A good friend once asked me, “What is unique to the signature structure of the music of James Brown?”, and my answer was, “The One”. My friend – a musician – raised an eyebrow, surprisingly impressed with the swift precision of my answer. I suppose if you’re a well versed music person, it’s just as obvious as seeing the Sun in the sky. Perhaps this is what prompted me to pick up R.J. Smith’s James Brown biography. It was titled “The One”, so, perhaps unlike other readers of the book, I instantly knew what it meant.
“The One” denotes an emphasis on the first beat in a four-beat measure. With few exceptions (Living in America from Rocky IV being one of them), it was the musical signature of practically all of James Brown’s musical output. Call it Funk, Soul, R&B or Disco, it was how James Brown rolled… on the One.
As for the biography, it was brilliantly written, and it’s introduction alone is so foretelling as to the power of the rhythm. It is a short story in itself that tells of how the power of percussion helped lead a violent and tumultuous slave uprising that inevitably ended in tragedy and defeat, much like the life of James Brown.
“The One” could also be applied to Brown himself who was a singularity and a non-collaborator, and in that sense, he was very alone. He was difficult to live with, to work for, and quite often just to be around. From the authors standpoint, “The One” does not come across as a fan’s awe-inspired homage to their idol, but instead a real story of a man and his music. From meager beginnings to a meteoric rise and eventual crash, burn and then after burn, James Brown spent his time performing much like the way he came into this world; Kicking and screaming.
Brown – the man – isn’t the most affable or likeable man for certain, but R.J. Smith’s telling of the tale that makes in so mesmerizing. In the end, I find yet another meaning for “the One”, which may very well have been Brown’s ultimate goal. There is no one that could out-perform him, and his body of work stands apart from the work of his contemporaries (if he even had them). James Brown was himself “The One”.