A James Brown Biography and Other Must-Read Books

This vivid new book charts the dazzling contradictions in the life of the Godfather of Soul

The One The Life and Music of James Brown
The One: The Life and Music of James Brown by RJ Smith records, corrects and carves out historical significance of James Brown's life. Mark Ulriksen

The One: The Life and Music of James Brown
RJ Smith
Gotham Books

In the early 1970s, James Brown typically performed 335 days a year; each month, he gave away 5,000 autographs and 1,000 pairs of cuff links, and went through 80 pairs of shoes.When he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 with the inaugural class—Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Ray Charles and others—he was the only one with a new hit song at the time, “Living in America.”

His work ethic was prodigious, his longevity almost unparalleled, but the essence of his talent more mysterious. The talk show host David Frost asked Brown what soul was. “The truth,” he replied.

But soul wasn’t easy. If you wanted to play with James Brown, you would play by his rules: no distracting hobbies (“Black people don’t play golf!” he shouted at band members while throwing clubs off the tour bus); fines for misbehavior; and corporal punishment. “They were scared stiff,” said a girlfriend. “He used to hit them grown men!”

Brown made “a paradoxically freedom-drenched art out of radical acts of discipline,” RJ Smith writes in this new, extravagantly detailed biography. In early, plaintive songs like “Please, Please, Please,” and, later, in funk-infused tunes like “Get Up (I Feel Like Being) a Sex Machine,” Brown’s music is the id unleashed. “I feel good!” Brown sang with his trademark lung-scorching shout—a sound, Smith notes, that “shows the control Brown has over a technique most often used to signify a loss of control.”

Smith, whose first book, The Great Black Way, told the story of African-Americans in 1940s Los Angeles, sets the singer-songwriter against the backdrop of the nation’s racial legacy. Brown was an emblem of the possibilities that opened to black people in the second half of the 20th century. “I was able to speak to the country during the crisis,” Brown said after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, “and they followed my advice.” If that claim seems extreme, it was also true. “Say it loud,” Brown sang, “I’m black and I’m proud.” Thousands sang along with him.

Brown’s early years, as is well known, were rough: born in Barnwell, South Carolina, in 1933; left school in the seventh grade; caught breaking into cars in 1949 and locked up; earned a reputation in jail for singing; paroled with the help of a local musician. A break arrived in 1955, when Brown filled in for Little Richard after he abandoned his tour; he’d passed through a Toccoa, Georgia, club one night and seen Brown perform.

Brown wrote or co-wrote almost all of his hits, like “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” but he described himself as 25 percent entertainer and 75 percent businessman. He started a trading stamp company and a chain of restaurants, and bought radio stations. “Brown made entrepreneurialism groovy,” writes Smith. Yet he did not open a bank account until the early ’60s, keeping his money in cardboard boxes and buried in his yard, and he didn’t file a tax return until 1967. By 1980, his U.S. tax tab was $17.3 million. More than his finances were a mess. He beat his third wife; relations with his fourth were also violent. He became addicted to PCP and, after a high-speed highway chase, was arrested and convicted of running from police; he spent two years in jail. No matter how low his fortunes sank, his music soared. In 1989—while Brown was incarcerated—the Florida A&M marching band traveled to Paris as the lone American representatives at the centennial celebration of the French Revolution. As they paraded down the Champs-Élysées, they played just one artist: James Brown. He died in 2006.

The imperatives of biography are to record, to correct and to carve out historical significance, and Smith’s lively account succeeds on all three fronts. It’s an often inspiring chronicle of an American original, bookended with reminders of how far the dirt-poor performer traveled; it ends with an inventory of the deceased singer’s house, which included antique leg irons and sprigs of cotton. There was ugliness and meanness in Brown’s life, but it’s the triumph—over the limits of his education, the poverty of his background and the prejudices of his era—that Smith’s portrait impresses upon us.

Love, Fiercely
Jean Zimmerman
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

This sneakily sweeping history tells the story of early 20th-century America through the “greatest love story never told.” Edith Minturn and Newton Stokes—a Staten Island beauty and a wealthy young scion, both of them refined and worldly, progressive and philanthropic—might have been characters from a Gilded Age novel. Early in their marriage, in 1897, John Singer Sargent painted their portrait; Edith stands with her hand on her hip, flushed with health and vigor, her husband behind her, a shadowy but solid presence. The painting hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Newton’s greatest achievement was the late-in-life project that came to consume his time, energy and, ultimately, fortune—a six-volume, 3,254-page tome titled The Iconography of Manhattan Island that gathered thousands of pictures, drawings and maps. “None of the classic or contemporary histories of New York could have been written without the Iconography as a source,” Zimmerman writes in this dual biography that also documents a monumental effort to capture New York’s sparkle.

Rethinking a Lot
Eran Ben-Joseph
MIT Press

Is there an urban environment more maligned than the parking lot? Antagonist of Joni Mitchell and frustrated shoppers; an eyesore when empty, useless when full; an environmental disaster and an aesthetic blight—it is, at best, a necessary evil, persistently reminding us that convenience has consequences. In some cities, parking lots gobble up a third of the area. Therein lies the opportunity, says the urban designer and MIT professor Eran Ben-Joseph in this strange and intriguing book—part manifesto, part history, part argument that the “parking lot is a landscape ripe for transformation.” Take, for instance, the Bluewater complex in Kent—the second-largest shopping mall in Britain—where 4,700 trees and a web of walkways create a “parking landscape.” Outside G’bessi Airport in Guinea, where only one-fifth of the population has access to electricity, a parking lot is an informal study hall, with students reading through the night under the dim parking lot lights. “Parking lots may not be thought of as public open spaces,” writes Ben-Joseph, but “they should be.” That hope seems quixotic—a lot is, in the end, a flat, paved empty space—but in pointing out its unheralded poetry, Ben-Joseph offers perhaps the first sustained explication of this urban blight’s unexpected potential.

Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay: Reflections on Art, Family & Survival
Christopher Benfey
The Penguin Press

Nearing 50 in a retrospective, melancholic mood, the literary critic Christopher Benfey began to daydream about placid Richmond, Indiana, a tiny town near the Ohio border where he grew up. It was near a range of ancient Indian burial mounds, where, in a field “redolent of sweat and feed corn,” 14-year-old Benfey played archaeologist, helping a crew of college students. The mounds were “minimalist earthworks etched directly into the landscape by visionary artists who made the world their canvas.” Benfey moves on, to his grandfather, a North Carolina brick-maker, and his great-aunt and uncle, Anni and Josef Albers, the famous Bauhaus artist couple who became leaders of the avant-garde arts-oriented Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Benfey’s contribution to his lineage is this elegant, literary examination of the natural and historic forces that have shaped artisanal and folk-art American aesthetics. An odd but pleasing book—not unlike the curios it celebrates.

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