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Book Review: The James Brown Reader (Nelson George & Alan Leeds, eds.)

I had the good fortune to see Soul Brother Number One, the Hardest Working Man in Show Business, one summer evening in Durham, NC in 1996. His latest at the time, as I recall, was "Living in America," a tune that didn't impress me much. I entertained the thought that he was washed up, and didn't have high expectations for the show. Still, I wasn't going to miss a chance to see JAMES BROWN. I was impressed and surprised by with the show. James Brown still very much had it goin' on. Granted, we were subjected to the usual schtick, with the emcee and the cape. The large band was clad in matching purple and red outfits, something halfway between a marching band uniform and a tuxedo. (Having read the James Brown reader, I now realize that they were probably designed by Mr. Brown his bad self.)

Until reading this book, I never realized just how enigmatic a figure was James Brown. I was fully aware of his musical innovations; what I didn't understand was his immensity: the sheer size of his talent, his ego, his successes and his failures (all in a five foot six package).

Admittedly, the book gets off to a slow start. You feel like you're reading the same story over and over again: a black Horatio Alger, rising up from dancing for coins and shining shoes to making hit records, owning radio stations and flying in his own jet. All the significant chapters in Brown's life are given substantial treatment: his appearances at the Apollo with the Famous Flames; his great bands of the late sixties and early seventies with Pee Wee Ellis, Maceo Parker, Bootsy Collins, Fred Wesley and others; his helping to prevent riots in Boston after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.; his "say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud" message of empowerment; his gradual slide from the top through the seventies. His problems with drugs and the law in the eighties, including the two-state, high-speed chase with police that landed him in prison; and his return to the stage. You realize that the repetition of the same stories seen through the eyes of different authors in the end produces a highly nuanced understanding of the character.... And the man was a character!

Among my favorite pieces: Chuck D's childhood memories of imitating James Brown's moves, Robert Palmer's analysis of Brown's musical innovations, Pat Kelly covering the band members' gripes, Jonathan Lethem's long reflection on "being James Brown" and Woody Marshall's short piece on Brown's visit to Graceland after Elvis's death.

The book includes a complete discography, a time line by Alan Leeds, and an insightful introduction by Nelson George. If you are interested in the history of popular music, this tome is a must read. I might even recommend it even if you don't care about music, because it's a fascinating collection of essays about a great, if flawed, man.


Wow, you sure read a lot!

And if you didn't write, I wouldn't read at all.

(If someone who couldn't read, wrote a book, would that be illiterature?)

Today is International Star Wars Day

May the 4th be with you!

January 2019



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