: L.A. in the 1940s and the Last African American Renaissance) covers Brown's rags-to-riches saga, from his hardscrabble youth to the sad events near the end of his life. In his heyday, he was perhaps the most popular African American artist with a positive message, "I'm Black and I'm Proud," which was an anthem during the civil rights era. In his personal life, Brown had many brushes with the law and struggled with substance abuse. Through it all, he recorded and toured endlessly and earned his reputation as the "hardest working man in show business." VERDICT Overall, this is a well-researched and well-written biography. It doesn't pull any punches and hits all the high and low points of Brown's remarkable life. Highly recommended for all soul music collections. [See Prepub Alert, 9/19/11.]—Bill Walker, Stockton-San Joaquin Cty. P.L., Stockton, CA
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781592407422
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 11/6/2012
  • Pages: 464
  • Sales rank: 206,971
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

RJ Smith has been a senior editor at Los Angeles magazine, a contributor to Blender, a columnist for The Village Voice, a staff writer for Spin, and has written for GQ, The New York Times Magazine, and Men's Vogue. His first book, The Great Black Way: LA in the 1940s and the Lost African- American Renaissance, was a Los Angeles Times bestseller and recipient of a California Book Award. He lives in Los Angeles.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Give The Drummer Some 1

Chapter 1 A Certain Elemental Wildness 7

Chapter 2 The Terry 18

Chapter 3 The Black Satchel 33

Chapter 4 Toccoa 44

Chapter 5 A New Orleans Choo-Cuoo 62

Chapter 6 Top Banana 77

Chapter 7 The Traveler 97

Chapter 8 Star Time 108

Chapter 9 Keep On Fighting 122

Chapter 10 The Cape Act 140

Chapter 11 Man's World 153

Chapter 12 Guost Notes 167

Chapter 13 America 185

Chapter 14 How You Gonna Get Respect? 202

Chapter 15 Color TVS and Dasuikis 217

Chapter 16 The Other Further 229

Chapter 17 Master of Time 245

Chapter 18 Soul Power 261

Chapter 19 Follow the Money 274

Chapter 20 Emulsified 292

Chapter 21 The Hustle 308

Chapter 22 I Can See the Light! 324

Chapter 23 An Uproar All the Time 340

Chapter 24 The Dancer 355

Chapter 25 Hit It and Quit It 362

Afterword 381

List of Interviewees 389

Other Interviews Used 391

Notes 393

Acknowledgments 441

Index 445

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 6 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 30, 2013

    the first chapter starts by making heroes out of escaped slaves

    the first chapter starts by making heroes out of escaped slaves for killing white women and children.  at the end of the first chapter he
    goes on to call the 1 and the 3 the upbeats of the measure and says that there is an accent on the three in funk too.  this is infuriating to
    me because its getting such great reviews.  the author should have done some research before trying to write the definitive biography on
    a legend.  the best book on james brown ive seen is the funk masters, it is based on fact and actually breaks down the rhythm sections 
    with sheet music for most of his big hits. 

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  • Posted January 25, 2013

    Just as James Brown himself..........this book is Superbad!!!!!!

    Just as James Brown himself..........this book is Superbad!!!!!!!!!!

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  • Posted July 1, 2012

    I don't think that I can categorize myself as a James Brown &quo

    I don't think that I can categorize myself as a James Brown "fan". His music has just always been there as a part of my life. From my parents albums to the samples used in the hip-hop music I later gravitated towards as a young adult.

    While the subtitle says "Life And Music", this book is more of a memoir of Brown as a musician and businessman, covering his entrepreneurial spirit from boyhood on. His personal and family life is not covered with as much scrutiny. That's probably for the better, because, although he was know to be gracious to children (his own and strangers), he was not that kind to the women in his life.

    The stories of him as a strict bandleader are legendary and those are included. Hearing about his creating and recording process was enlightening, especially since his career spanned so many decades and he had to reinvent himself several times. What I found really interesting was the political and socially conscious James Brown. I wasn't aware of his close ties with President Nixon and Vice President Hubert Humphrey and it was difficult reconciling this James Brown with the one who wrote "Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud).

    Exhaustive interviews provide a comprehensive look at how he became one of the hardest working men ever in entertainment. This is a must-read for anyone who loves contemporary music. The author is obviously a big fan of music, because sometimes his descriptions border on the poetic.

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  • Posted April 6, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    The Com­plex per­son­al­ity of a Musi­cal Titan

    The One: The Life and Music of James Brown by RJ Smith is a biog­ra­phyof the God­fa­ther of Soul. The title “The One” refers mainly to the artist’s empha­sis on play­ing the right beat.

    An inte­grated biog­ra­phy of James Brown with fas­ci­nat­ing insights into the artist’s life, show­man­ship, busi­ness ven­tures and activism. With more than forty hits on the Bill­board charts and play­ing 350 shows a year at his peak it is no won­der James Brown became an icon of Amer­i­can music and changed the industry.

    Cov­er­ing a life of a man whose eccen­tric child­hood included tak­ing sol­diers to his aunt that ran a house of ill repute, to an adult­hood which he man­aged to lose sev­eral for­tunes, this biog­ra­phy is com­pli­cated, sin­cere and will make you feel a range of emotions.

    The One: The Life and Music of James Brown by RJ Smith is a true tes­ta­ment that the nick­name of “The Hard­est Work­ing Man in Show Busi­ness” is not an empty ges­ture. While I don’t think I’d like to have worked with Mr. Brown or even would have liked him per­son­ally, I can cer­tainly appre­ci­ate and even admire his work ethic.

    In this new biog­ra­phy, which digresses often but always stays on mes­sage, James Brown comes across as a demand­ing, vio­lent, abus­ing and demand­ing man. How­ever, this giant of music grew up in vio­lent times; shaped by a seg­re­gated South in a rural com­mu­nity rid­dled with crime and poverty, which he never for­got and had had a hold on him.

    When you’re a ham­mer, every prob­lem looks like a nail.
    And James Brown was a hammer.

    You can­not have a biog­ra­phy of James Brown with­out men­tion­ing the Civil Rights move­ment. Mr. Brown saw “equal­ity” his way and accord­ing to his phi­los­o­phy, he always main­tained that once he’d be looked upon as a man, instead of a black man, he’d never be equal.

    Most of all, James Brown under­stood show­man­ship and con­trol. In the video below one could tell how he plays with the crowd – and he does it all like he did every­thing in life, under his own terms.

    “"I never thought they’d have a statue of you in Augusta– and fac­ing a con­fed­er­ate marker!”
    He touched [Al] Sharp­ton on the arm, say­ing, “And don’t for­get what I told you– I did it on my own terms. I never con­formed to Augusta; they had to con­form to me”

    The com­plex per­son­al­ity of this musi­cal titan comes across through the pages. From bran­dish­ing a gun to resolve dis­putes to pick­ing up young fans with his lim­ou­sine or from pro­fil­ing those who worked for and/or against Mr. Brown (yes… and) to a fab­u­lous story of Mr. Brown com­ing home to the town he loved, Augusta, GA only to be stopped by a fan and then hoist­ing a sign to wel­come the young man’s mother who was on the same flight (I think).

    Race rela­tions and civil rights are really the strong point in this book. Through the life of James Brown the reader gets a his&#17

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 25, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted May 8, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

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