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The One: The Life and Music of James Brown

3.97  ·  Rating Details ·  464 Ratings  ·  82 Reviews
The definitive biography of James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, with fascinating findings on his life as a Civil Rights activist, an entrepreneur, and the most innovative musician of our time Playing 350 shows a year at his peak, with more than forty Billboard hits, James Brown was a dazzling showman who transformed American music. His life offstage was just as vibrant, a ...more
Hardcover, 464 pages
Published March 15th 2012 by Gotham
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Charles Hughes
May 26, 2012 Charles Hughes rated it it was amazing
I'd probably give this 4-and-a-half rather than 5 (for the reason I mention below), but I'll round up with the Goodreads star system.

Great, great stuff. Smith nails the extremely difficult task facing every music historian. He manages to simultaneously narrate a coherent and compelling biography of his subject, discuss the music in evocative detail, and put his subject in a historical context in a manner that is convincing without seeming contrived. This is REALLY hard to do, and Smith accompli
Aug 26, 2012 Danny rated it really liked it
This isn't the definitive biography of James Brown. But given how long, varied, and strange a life JB led, I'm not sure such a thing is possible. At times this almost feels like the abridged version of a massive three-volume biography, hitting all the highlights but leaving out some of the more mundane moments that help establish the pace and rhythm of JB's life and career. I sometimes found myself thinking things like "Wait, we're already at 'Live at the Apollo'? Isn't something missing in betw ...more
Nora Flaherty
Mar 10, 2012 Nora Flaherty rated it really liked it
It could have had more about the later years, which seemed a bit rushed, but the early years are beautifully done. This is the sort of thing that would make a great enhanced eBook with audio and video clips interspersed.
Michael Cohen
May 26, 2012 Michael Cohen rated it liked it
Shelves: 2012
Though I wish there were a little more about how some of the singles and albums came out, specifically The Payback, and a little more contextualization of JB's rise to stardom through comparisons to similar artists and through what it meant to be selling as many records as he did and playing the chitlin circuit as hard as he did, this is a really well-researched, ably written biography of a very unusual man. RJ Smith makes a great case for JB's unorthodox genius, which was not a musical or ethno ...more
Nov 05, 2013 Nick rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I saw James Brown perform twice, once at a high school prom on a riverboat in Memphis, Tennessee (1965) and once in a club in Aspen, Colorado (1980). In the first instance, like a lot of white kids, I wanted so very much to dig him, a kind of cultural expression of the same impulse that led to our support of the civil rights movement. We could dance too, maybe not as well, but there was a solidarity from heel to ass to head. By the time of the latter encounter, his star, somewhat tarnished by an ...more
Caryn Rose
Mar 16, 2012 Caryn Rose rated it it was amazing
This is the best rock and roll biography I've read in the last 10 years. The writing is amazing, the scholarship impeccable; there is warmth and tone and voice and the writer is on his subject's side, but does not let him check out or get a pass in some of the more questionable areas of his life. This book was incredible; I could not put it down. It was sad and uplifting and sad and real. And in writing about the music, the knowledge, the true in depth down to the ground knowledge of every song, ...more
Scott Collins
Aug 31, 2013 Scott Collins rated it really liked it
Nearing the end, he was out of his mind on PCP, firing guns into the air at the family compound, his body way too enfeebled to do those famous splits. You will say, well James Brown was always a little nuts, wasn't he? The hypnotic thrum of the music, the cape routine, that shamanic pose - it's all there. But Mr. Smith comes to praise Black Caesar, not bury him. Does he stint on the bad stuff? Not at all. More than mere peccadilloes are on display: Brown chased women and beat them, and while thi ...more
Feb 18, 2016 Nada rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud
Say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud

I picked up this book with very limited knowledge about James Brown. So reading about his prison years, his rising to stardom then falling from grace, his participation in the civil rights movement & politics, his drug abuse, the failed marriages, the physical & mental abuse he bestowed upon his band members and his mistresses ... all that was fascinating and extremely interesting.

What I appreciated more is how th
Apr 29, 2012 Matt added it
Shelves: not-read
I'm not sure if I'll get through this one. The author writes with that annoying style of rock journalism that switches from a faux-academic tone to faux-vernacular at random moments. I'm smart AND down, Mr. Smith insists on telling us. The dust jacket proposes that James Brown is more important to twentieth century music than than Elvis, Bob Dylan, and the Beatles. I agree, but from my initial skimming, RJ Smith is approaching the subject more from a socio-cultural perspective rather than a musi ...more
Barry Hammond
Jul 02, 2016 Barry Hammond rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A detailed biography on The Hardest Working Man In Show Biz that not only covers his life but gets at the essence of his music and places it in the context of his times and culture. A must-read for any fan. - BH.
Learned quite a bit about The Godfather of Soul! Not all of it good. What a life!!
Zohar -
Mar 21, 2012 Zohar - rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2012
The One: The Life and Music of James Brown by RJ Smith is a biographyof the Godfather of Soul. The title “The One” refers mainly to the artist’s emphasis on playing the right beat.

