RJ Smith has been a regular contributor to publications including Los Angeles magazine, Blender, The Village Voice, Spin, and New York Magazine; his current book is the comprehensive biography of James Brown, The One, which has just been published by Penguin. It has received rave reviews from all over, and Smith has definitely pulled off a hell of a job capturing a very complicated musical legend on paper. It’s a task that would make a lot of writers run screaming in the other direction, but it’s clear talking to Smith it was a labor of love. Smith talked to us about the challenges and rewards of writing The One, as well as the current state of music journalism, and where things could be headed for the craft of rock writing in the future.
A good a place to start as any: why a book on James Brown?
There’s no artist in my lifetime that has changed his field to the degree that James Brown has as far as I’m concerned. I think he’s had the biggest impact and the most radical kind of impact on culture. Also, I didn’t understand him. I didn’t understand how he could endorse Nixon and Hubert Humphrey. I didn’t understand how he could be anti-Black Panther, and sing “I’m black and I’m proud.” He was a confusing guy, and I couldn’t think of somebody I’d rather spend a bunch of years trying to understand.
Do you feel you understood him in the end?
I guess I’d say he’s come into focus for me, and he never had before. I think I understand why he did many of the things he did; I guess I could say I understand him, but I don’t feel I know him. I just feel like I understand him, but I don’t feel I‘d be able to sit down next to him and strike up a conversation with him.
There’s a big responsibility that comes with writing a biography.
Yeah, the responsibility, I felt it. It was a weight. He was such a domineering, dominant figure. I felt like he was there watching me as I worked, and was going tell me if I got the story wrong or didn’t tell the story true. There are so many people that he affected, for good and for ill, and I had a responsibility to them too - that I don’t whitewash the things that weren’t so nice in James Brown’s life, but I also don’t let those things define his life. I tried to get it right. I could never, ever take it casually. The great thing about James Brown is there’s so many people there inside him. Entrepreneur, politician, civil rights activist, republican, musician, dancer. There’s a lot to write about. I try to show the different sides and I try to say why he might have done this or that. The contradiction of how could he be a friend of Strom Thurman, who was an archconservative and a segregationist, when James Brown was not a segregationist. How could that be? You’d have to look at their relationship, describe it, and lay it out there.
When do you feel comfortable enough that you’ve captured someone’s life satisfactorily, and the book is complete?
I love research. I love interviewing people. I have the disposition that I could be very comfortable sitting in a library for weeks and weeks and weeks, looking at microfilm, looking at documents. I easily could have researched another five years [but] I don’t think the publisher would have been too happy about that (laughs). But you can’t turn it in if you feel like there’s big questions, big holes, where people are going to be asking these questions, and you haven’t laid it out and helped them understand. If there are parts of his life you haven’t gotten to, or aspects of it, then you can’t turn it in because you’re not done. There are definitely places I know I could have added more to, and written more to illustrate points, or celebrate the music, sometimes I feel like I could have gone on more about aspects of the music. You turn it in, and you keep thinking about it after that too.
How important is Brown’s legendary guitarist Jimmy Nolen in the book?
He was hugely important to the story. One complicated factor or problem I had was all the amazing musicians, dozens of them, that were in his band over the years, that played a huge role in defining his sound. That’s a whole different book, and it takes the focus off James Brown. I did two things. I focused most of all on drummers, and drew a line between New Orleans drumming through Brown’s bands to the present. After the drummers, along with bassist Bootsy Collins, Jimmy Nolen was probably the person I talked about the most. I talked to his wife, who lives in Atlanta. Nolen didn’t do many interviews, but I found one, I think it was in Guitar Player, where he said he thought of his playing as being a drummer, because he played in so many bands with bad drummers, he felt he had to show them the beat, or play it down for the whole band to hear. That’s what helped him establish the sound he took on most fully in the Brown band. He had so much flavor in his playing, he could just play a tiny little bit of this or that, add a little something to the groove, like a drop of food coloring that changes the complexion of everything, or a little drop of black you put in a can of white paint, and suddenly the color is so much richer. He underplays, and yet he’s such a rich, full player at the same time. He lived in Atlanta, and the musicians Brown leaned on most, he tried to keep them to himself, have them live around him, and be on twenty-four hour call. Eric Clapton would come to Atlanta, he’d call, ‘Hey I’m in town, you wanna play? Let’s jam.’ And Jimmy Nolen would say, ‘Yeah, but let’s be very quiet about it. Don’t let James know that I’m hangin’ out with you. He’s gonna think you’re gonna steal me from him!’”
A lot of rock biographies got the green light after the success of the Keith Richards book. Do you feel this helped sell The One, and how has it been doing in the marketplace after the success of Keith’s book?
I think it’s doing fine in the marketplace. It’s not a best-seller, but I think it’s doing fine. It’s the kind of thing I think is going to sell for a long time the way that a solid biography does. If you want to read about a person, there’s one book you’ll want to find first, and hopefully that will be the case for a long time. It’s gotten great press, great reviews, people seem to like it, so that’s nice. As far as the timing, as far as the zeitgeist, Keith Richards’s book was a marker for me and a lot of writers. At the same time, I wrote a book about a great musician, but I tried to write a book about a great artist and an amazing American who also happened to be a musician at the same time. That’s another feeling of responsibility that I really felt. The people that are into James Brown are so way into him, they know so much about those sessions, and those dates, the alternate takes, who exactly played the trumpet on that tune, I had to get it right. But if you get way too bogged down in that kind of detail, you lose the portrait of the person.
The title The One has more than one meaning. It not only means that James Brown was a one and only, but it’s also a reference to the one when counting out a beat. Did you come up with the title?
Yeah. Early on, when I was writing the proposal, it was always with me. I don’t think the publisher was necessarily totally sold on it, and one way I was able to convince them was with the Keith Richards book, which has a profound, simple title as well.
I would love to take a little time off, sleep in, and just do a lot of pleasure reading I wasn’t able to do with this book. I had to read a lot for research. I look forward to the pleasure of reading again. I need to do something new, most of all because I’m a writer and I write. I need to get going on the next one and figure out what it is. But I don’t know how to write the next James Brown story. There’s only one James Brown. I talked to somebody at NPR, and the interviewer said, “So, before you start on your next one, I know you’re gonna do somebody like Lady Gaga...” Somebody will write a great Lady Gaga book probably, but it’s not like I’m gonna go on to the next big musician of the moment. I have about three or four ideas that are near and dear to me, and I know if I write them out, they’ll connect with people too.
I’ve seen a lot of writers who put out books to keep working during the recession, and journalism - along with everything else with the economy - took a tough hit. Where do you see things headed for music journalism in the future?
It’s a complicated time. People are reading as much as ever, I’m sure of that, maybe more than ever. They just don’t need to pay for it, or don’t need to pay nearly as much for it as before. The implications of that haven’t finished shaking out a whole lot of industries: advertising, publishing, journalism. I’m sure there’s a lot of dominoes that will continue to fall, but a lot of dominoes that will pop up as well. People will never get tired of stories. They may get shorter, or longer, or whatever, but a good story is always going to be in demand.