“Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud.” James Brown, whatever did y ou mean? In his contextual new book One: The Life and Music of James Brown, R.J. Smith attempts to demystify the highest-ranked soul brother. Here was a fascinatingly contradictory man who followed his patriotic 1967 hit America is My Home with the raised leather-fist of Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud), Pt. 1.
An intriguing exchange on the Mike Douglas Show on a summer afternoon in 1969, between guests Brown and David Susskind, gets to the issue of race and equality, and Brown’s motivations on the subject. Susskind, a talk-show host himself, had previously interviewed Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, and so, Smith writes, “had come to believe he knew how to connect with black people.”
When Susskind made a case for integration, Brown, born into a medieval sort of poverty in the backwoods of Jim Crow South Carolina before moving on at an early age to the wrong side of the tracks in Augusta, Ga., argued instead for “one America,” where playing fields were equal and where a man can make his way.
“Well, that would mean integration,” was Susskind’s withering response.
To that, Brown said: “No it won’t! It would mean America like it’s supposed to be. … Don’t integrate, don’t give me that. … I want communication! You see, I don’t want you to do it for me, I got to do it for myself.”
Had to do it himself, this black man in America abandoned by his mother at the age of 4. James Brown was all about looking out for number one, and he wanted to be left alone to do it.
In an attempt to form the bedrock conditions for the music and psyche that came to be, Smith’s book is front-loaded, with tons of details on Brown’s upbringing. The author initially lays it on a bit thick, saying that the singer’s being stillborn, as the story has it, was a “devastating entrance,” one that marked him as forever distinct.
If the being-born-dead thing weren’t enough to create a myth of invincibility, the story about Brown suffering an accidental electrocution at a filling station capped it. As Smith sees it, the episode created in the outcast schoolboy a sense that he could not be stopped. “He was told he was ugly, he was small, he didn’t even own a pair of store-bought britches,” Smith writes. “He was not like other folks … he bore a sign.”
There you have it: Brown was a modern-day Funkenstein, his electrifying nature easily explained.
To Brown’s 1986 worthy autobiography The Godfather of Soul, Smith adds on years and a wealth of they-were-there voices. (Such as Rev. Al Sharpton, who notes that Brown, no matter the weather, always carried a coat under his arm. Why? “Because he had a gun under it.”)
Critic Nelson George once noted that it was “simply impossible to resolve all the contradictions in James Brown.” Smith attempts to settle the ambiguities, admirably and exhaustibly – you want to drape a cape over his slumped shoulders when he’s done. It’s his conclusion that the misinterpret-able Brown simply wanted America to show him the same level of love afforded Elvis Presley.
Smith does an illuminating job of explaining the other “one,” the first beat – or downbeat – of every measure. We’re talking about funk music, which Brown, with the help of others, made a career of perpetually reinventing. Little Richard, in the mid-1950s, began urging his drummer to get in front of the band – to push the beat. Brown was a Richard acolyte, going so far as to making appearances under his hero’s name in the early days.
As a band leader, Brown was a notorious hard-ass. If he ever entered his band’s bus, it was to inspect it. He was imperious, a leader of rare and cruel powers who never acknowledged the contributions of others.
“He kept everybody on edge,” Smith writes, “and he was on edge most of all.” Or, as the renowned tour manager Alan Leeds put it: “There was nothing chill about him.”
And yet, for all his strong opinion and combativeness, Brown was not in the business of alienation. For example, Say It Loud was dropped from his set lists early on, for fear of estranging his sizable white audience. Brown was the likely the least guileless man in show business, for all his life taking from others – artistically, physically and financially.
Many catchphrases are associated with Brown, the least public one – “you got my money” – being the most important. Before he went on stage, we learn, the shoeshine boy who made good made a point of being paid upfront. The dollars (and the unfettered opportunity to make them) were his ruling force.
Brown, the I Don’t Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing singer, never wanted to be a self-made black man, he just wanted to be self-made. And if rags to riches couldn’t happen in the United States, where else?
OTHER NOTABLE MUSIC BIOGRAPHIES AND AUTOBIOGRAPHIES
Every Night’s a Saturday Night
By Bobby Keys (with Bill Ditenhafer), Counterpoint, 272 pages, $25
Texas rock ’n’ roll saxophonist recounts high times with the Stones, Lennon and others.
Starts with: “Music. It’s been my driving force.”
Ends with: “But hell, if I’m gonna play a wrong note, I’m gonna play it with as much conviction as I have. Because that’s rock ’n’ roll.”
When I Left Home
By Buddy Guy (with David Ritz), Da Capo, 265 pages, $29
Legendary blues guitarist goes from sharecropper’s shack in Louisiana to the top of the Chicago scene.
Starts with: “So here I am – a 75-year-old man sitting on a bar stool in [my] blues club, trying to figure out exactly how I got here.”
Ends with: “Even when the blues is sad, it turns your sadness to joy. And ain’t that a beautiful thing?”
My Cross to Bear
By Gregg Allman (with Alan Light), Morrow, 378 pages, $27.99
A candid self-portrait of the Whipping Post-singing surviving Allman brother, a man more complicated than generally perceived.
Starts with: “It should have been the greatest week of my life, but instead I hit an all-time low. ... I was drunk, man, just [totally] drunk, the entire time.”
Ends with: “I wouldn’t trade [my life] for nobody’s, but I don’t know if I’d do it again. ”
Brad Wheeler writes about music for The Globe and Mail.