© 2024 Texas Public Radio
Real. Reliable. Texas Public Radio.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The Passionate, Turbulent Life Of James Brown

James Brown used to tell people that even being stillborn as a child couldn't stop him. He rose to the highest heights in the music industry and stayed there longer than most. But in the end he succumbed to atrocious financial planning, a drug habit and a violent temper.

RJ Smith, author of the new biography The One: The Life and Music of James Brown, tells NPR's Guy Raz that Brown believed he was indestructible.

Smith says, "Having been through as much in his life as he went through — criminal experiences, been up and down with the music industry, made millions, lost millions — I think on some level he felt whatever happened happened, and he couldn't die."

Raised by a violent father, Brown's upbringing in Augusta, Georgia was turbulent. His mother left, his aunt was a prostitute and Brown was constantly in trouble for stealing or fighting.

During an early stint in prison, Brown listened to a lot of music. "I think he heard a lot of gospel," says Smith, "that he was listening to before, but never so much as when he was in prison with a radio stuck to his head. They called him Music Box in prison as a teenager. And he was in a gospel group when he was in prison. He started to understand, singing gospel, what power he had over an audience."

RJ Smith has written about music for the likes of <em>Spin</em>, <em>Blender</em> and <em>The Village Voice. </em>He is also the author of <em>The Great Black Way: L.A. in the 1940s and the Last African American Renaissance</em>.
Jeff Golden / Gotham Books
Gotham Books
RJ Smith has written about music for the likes of Spin, Blender and The Village Voice. He is also the author of The Great Black Way: L.A. in the 1940s and the Last African American Renaissance.

Brown began his career in the segregated South of the 1950s. During those early years, he pounded what's known as the Chitlin' circuit, a series of ramshackle venues that hosted black performers scattered throughout the U.S.

"Those were audiences that were desperate to be entertained," says Smith. "They spent their hard-earned dollar, and if you didn't entertain them, they would let you know fast."

Brown closely studied those audiences' reactions. "He knew when an audience was turning away from a song before they did," says Smith. "He would cut it off in the middle of a tune, and go to the next one."

His first big hit was "Please, Please, Please," a song he closed his sets with for years. And from the very beginning, Brown separated himself from other R&B singers with this song.

"There's something misleadingly familiar and almost generic about it," says Smith about the doo-wop harmony track. "But the way that he sings it, over-the-top with emotion, he was losing something important to him as he sang it. And you can feel it."

The title of Smith's biography refers to the specific beat — the one — that gives funk its distinctive character.

"The one, in a way, is the essence of James Brown," says Smith. "It's about that first beat of the measure that Brown wanted emphasized at all times ... A lot of pop music was emphasizing the two and the four. He came in hard from the beginning. He wanted to get your attention right away."

But the one was also a philosophy for Brown. "He would talk about living in the one, and feeling the one, being in the one," says Smith. "It has to do with living in the moment and inhabiting the space around you. That's all you've got, is this moment. Who knows what will happen later? You've got to be with the one."

As Brown became increasingly famous, his political consciousness deepened. He eventually got involved with the Black Power movement.

"He wanted to change things," says Smith. "He felt an intense feeling of responsibility to his audience to African Americans everywhere. He respected Dr. King, but he didn't come from the same place Dr. King did. He came at it his own way."

Smith admits that Brown's politics were often messy and difficult to understand. Brown wrote the lyrics "Say it loud / I'm black and I'm proud," but he was critical of the Black Panther Party as often as he aligned himself with them.

Smith says, "Here was somebody who endorsed Hubert Humphrey when he was running against Richard Nixon. And then when Nixon got the nomination and the victory, he quickly endorsed Richard Nixon."

Smith interviewed over 100 people who knew Brown while researching this biography. He says he got a different perspective on the artist from every source.

"James Brown was a complicated, dangerous individual to be around," says Smith. "He frightened people. People saw things and heard things they wished they hadn't."

A boxer as a teenager, Brown knew how to use his fists. "He's using his fists to get what he wants from the musicians in his band," says Smith. "He used his fists many times against women in his life."

Domestic violence was a constant backdrop in Brown's life. His financial affairs were always troubled, and he fathered many children that he had no intention of raising. At one point, he became addicted to PCP.

Smith fears that late in Brown's life — especially when he went back to prison — the singer may have become a joke to some people. "That's horrible," says the author. "The things that he did in his life, clearly, he was not proud of. And they were wrong. And he often paid a price for them. But they come in the context of a life someone who grew up incredibly abused."

Despite the more seamier episodes in Brown's life, Smith argues that the soul godfather has never been topped as a performer. "Every decade he lived in, he changed the sounds around him," says Smith. "Nobody since him has approached him on the level of ability to control an audience, to shape their feelings, to bring every aspect of performing together for hours at a time."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.