You Never Knew What Was Going On In His Head

By Byron Spooner

James Brown was a man of many names.  He was known as “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business,” “The Godfather of Soul,” “Soul Brother Number One,” and probably, countless more.

He was acknowledged world-wide as a genius, the greatest innovator in Soul, the inventor of Funk, but from the evidence presented in RJ Smith’s The One: The Life and Music of James Brown (Penguin/Gotham, 2012) the title he most richly earned was Big Jerk.

Woman-beater, control-freak, bully; Brown’s personality is so dominated by ambition as to drive out all competing elements.  He appears to have had no sense of humor whatsoever.  And no compassion either; viewing his fellow performers as competitors to be crushed rather than colleagues to be appreciated and befriended.

He browbeat and fined band members and staffers for minor mistakes. He fired bands en masse when they stood up and asked not for raises, but merely to be paid on time. Typically, even when he picked up a vicious drug habit and ended up in the slammer—after a lifetime of sanctimony on the subject: anti-drug speeches, statements and lyrics— it was to PCP that he became addicted. He called it “go-rilla juice,” a drug that made him feel invulnerable and magnified to near-psychopathic levels his already all-consuming ambition.  He was not the kind of guy people hung around with for laughs.

One has to feel sorry for the author for having been given so little to work with. Finishing this enjoyable, well-written book with very little empathy with, or feeling for, James Brown is a strangely empty feeling.  Smith does what he can, but it’s constantly surprising how little James Brown has to say.    He seemed to want to exist solely as an icon rather than as a human.   In 1971, for example, while appearing at Fela Kuti’s club, the Shrine, in Lagos—a meeting of two titanic funk bands by anyone’s measure—Brown’s ever-soulful bassist, Bootsy Collins, waxed poetic, saying:

You could be ten miles away and you could hear the drums [of Fela’s band]…When I heard these cats, it was like another dimension…a dimension that I had never experienced before. And it had a deepened feeling to me.  When I heard them, that was the deepest level you could get.

About the Godfather of Soul’s impression of these same events, there is little worth quoting. The author reports Brown’s “feelings about Africa would remain publicly neutral, mystifyingly bland, expressing little sense of personal connection.”

James Brown spent most of his life on the road, touring, or in the studio, recording; both massively boring pursuits for participants, chroniclers and, ultimately, readers. Smith wisely spends a good portion of his narrative on Brown’s business ventures and his various forays into politics, avoiding the mind-numbing Night Train-syle (“…Miami, Florida/Atlanta, Georgia/Raleigh, North Carolina..”) minutiae of travel and taping.

He owned radio stations throughout the South. One suspects that somewhere along the line Brown had done a shrewd calculation and figured over the long pull it was cheaper to own the stations than to continue shelling out payola to their employees.  He started a line of supermarket trading stamps called Black and Brown Stamps which only lasted a year or so.  He kept cash in cardboard boxes, trusting almost no one, and ended up owing the IRS spectacular amounts of money, which didn’t seem to alarm him in the least.

It would be hard to accurately define Brown’s politics as anything but opportunistic. Although he was no conservative, he seemed equally comfortable campaigning for Humphrey and pitching Martin Luther King’s birthday as a national holiday to Nixon.  (“What am I supposed to do, sit and talk to him?” Nixon asked when told he would be entertaining a soul singer in the Oval Office.) Secretly, Brown probably didn’t think very much in terms of ‘left’ or ‘right’ anyway, but instead in terms of ‘good for James Brown’ or ‘bad for James Brown.’  He could swing either way. In 1968 he recorded both America, a bathetic if heartfelt cover of that patriotic warhorse, and Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.  Says the author summing things up nicely: “America made Brown seem like Uncle Tom to some African Americans.  Weeks later, Say It Loud made a lot of whites confuse James Brown with H. Rap Brown.”

Brown viewed even his closest friends through the lens of their potential as stars. A central figure in Brown’s life was the Rev. Al Sharpton.  Smith relates the first meeting between the singer and the young preacher this way:

“Are you the Reverend?”


“If you listen to me I’ll make you the biggest one out there.”

Flummoxed, Sharpton stammered out a “Nossir,” explaining he wasn’t interested in music, he was in civil rights.

“That’s what I mean—you listen to me and go whole hog and you’ll be the biggest.”

