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A New James Brown Biography

I recently finished RJ Smith’s The One: The Life and Music of James Brown, and the impression I came away with was that by the time JB’s first single came out every day of his life was action packed.

In fact, I would guess that some days contained so many plots and sub-plots an entire novel could be written about one of them.

Probably there are thousands of stories to tell, and what impresses me about The One is Smith’s ability to tie together so many tales and still craft an entertaining and highly readable book. The One clocks in at just shy of 400 pages, but so much is packed into those pages that, considering how much information it contains, you would expect it to be twice that length.

Much of the book is focused on Cincinnati, where James Brown recorded countless singles and albums for King Records, hung out, met people, made friends and enemies, and worked with local musicians.

My favorite part of the book is where Smith recounts how Bootsy Collins added something to the band’s chemistry that helped take James Brown’s music to the next level. What happened seemed to be a combination of serendipity, raw talent and the kind of immersion in music that people experience when they’re aware that they have a chance to break something open.

Speaking of serendipity, I should mention that RJ Smith, whose extensive writing creds include gigs with Village Voice and Spin, is now moving to the city where James Brown recorded for King Records. A prior resident of Detroit and LA, Smith was recently hired as an editor for Cincinnati Magazine. As a music geek, I’m excited that he’s moving here, especially at a time when recognition of our rich musical history seems to be growing.