The Showstopping James Brown and His Shiny Shoe Fixation

James Brown; illustration by Nathan Gelgud, 2012.
James Brown; illustration by Nathan Gelgud, 2012.

RJ Smith’s "The One: The Life and Music of James Brown" is hot off the paperback presses and worth picking up for its super bad subject and swaggering style of prose. As Janet Maslin pointed out in her New York Times review, “Other books…talk about [Brown] abundantly, but Mr. Smith is a writer who talks back.”

In this exhaustively researched and dynamic work, Smith covers one of the most important musical icons in American music history and his role in the context of politically and culturally volatile times. Brown was a singular performer, and Smith covers the 1964 concert film The T.A.M.I. Show, which showcases his energy and magnetism so well. As Steven Zeitchik of the Los Angeles Times points out, “The concert reveals Brown as a harbinger of modern showmanship, while also highlighting, tellingly, that there was a time when musical performance was an act of spontaneity or at least autonomy, not the product of a team of image-minded American Idol coaches.”

Smith also gets into Brown's strict treatment of his musicians, attributing his need for order to his stint in prison. About his habit of fining band members who were less than spiffy, Smith writes: “You wore a suit and tie on the bus and getting off it; women wore high heels, stockings, and a dress. Your uniform had better be clean. When Brown spun around two, three times, chances are he was inspecting the troops. When he was being led off the stage at the end of the show by the Flames, in mock exhaustion, Brown took the opportunity to scrutinize the shoes of every musician, looking for Vaseline on leather to fake a good shine. That was a hundred dollars right there.” Nathan Gelgud illustrates that slice of the performer's life for Signature.

"The One: The Life and Music of James Brown" by RJ Smith. Illustration by Nathan Gelgud, 2012.

"The One: The Life and Music of James Brown" by RJ Smith. Illustration by Nathan Gelgud, 2012.