James Brown used to tell people that even being stillborn as a child couldn’t stop him. He rose to the highest heights in the music industry and stayed there longer than most. But in the end he succumbed to atrocious financial planning, a drug habit and a violent temper.
RJ Smith, author of the new biography The One: The Life and Music of James Brown, tells NPR’s Guy Raz that Brown believed he was indestructible.
Smith says, “Having been through as much in his life as he went through — criminal experiences, been up and down with the music industry, made millions, lost millions — I think on some level he felt whatever happened happened, and he couldn’t die.”
Raised by a violent father, Brown’s upbringing in Augusta, Georgia was turbulent. His mother left, his aunt was a prostitute and Brown was constantly in trouble for stealing or fighting.
During an early stint in prison, Brown listened to a lot of music. “I think he heard a lot of gospel,” says Smith, “that he was listening to before, but never so much as when he was in prison with a radio stuck to his head. They called him Music Box in prison as a teenager. And he was in a gospel group when he was in prison. He started to understand, singing gospel, what power he had over an audience.”
Brown began his career in the segregated South of the 1950s. During those early years, he pounded what’s known as the Chitlin’ circuit, a series of ramshackle venues that hosted black performers scattered throughout the U.S.
“Those were audiences that were desperate to be entertained,” says Smith. “They spent their hard-earned dollar, and if you didn’t entertain them, they would let you know fast.”
Brown closely studied those audiences’ reactions. “He knew when an audience was turning away from a song before they did,” says Smith. “He would cut it off in the middle of a tune, and go to the next one.”
His first big hit was “Please, Please, Please,” a song he closed his sets with for years. And from the very beginning, Brown separated himself from other R&B singers with this song.
“There’s something misleadingly familiar and almost generic about it,” says Smith about the doo-wop harmony track. “But the way that he sings it, over-the-top with emotion, he was losing something important to him as he sang it. And you can feel it.”
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