An integrated biography of James Brown with fascinating insights into the artist’s life, showmanship, business ventures and activism. With more than forty hits on the Billboard charts and playing 350 shows a year at his peak it is no wonder James Brown became an icon of American music and changed the industry.

May 10, 2012 Maureen rated it it was amazing
This is one of those books that was clearly a labor of love. I don't know how many years it took Smith to research it, but he did a tremendous job. James Brown's story is not an easy one to tell: it begins with a childhood that could serve as an example of that famous Nietzsche quote about that which does not kill you makes you stronger. Born in Barnwell, South Carolina, Brown's childhood took him from one side of the "Georgialina" side to the other. After his mamma Susie ran off when he was fou ...more
Sam Sattler
Mar 20, 2012 Sam Sattler rated it it was amazing
Shelves: biography
Because I have been an on-again-off-again fan of James Brown’s music since the mid-sixties, to me it feels like the man has always been there. I remember him best as the ultimate showman, an impression that is easily confirmed by watching some of the many James Brown videos that are readily found on YouTube today. Brown, because of the controversy surrounding his death and his multiple funerals, was a performer even in death, and I think he would have enjoyed and been pleased by that. I thought ...more
James Brown began on a farm near Augusta Georgia and his life ended there many years later in 2007 after a life as a popular singer and songwriter. This book was written by interviewing many people James Brown knew and relying on his autobiography which was published in 1987. While it updates and ends his story, I think I might have preferred to read his autobiography instead. When this book came out, Fresh Air on NPR played an old interview of James Brown talking about his life as part of a sha ...more
Jeff Scott
Mar 27, 2012 Jeff Scott rated it really liked it
A thorough biography of James Brown, his world, and his music, R.J Smith combines the history of The Warmth of Other Suns with the rise of Rhythm and Blues. At its center is a man that is very difficult to capture. James Brown was a man who had to hustle all of his life. Smith shows his drive and how that push to be The One set him apart from other performers. He had to fight and scrape until “blood ran from his shoes”.

To write a great biography of Brown, you have to love the music, and Smith d
Meg - A Bookish Affair
Mar 28, 2012 Meg - A Bookish Affair rated it really liked it
James Brown is definitely a quintessential American artist. Most people are familiar with his music. He definitely played an important role in defining the American songbook. Nicknamed both the "Godfather of Soul" and the "hardest working man in show business," Brown was a staple of American music for many decades before he passed away in 2006.

Who was this charismatic man beloved by so many people? The simple answer is that he was a very complicated man as RJ Smith shows in The One. He put on so
Jul 05, 2012 Alexander rated it it was amazing
About two-thirds of the way through RJ Smith's marvelous biography of James Brown I realized that I never once pictured Brown sitting still. Not once. I a car, I imagined him shifting in his seat, twisting to address the guys in the back, leaning forward to give the driver directions. On a plane, he paced the aisles. When he slept - did he sleep? A restless soul, looking for an edge, proving himself, hurtling forward at all costs, this was James Brown. And not just James Brown, the man. That is ...more
May 30, 2012 John rated it liked it
I enjoyed reading this book and gained a better understanding of James Brown the musician, personality, and businessman. Given the book's title, I was expecting more commentary on Brown's unique music and sound, more analysis of the songs and rhythms, not just a biography. Where did this guy come from, and why does he sound so different and complex compared to other musicians of his time? My curiosity was not satisfied by this book, so the lower rating. But perhaps no one knows.

It appears Brown
I don't think that I can categorize myself as a James Brown "fan". His music has just always been there as a part of my life. From my parents albums to the samples used in the hip-hop music I later gravitated towards as a young adult.

While the subtitle says "Life And Music", this book is more of a memoir of Brown as a musician and businessman, covering his entrepreneurial spirit from boyhood on. His personal and family life is not covered with as much scrutiny. That's probably for the better, b
Joe Blevins
Apr 11, 2013 Joe Blevins rated it it was amazing
This is one of those cases when 400 pages isn't enough to cover a man's life, but I'll be damned if The One wasn't one of the most enjoyable reads I've had all year. This was a big, complicated and contradictory life, and there were times when the book felt rushed or when I wanted to know more. Brown's impact on -- and tricky relationship with -- hip-hop warrants a book of its own, for instance. But I think Smith was trying to keep the pace up and make the book a manageable length. As the title ...more
Dec 09, 2012 Tom rated it it was amazing
It's rare that musical biographies are more than just capably written, a hodgepodge of reheated anecdotes passed down from book to book. Not so here. Not only is Smith an excellent writer---an accomplished poet and editor in his own right--- but he had enough innate musical sense to put his finger on the pulse of Brown's music: the one. It was all about the one. Get the one beat right, and you could do anything you damn well pleased with the two, three, and four. The genesis of funk. Smith's boo ...more
David Ward
The One: The Life and Music of James Brown by R.J. Smith (Gotham Books 2012) (780.92) is an excellent biography of the man known by many nicknames such as "Music Box," "The One," and most notoriously, "The Godfather of Soul." What a fascinating guy! He literally came from nothing. Raised by his grandmother in a whorehouse in Augusta, Georgia, "Mister Brown," as he preferred to be addressed eventually bought a sizable estate in one of the most exclusive (and all White) neighborhoods in Augusta, ...more
Ulrich Krieghund
May 23, 2016 Ulrich Krieghund rated it really liked it
If you don't know the story behind the music, then you only know the half of it. James Brown was the epitome of will power. According to R.J. Smith, he was also a phenomenal dancer, fearless, virtually invincible, a pcp addict, a thief and an asshole. All of these qualities made him, in Smith's estimation, the most important Rock N' Roll artist of the 20th century. Read the book. Then, get on the good foot.

