Music Interviews
12:22 pm
Sat March 31, 2012

The Passionate, Turbulent Life Of James Brown

Originally published on Sun April 1, 2012 4:48 pm

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."

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."

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Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

And if you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. And it's time now for music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I GOT YOU")

JAMES BROWN: (Singing) Whoa, I feel good.

RAZ: James Brown.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I GOT YOU")

BROWN: (Singing) I knew that I would now.

RAZ: Enough said.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I GOT YOU")

BROWN: (Singing) I feel good. I knew that I would now.

RAZ: James Brown's music is known around the world, his story less so. Biographer RJ Smith has just released an eye-opening account of Brown's rise and eventual downfall in the book "The One: The Life and Music of James Brown." As Smith writes, James Brown's worldview was shaped by a story he'd been told as a child, that he'd been born dead and miraculously brought back to life.

RJ SMITH: He was somebody who should not have been alive. He was born under a bad sign, as the blues men say. And he had that vibe with him, I think.

RAZ: He believed he was indestructible, in a way.

SMITH: He - having been born dead, having been through as much in his life as he went through, criminal experiences, then 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. He was indestructible.

RAZ: His life story, as it becomes very clear early in your book, is made for a film. His incredibly difficult upbringing in Augusta, Georgia, his father was unbelievably violent. His mother left. James Brown ended up in trouble all the time for stealing or fighting. He spends time in prison.

SMITH: Yes.

RAZ: In fact, in prison, he becomes the guy that he eventually would be.

SMITH: Absolutely. I think he heard a lot of music in prison. I think he heard a lot of gospel. And he was in a gospel group when he was in prison, and he started to understand singing gospel, what power he had over an audience.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOST SOMEONE")

BROWN: (Singing) Help me. Help me. I'm so weak. Gee whiz, I love you. I'm so weak. I'll love you tomorrow. I, I lost someone.

RAZ: Tell me about the early days of his career, the 1950s we're talking about. He's in the South, the segregated South. Who's going to see his shows? How is he getting attention?

SMITH: Yeah. Any way he can, he's getting attention. It would be people who work hard for a living, African-Americans, almost exclusively for sure, on what sometimes gets called the Chitlin Circuit - barns and huts and shacks and, you know, trashed out spaces that got cleaned out fast - and they put up a little stage, and they had a show that night. And those are audiences that were desperate to be entertained. They spent their hard-earned dollar. And if you didn't entertain them, they would let you know fast.

RAZ: His first big hit was a song called...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE")

BROWN: (Singing) Please, please, please, please.

RAZ: You write that this is really where James Brown separates himself from the other R&B singers at the time.

SMITH: Yeah. You know, there's something misleadingly familiar and almost generic about it. It's a doo-wop vocal harmony song. But the way that he sings it, over the top with emotion, he was losing something important to him, and you could feel it. All he can do is repeat that word over and over, like 26 times, I think. He took it over the top.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE")

SMITH: (Singing) Now you're gone. Please, please, please, please, please.

RAZ: I'm speaking with RJ Smith. He's written a new biography of James Brown, and it's called "The One." RJ, the title of your book refers to the beat that gives funk its character. Describe what the one is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOTHER POPCORN")

BROWN: (Singing) Yeah, yeah, yeah.

SMITH: You know, the one, in a way, is the essence of James Brown. It's a musical term on one level. It's about that first beat of the measure that Brown wanted emphasized at all times. And he just - I think it had to do with wanting to come in strong and fast in a song. I think a lot of pop music was emphasizing the two, the four. He came in hard from the beginning. He wanted to get your attention right away.

RAZ: You call the song "Mother Popcorn" the sound of the one.

SMITH: Mm. You can feel the weight of the first beat in that measure. It's like a wrecking ball hitting on that one.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOTHER POPCORN")

BROWN: (Singing) See. You got to have a mother for me. Yeah, yeah, yeah, popcorn.

SMITH: But beyond that, I think the one was a philosophical thing to him. He would talk about living in the one and feeling the one, being in the one, and it has to do with living in the moment, inhabiting the space around you. It's all you've got is this moment. Who knows what will happen later? You've got to be with the one.

RAZ: As James Brown became more and more famous, his political consciousness develops more deeply. Eventually, he gets involved in the Black Power movement.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAY IT LOUD - I'M BLACK AND PROUD")

BROWN: (Singing) Say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud.

RAZ: Tell me about his political activity.

SMITH: His politics were a mess. 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, supported him.

He was somebody who was all over the map. He wanted to change things. He felt an intense feeling of responsibility to his audience, to African-Americans everywhere, and here's somebody who said: Say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud. At the same time, he was both aligned with Black Panthers and Black Power ideas and very critical of them. He came at it his own way.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAY IT LOUD - I'M BLACK AND PROUD")

BROWN: (Singing) I worked on jobs with my feet and my hand. But all the work I did was for the other man. And now we demand the chance to do things for ourselves. We're tired of beating our head against the wall and working for someone else. Say it loud.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: I'm black and proud.

RAZ: You interviewed more than 100 people who knew James Brown and who were in his orbit. What kind of person was he? I mean, how did people describe him on a personal level?

SMITH: You know, what was interesting to me was whoever I talked to - whether they really wanted to talk or didn't - didn't tell me everything they knew, because James Brown was a complicated, a dangerous individual to be around. He frightened people. And people saw things and heard things they wish they hadn't.

RAZ: When you say dangerous and he frightened people, how so?

SMITH: Well, he was somebody who knew how to use his fists. As a teenager, he was a boxer. He thought about pursuing that. When he becomes a musician and is on that course in his life, he's still using his fists. He's using his fists to get what he wants from the musicians in his band. He's using his fists to become the leader of the band. That wasn't given at the beginning. He used his fists many times against the women in his life.

RAZ: Of course. And domestic violence was always in the backdrop...

SMITH: Yeah.

RAZ: ...in his life. His financial affairs were a mess. He fathered lots of children he had no intention of raising. I mean, this is - as you say, this is a complicated person. He was at one point hooked on PCP.

SMITH: Yeah. Yeah. And, you know, one thing that I hope I have done in the book is that I think late in his life, when a lot of this stuff was coming out, when he went back to prison, I think he became, to some people, a joke and as someone they could mock freely. And that's horrible. 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 into context of a life of someone who grew up incredibly abused himself, violence done to him. He was a human being who had experiences that made him the person he grew up to be.

RAZ: What is his legacy?

SMITH: His legacy is, as a performer, he's never been topped. Every decade he lived in, he changed the sounds around him. 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEX MACHINE")

BROWN: (Singing) One, two, three, four. Get up. Get on up.

RAZ: RJ Smith is the author of the book "The One: The Life and Music of James Brown." You can read an excerpt at our website, npr.org. RJ Smith, thank you so much.

SMITH: Thank you, Guy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEX MACHINE")

BROWN: (Singing) Get on up. Stay on the scene. Get on up. Like a sex machine. Get on up. Get up. Get on up. Stay on the scene. Get on up. Like a sex machine. Get on up. Wait a minute. Shake your arms.

RAZ: And for Sunday that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Special thanks today to actors Brianna Lux, Mike Thibodeaux and Kay Marvin from the DC Improv for their help with our April Fools' story on the DNA preschool. Check out our weekly podcast. It's called WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. You can find it at iTunes or npr.org/weekendatc. We're back on the radio next weekend. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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