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Biographer R.J. Smith on getting a 360-degree portrait of James Brown, good foot and bad

Revolution of the Mind

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Six years after James Brown's death, the legacy of the funk-soul pioneer remains a topic of great scrutiny and fascination. Just last week in Nashville, Brown's former sideman Joseph Davis hosted an event featuring archival clips as well as Davis' own recollections of performing with the trailblazing taskmaster. This week, author, critic and journalist R.J. Smith will appear 6:30 p.m. Thursday, April 5, at Parnassus Books to discuss his groundbreaking biography The One: The Life and Music of James Brown. Smith recently spoke to the Scene by phone from Los Angeles.

How long did it take you to complete this work, and why did you decide at this time to do a James Brown volume?

The book represents four to five years of research. I can't think of anyone in my lifetime who has captured my attention in the manner James Brown has, or whose music has been as important. I wanted people to know all the things about him and his music, and go far beyond the surface in terms of his importance and accomplishments. Once I got started, things just began to snowball in terms of what I discovered, and who I needed to speak with in terms of getting a deeper understanding.

You were able to get more than 100 close associates of Brown to speak candidly about him. Did you anticipate that cooperation?

You never know when you're going into something whether things will work out as you hoped. This is the biggest project I've ever done, and I didn't really know whether people would be willing to share their thoughts and feelings, or if they would trust me enough to be candid. I was very pleased with the results, and sometimes surprised because of the openness. Once they started talking, it seems their thoughts and reflections just kept flowing, and they weren't wary about telling these stories. That openness certainly resulted in getting the type of information and writing the book I wanted to write.

There are extremely detailed and graphic stories, not all of them positive, regarding Brown's conduct and actions. Did you use all the material you had, and were there any times or incidents where you felt it necessary to sanitize anything you were told?

I wanted this book to represent 360 degrees of James Brown. I wanted a total portrait of the man. I discovered his life was even more incredible and his many experiences more amazing than I thought. I didn't know what people were going to say, but it turned out people were telling me so many things about him that I couldn't use all of it. What I did was pick the best of the stories about different incidents and personalities. I wanted to show was it like to be with him on the road, at home and in the studio. I discovered what a remarkable person he was on so many levels, how when he walked into a room the atmosphere immediately changed. But there's also a dark side, and I didn't sanitize those accounts. What I didn't want to do was overdo anything, and even in that section there were multiple stories about less than desirable things that happened in his life. You neither want to repeat yourself or ignore anything, so it was a balancing process on every front.

I discovered what a genius he was in the studio, and how sharp he could be in terms of making music. Another story that really deserves a separate book concerns the level of musicianship within his band. I spoke with so many of his great musicians, and I wanted to focus on the drummers, because that's the source of the rhythm. I learned just how deeply his music is linked with New Orleans. One of his earliest drummers, Charles Connor, is still alive and lives in Los Angeles. He was born in New Orleans and played with Professor Longhair and many of the original New Orleans guys, then later with Little Richard. Connor talked at length on the New Orleans influence. So a lot of that has found its way into James Brown's music. You really can't overstate the role of rhythm and importance of the drummers in what he did. It's at the heart of all his great songs.

You also extensively discuss James Brown as he reacted and responded to changing politics. It seemed he veered in many directions. Can the standard labels of liberal, moderate or conservative be applied to him?

Like a lot of us, his politics tended to be all over the place. I don't think there's any question that at the tail end of his life he leaned more toward the Republican Party than the Democratic Party. Yet if you sat and talked with him for a short while, you would quickly discover that he's not a standard or strict Republican by any means, especially in terms of what that means today. James Brown was first and foremost very much an individualist, someone who believed in and stressed self-reliance. He got involved with the civil rights movement, but I don't think he would ever have been comfortable being tagged as an activist in the strictest sense. He was certainly aware of discrimination and racism, and he had to deal with them at different times throughout his life. I think perhaps the most important thing for him would be the ability to create and do things for yourself. That was why he was drawn to business, and why he emphasized being in control over his music and life more than anything. His politics were as complex as his life. I don't believe that he could be pigeonholed in any way.

Now that you've completed the work, besides the obvious goals of wanting people to read it and the book to do well, what do you hope it accomplishes?

Despite everything that's previously been written, and even with what I've done, I think people are still just scratching the surface of James Brown in terms of what he really means to American music. I hope that I've added something to the legacy, and hopefully have in some instances clarified or straightened out some things where there might be misgivings or misinformation. I don't think it is possible to overstate just how important James Brown is to American culture. My goal is to start a new chapter on James Brown, one that goes even deeper into who he was, and why he matters so much in so many ways.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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