It would be criminal for a rhythm-free creature like me to believe he could fathom the funk of the late, great James Brown. Yet I do, thanks to an aging CD collection and a new Brown biography, The One. Heavily researched and richly drawn, RJ Smith’s book details Brown’s rocky path from shoe shine boy to Soul Brother Number One. Born to poverty and abuse, young James Brown led the thug life in the segregated South before stomping onstage and hammering out a vamp. From there it was nothing but struggle as the often loutish performer mesmerizes audiences with his energy and sound. James Brown didn’t just make music. He perpetrated it. Famous for the fines he imposed on his hired musicians, it’s said that when he was spinning around onstage, he was just checking up on the band behind him. The One is chock full of such tidbits, (Brown’s puzzlement at a young zonked-out bassist by the name of Bootsie Collins is worth the price of a download alone.) And they didn’t call him "Mr. Dynamite" for nothing. Like the music he forged, Brown was explosive. He ran his band with a dictator’s hiss and, sadly, slapped around his many women. But under a spotlight, the man could summon hellfire and holy soul, hold rowdy crowds enraptured and read the rhythm and a room like a master magician. My favorite scene is one in which Brown and entourage roll away from a concert in a stretch limo. A cluster of fans chases the car on foot and when one kid outlasts all others, Brown orders the chauffeur to pull over and pick up the panting fan. For the next few miles, "The Godfather of Soul" lectured the boy on staying in school, before slipping him a few hundred dollar bills and kicking him out of his car. A moment of grace from a man who, in his later years, grew fond of smoking PCP (“GO-rilla”, he called it). Oh well, since when are pioneers perfect? They’re not and though James Brown was not a model citizen, he did enrich this planet with his highly communicable funk and oh so tortured soul.
Not bad for a kid who grew up in a brothel.