Just a few anecdotes...

Since James Brown was "born dead", every minute of life seemed like
Jun 15, 2016 Erik rated it it was amazing
What a wonderful book. The book oozes with an appreciation for Brown. It's not some messiah-like praise; it takes Brown's myths, busts them, then analyzes the two so the original myth so that it doesn't seem too far off from the truth. It's a real love letter to Brown the businessman. The book covers all aspects of his life. It isn't a deep dive into his music on a track-by-track basis, but it covers some really neat aspects (like how Get Up Offa That Thing was recorded in two takes, with zero r ...more
Sep 21, 2014 Chanel rated it it was amazing
This well researched autobiography of the Godfather of Soul James Brown was extremely informative. I wanted to read it after I seen the movie, "Get On Up." This book explains the brilliance, genius, hard working, hard charging and complex individual known to the world as James Brown that had to claim his way up from extreme poverty. He really was the hardest working man in show business because when he died he was still touring at the age of 73. He left behind six decades of music that has and s ...more
Apr 21, 2013 Ken rated it really liked it
Get up offa that thing and read this comprehensive analysis of the musical genius that was - and still is - James Brown. Smith's book places Brown's music in context, and also delves into his life story, focusing on events in his life that helped shape his music as well as his singular personality. Anyone who's seen the recently released bio-pic (well worth seeing; Chadwick Boseman is sensational) and craves to learn more about Brown should hunker down with this book. (Just FYI/"spoilers": You w ...more
Aug 14, 2015 Lars rated it liked it
This has a lot for the James Brown fan: coverage of all the hits, the man's genesis as a performer and a civil rights figure, and a deep dive into how the music is effective. It also contains fascinating parts that go beyond Brown, including information about race relations and music in the south (South Carolina's ban on the drums in 1740 is a standout).

But this is not a book for the casual reader, and although the author does his best to keep things moving, the 388 pages really start to drag, b
Apr 02, 2012 Du rated it really liked it
Shelves: music
Not knowing much about James Brown before reading this book, I found it to be quite informative and interesting. It was well written and the pacing made sense. What I felt was missing was some details towards the end. The last few chapters, say from 1981 on was more like newspaper recounts.

The author does a great job recounting the troubles Brown walked into as a child, and the vices he lived his whole life with. These included women, drugs and a temper that was as hard working as Brown was. Th
Dec 07, 2012 Jennifer rated it liked it
This book needed a stronger editor. Parts of it are well written, setting Brown's life in the context of his times in a thoughtful and fresh manner, but too many potentially interesting episodes are rushed, slight and have sophomoric, personal asides. I give him credit for challenging Brown's recollections of events and thorough research. The first half of the book seems much better written than the latter, maybe this could have been two volumes if paced appropriately? It is worth reading for th ...more
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R. J. Smith has been a senior editor at Los Angeles magazine, a contributor to Blender, a columnist for The Village Voice, a staff writer for Spin, and has written for GQ, The New York Times Magazine, and Men’s Vogue. His first book, The Great Black Way, was a Los Angeles Times bestseller and recipient of a California Book Award. He lives in Los Angeles.
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“James Brown had many guises, many names: Crip, Music Box, The Hardest Working Man In Show Business, Mr. Please Please Please, Butane James, Soul Brother Number One, Skates, The Godfather of Soul...He was His Own Bad Bad Self, the Sex Machine, Black Elvis, the Minister of the New New Super Heavy Funk, The Original Disco Man, Universal James. But before any of them, he was simply a dancer doing the James Brown.” 1 likes
“Meanwhile, blacks observed how German prisoners housed at Camp Gordon were getting paid to work the grounds of the Augusta National Golf Club, and to pick peanuts, corn, and potatoes across the Savannah River. “They sing and whistle, seem to enjoy work,” enthused the Augusta Chronicle. “Farmers are delighted.” Such news stories left a bitter taste in the mouths of black Augustans, who felt the government was doing more for the enemy than it was willing to do for them.” 0 likes
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