James Brown, the "Godfather of Soul", would have been 80 this year. Perhaps being the "hardest working man in show business" finally caught up with him _ in 2006, at the age of 73, one of the greatest popular music icons of the 20th century passed away.
Brown was not just a musical icon and innovator, he was also a key figure in the civil unrest in the US in the 1960s, when his songs formed part of the sound-track of the era. Musician and bandleader, entrepreneur, social activist and public figure, James Brown was all these, but until recently I had not come across a biographer who had managed to capture the impact of Brown as a social and cultural force.
RJ Smith's The One _ The Life And Music Of James Brown (Gotham Books, 2012) attempts to do just that and Smith manages to pull it off, too. This is the best biography I've read on Brown's life so far. Smith charts the near-feudal tough upbringing of Brown's childhood in the segregated South. He suffered abuse from his father in an environment that could turn violent at any time.
Smith then goes on to describe and analyse the musician's troubled and complex life in all its gory details, and he does not shy away from analysing some of the violent episodes that marked Brown's life _ terrified wives, neglected children and intimidated band members (as a bandleader Brown was harder on his musicians than even Muddy Waters; his system of fines for missing a riff or turning up late would have made the US military proud).
Smith interviewed more than 100 people who worked with or were connected to Brown and there are some really interesting comments from former band members such as horn arranger and trombone great Fred Wesley. When one of his original band members was lying on his deathbed, his last words were to get someone to ask Brown not to treat his replacement as badly as he was treated.
Smith uses the material he has unearthed to get into the mind of James Brown (as much as a biographer can) to show how the environment he grew up in shaped the way he dealt with the world as he developed into one of pop music's greats. Brown was always fascinated by Elvis Presley and he measured his success against the man he knew to be "number one". Smith shows how Presley's death devastated Brown; upon news of his death, Brown chartered a plane to Memphis and was ushered into Graceland for a private farewell. Brown was apparently upset that Elvis had died without Brown getting the chance to depose the "King".
And then there is the music. Smith weaves into the story all the important songs and musical innovations that Brown created and he explains the meaning of "The One", which soul and funk fans know is the basic rhythmical pulse of funk music, and how it was created. James Brown was, of course, also "The One", but there is another anecdote, one of many that bring Smith's lively prose to life, about a street hustle Brown's father used to pull to get hold of someone else's pistol _ it was also called "The One".
Smith should be congratulated for writing what is rapidly becoming the definitive biography of James Brown. There is a tendency, it seems to me, these days of trying too hard to recreate the personality of an artist through their work _ perhaps caused by an obsession with celebrity _ but Smith has avoided this pitfall by carefully analysing the music Brown created and then placing it in its cultural and social context.
I played a live recording of a James Brown track _ Doing It To Death _ on my last radio show. The song begins with the MC explaining that there are seven wonders of the world and that for those at the show that evening, are about to enjoy the eighth wonder _ James Brown. Says it all, really.
The dreamy drift of dub has been wafting around my house this week as I listened to an excellent compilation by one of the pioneers of the dub reggae sound: Augustus Pablo. Skanking Easy, by Pablo, was released last year in the UK on Union Square, and features 30 essential tracks by the musician. Disc One features some of his earlier work in the 1970s, such as the classic King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown, Far East and 1-2-3 Version, while Disc Two showcases his later work from the 1980s such as Each One Teach One and Stop Them Jah/Dub Them Jah.
Pablo became famous for his spacey instrumentals that featured catchy melodies from a melodica (in addition to his unique drum and bass sound), which, until he used it in reggae music, was used mainly in schools in Jamaica to teach children music. He was a really big influence on not only reggae, but also on electronic and dance music.
Interestingly, his sound was often known as "far east" music because, say the liner notes, "it evoked the Orient". An excellent compilation from a dub pioneer who appears to be as popular now as he was at the time of his death in 1999. Highly recommended. Visit www.unionsquaremusic.co.uk
Speaking of reggae, dancehall and dub, Isan dancehall returns to Cosmic Cafe at RCA on Saturday with a reggae/dub-themed show, which features a posse of DJs headlined by Saxon Sound International's Tippa Irie, Drum & Bass Records' Pirate's Choice, Gapi from Thailand's own T-Bone reggae band and Zudrangma Records' stalwarts Maft Sai and Masa Niwayama. Tippa is returning after doing a show in January with Prince Fatty and Hollie Cook. From 9pm.
The writer of this column can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the author
- Writer: John Clewley