The One by RJ Smith
The Life and Music of James Brown

59%

24 Critic Reviews

Smith doesn’t touch upon every aspect of Brown’s life, in large part because no writer could—not in one volume.
-AV Club

Synopsis

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, and until now no biographer has delivered a complete profile. The One draws on interviews with more than 100 people who knew Brown personally or played with him professionally. Using these sources, award-winning writer RJ Smith draws a portrait of a man whose twisted and amazing life helps us to understand the music he made.

The One delves deeply into the story of a man who was raised in abject-almost medieval-poverty in the segregated South but grew up to earn (and lose) several fortunes. Covering everything from Brown's unconventional childhood (his aunt ran a bordello), to his role in the Black Power movement, which used "Say It Loud (I'm Black and Proud)" as its anthem, to his high-profile friendships, to his complicated family life, Smith's meticulous research and sparkling prose blend biography with a cultural history of a pivotal era.

At the heart of The One is Brown's musical genius. He had crucial influence as an artist during at least three decades; he inspires pity, awe, and revulsion. As Smith traces the legend's reinvention of funk, soul, R&B, and pop, he gives this history a melody all its own.


 

About RJ Smith

See more books from this Author
RJ 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: LA in the 1940s and the Lost African-American Renaissance, was a Los Angeles Times bestseller and recipient of a California Book Award. He lives in Los Angeles.
 
Published March 15, 2012 by Gotham Books. 472 pages
Genres: Biographies & Memoirs, Arts & Photography. Non-fiction
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Critic reviews for The One
All: 24 | Positive: 13 | Negative: 11

NY Times

Good
Reviewed by Al Sharpton on Jun 01 2012

For those who simply do not know the legacy of James Brown, I recommend reading Smith’s book, for it will give you an unparalleled view into the man, the consummate entertainer, his music and us as a nation.

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NY Times

Excellent
Reviewed by Janet Maslin on Mar 07 2012

This book’s sparkle speaks for itself, as does Mr. Smith’s ability to take on his screaming, moaning, kinetically blessed, unbeatably shrewd subject.

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Wall Street Journal

Good
Reviewed by Preston Lauterbach on Mar 10 2012

Such a versatile, energetic figure requires an equally omnivorous writer. Mr. Smith devotes every bit as much perspiration and talent to the different research and writing demands of Brown's political facets...

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Washington Times

Below average
Reviewed by John Greenya on Apr 06 2012

I confess to having some problems with the author's style - it's too self-consciously "hip" for my taste - and I think some of the local color is both too local and too colorful, sometimes at the expense of his main narrative (on page 364, he's still writing about the mid-1970s).

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LA Times

Below average
Reviewed by Steven Zeitchik on Mar 25 2012

Brown's inner life sometimes feels at a remove from us in Smith's account, possibly because of his reliance on so many outside voices and his penchant for details (there are nearly 50 pages of footnotes) and patience-testing tangents.

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Globe and Mail

Good
Reviewed by Brad Wheeler on Jul 13 2012

Smith does an illuminating job of explaining the other “one,” the first beat – or downbeat – of every measure.

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The Washington Post

Excellent
Reviewed by Chris Richards on Apr 13 2012

Like Brown’s music, Smith’s writing is both airtight and full of life, conversational and reflective.

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AV Club

Below average
Reviewed by Michaelangelo Matos on Mar 21 2012

Smith doesn’t touch upon every aspect of Brown’s life, in large part because no writer could—not in one volume.

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USA Today

Excellent
Reviewed by Steve Jones on Mar 12 2012

Through firsthand accounts by those who knew him, Smith digs out the truth behind the many legends surrounding Brown (the genesis of the cape act; the motivations by the famed Boston concert in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination; rivalries with other singers).

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Huffington Post

Below average
Reviewed by Michael Astor on Mar 16 2012

Strangely, Smith makes no mention of two important tracks, "The Funky Drummer," which became the basis for dozens if not hundreds of hip-hop records, and "Static," where Brown berates rappers for stealing his sound.

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Washington Independent Review of Books

Excellent
Reviewed by Randy Cepuch

If this book isn’t turned into a movie, something’s seriously wrong in Hollywood.

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Tampa Bay Times

Below average
Reviewed by John Capouya on Mar 25 2012

But his style can veer a bit too much from the elegiac to the vernacular, as when he describes JB "macking like an outlaw galoot.''

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Boston.com

Below average
Reviewed by Sarah Rodman on Mar 16 2012

As is often the case with the lives of performers as their prolificacy wanes, the story slows down as Brown’s career did, and as such the last 25 years or so of Brown’s life are dispatched with rather briefly, and somewhat sadly, toward the end of the book.

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Seattle PI

Excellent
Reviewed by Chaz Lipp on Apr 04 2012

Smith communicates the impact of Brown's innovations in a way few other writers have.

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The Millions

Below average
Reviewed by Philip Eil on Apr 06 2012

In the beginning of The One, Smith struggles slightly to find the tone to tell this story.

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Philadelphia Tribune

Below average
Reviewed by Terri Schlichenmeyer on Apr 12 2012

Though this book can be a little longish at times, I really liked the behind-the-scenes tales of the James Brown that younger fans might not know.

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Nashville Scene

Below average
Reviewed by Ed Tarkington on Apr 05 2012

Smith can't be accused of objectivity — his abject adoration of the Godfather seeps onto nearly every page — but his account is exhaustively researched and makes a mostly square accounting of Brown's triumphs, humiliations and criminal excesses.

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Black Grooves

Excellent
Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss on Apr 02 2012

Throughout the book, Smith does an excellent job of analyzing Brown and his music, but always from a respectful distance

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Slate

Excellent
Reviewed by Dan Deluca on Apr 01 2012

In “The One,” that world and Brown’s music come vividly to life.

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MSN Entertainment

Below average
Reviewed by Robert Christgau on Mar 16 2012

The One tells us more than we may want to know about Brown's people skills.

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Downbeat

Excellent
Reviewed by Aaron Cohen

The One ties all the complex material together in a compelling narrative that moves with a sense of verbal energy on loan from The Godfather of Soul himself.

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Book Chase

Good
Reviewed by Sam Sattler on Mar 28 2012

The One is for anyone interested in music history, pop culture, the civil rights movement, or simply what makes all of us tick.

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Another Rainy Saturday

Good
Reviewed by Chris Burlingame on Mar 26 2012

RJ Smith writes of Brown’s life like the excellent historian he is, putting it in context of his times but not glossing over the things that also made James Brown terrible.

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Six String Theories

Below average
Reviewed by Frederick Goodall(?) on Mar 20 2012

Although I knew he was no boy scout, I actually felt revulsion at times as I read the book.

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william yancy 5 Sep 2013

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