Sharpton became perhaps the truest friend Brown ever had (and, arguably, the “biggest” civil rights activist of his time). Sharpton was Brown’s constant advocate, buddy, gofer and student.   It was Sharpton who jumped in to help to arrange the funerals and memorials upon Brown’s death.  Such was his devotion that he also helped drive the Godfather’s body on a Faulknerian non-stop from Georgia to New York to make the parade on 125th St and subsequent memorial concert at the Apollo on time.  As always it was all done in the service of Brown’s stardom; only after the pomp and spectacle in Harlem did they return the body to Georgia for a small service for friends and family.


I often disagreed with Smith’s musical ideas.  His understanding of the rise of disco, for example, and how it signaled the beginning of the end for Brown is limited and wrongheaded. He dismisses it this way:

Disco basked in fragmented light, embracing artifice and unreality.  If this was a “Man’s World,” then where was his[Brown’s] place in a pop movement that empowered gays,            lesbians and straight women?  After years of pushing deeper and deeper into a music that signified “blackness,” and carrying blackness as a banner around the world, now came a wave that seemed, to many coming out of soul music , capable of washing blackness away.

What Smith (and Brown) didn’t get was that disco was not so much about race (although there are undeniable racial factors in its eventual hegemony and decline) as it was about class.  Disco, though widely (and wrongly) derided, spoke to an ascendant black middle class in a way that the ‘country’ soul stars, Brown included, spoke to the audiences who had grown up during the civil rights era. That middle class was more urban and more mainstream than previous generations and was less interested in politics than in celebrating their new-found affluence.  To that generation James Brown—and Aretha, and Otis, in fact all of the Stax stable except, perhaps, Johnnie Taylor, most of Motown except Michael Jackson, etc. etc.—  just sounded like old news. Very few pre-1975 soul performers survived the disco revolution with their careers intact.  Most were more-or-less permanently relegated to the oldies circuit.  Brown did better than most in this regard, but he remained bitter to the end that the crown had been passed.


Brown has deserved a major biography for years; one that defines the man for his age the way Peter Guralnick’s Dream Boogie defines Sam Cooke or David Meyers’ Twenty Thousand Roads defines Gram Parsons.  Not to mention Guralnick’s never-to-be-topped Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love that did for Elvis what Robert Caro is currently doing for Lyndon Johnson.  Unfortunately, The One is not that biography.  I’m not sure there’ll be anything to top it anytime soon because James Brown, for all his immense influence and international acclaim, lived behind an impenetrable public persona that no one seems to have ever pierced.  Take it from Larry Cohen, the director of Black Caesar, who worked with Brown on the film’s soundtrack, as quoted in The One:

I saw James at the screening in New York of Black Caesar. James was always on—you never knew who he really was, he always gave you the smile and talked the talk, but you never knew what was going on in his head.

“You never knew what was going on in his head.”  Should’ve been on his tombstone.


Recommended Listening:  More so than any other artist of his stature, James Brown was always a singles artist.   He padded his albums with instrumentals, pointless jams, and shameless crap, saving the best for release as  45s.  The best way for you to hear those singles and to fully appreciate the epic scale of his achievement— and the magnitude of his monomania—is on the 22 CD set, James Brown: The Singles: Volumes One – Eleven (Hip-O Select, Limited Edition. 2006-11.), a daunting listening challenge for even the most ravening fan.  Each CD, however, contains at least some fabulous music and many are jaw-dropping from beginning to end.  Each will also have something you’ve never heard before.  Guaranteed.

If that is more than you want to invest in JB, there is always Star Time (Polydor, 1991), a four CD box that is a fine overview of Brown’s career.  20 Greatest Hits will also do in a pinch, but you’ll find yourself wishing for more. In the Jungle Groove is a reissue of the 1969-71 hits, mostly from the bottomless-ly rocking Bootsy and Catfish Collins-led band of that period.

Live at the Apollo (Polydor, 1962, 2004) is the classic live Brown album that everyone has already heard a million times, but don’t overlook Live at the Apollo Volume II (Polydor, 1967, 2001) or, especially, Love Power Peace; Live at the Olympia, Paris 1971 (Polydor 1971, 1992) the only album recorded live with the Collins band, featuring both Jabo Starks and Cyde Stubblefield on drums.

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