James Brown’s life was as deep and mythic as his celebrated groove. In the magisterial, rollicking biography The One: The Life and Music of James Brown, former SPIN staff writer RJ Smith goes further than anyone ever has in getting to the formidable, often contradictory essence of the Godfather of Soul. Rich with novelistic detail and revealing reporting, the book also serves as a history-text-in-disguise, using Brown’s story as a prism through which to view race, politics, Southern identity, and the music business. Like the man himself, The One encompasses multitudes, and it is SPIN’s pick for Best Music Book of 2012. Read on for our conversation with Smith, as well as the rest of our choices for the year’s top music books.
Did you set out to assert or correct any specific notions about James Brown with The One?
I went in with a pretty clear knowledge that he intimidated lots of writers into either not going in certain directions or only telling part of what they saw, and I wanted to give a fuller picture and put in what Brown was good at keeping out. But I didn’t have a fleshed-out agenda of things I wanted to say.
Given that Brown was so strong-willed about controlling his image, was it hard to get those close to him to share information with you?
That was an ongoing thing. With his family, the problem is that it’s somewhat divided; different children and relatives are not all on the same page about what’s happening with the estate and who’s getting different amounts of money. More or less, there’s one spokesperson for the children, his daughter Deanna, and the rest of the kids defer to her. But Tomi Rae, his last wife, was definitely helpful and very talkative and a very important person for me to speak to. It’s funny: My assumption was that there would be racial issues, because he’s such an icon and a powerful embodiment of blackness. I thought that would be an issue approaching people who didn’t know me. But by far the biggest issue was the Southern thing, which wasn’t about being black or white. It was about going to Augusta, Georgia, or towns in South Carolina, and people who didn’t know me, white or black, not being inclined to speak. I had to go back a few times, and every time I’d go back to a town, people would be a little more likely to talk, and finally they’d sit down, and the third time we’d talk they really started saying interesting stuff. It was a “You’re not from around here” vibe that took time to overcome.
We think of Brown as this almost archetypal American figure. Were you surprised by how central his specifically Southern background was to his identity?
Here’s a guy who was born and died within a half-hour drive of the same spot. He lived a lot of his life within 45 minutes or an hour of the place he was born [in Barnwell, South Carolina]. So the region meant a huge amount to him, and I really had to go there and read a hell of a lot to even begin to understand what it meant to him and means to people there now. I had no idea of the tradition of a very particular kind of violence in South Carolina and Georgia that touched him and touched other people from that region — like Strom Thurmond. There’s a number of really amazing, interesting books and essays and crazy renegade accounts of eye-gougings and street-corner wrestling brawls and duels. Violence touched the lives of anybody who grew up in Brown’s area. CONTINUE READING ARTICLE