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A New Anthology Offers a Warts-and-All Survey of The Life and Career of The Godfather of Soul

Alex Fine

By Michaelangelo Matos | Posted 6/18/2008

Look through a well-stocked new-vinyl bin and you'll likely find a handful of James Brown LPs, reissued in their original form. For fans under 40, weaned on Polydor's brilliant anthologies--culminating in and/or expanding upon 1991's unsurpassable four-CD overview Star Time--these look like an alternate history of Brown's music, with little of the shape the late 20th century's greatest recording artist deserves. Of course, Brown's music did in fact first appear on frequently ad hoc, filler-laden, thrown-together albums. So think of The James Brown Reader: Fifty Years of Writing About the Godfather of Soul (Plume) as those LPs' analogue: a warts-and-all jumble that teaches us things the neater biographies (including the two co-authored by Brown himself) don't have room for--a history of the way James Brown appreciation expanded over the years.

Co-editors Nelson George and Alan Leeds both contribute fine overtures to the volume--Leeds a useful time line of Brown's life, George a gratifyingly unsentimental critic's-eye view of the man's public decline--and a handful of Leeds' liner notes for the aforementioned Polydor collections are useful for explicating specific periods (like the briefly lived Bootsy Collins-led version of Brown's backing band, the J.B.'s) otherwise uncovered. Still, it's hard not to wish they'd included a note about their compiling methodology, though it doesn't take long to figure out the pair elected to leave in original typos, misspellings, falsities, and myths.

This works to the book's advantage, particularly if you read the Reader front to back. Most of the '60s pieces veer in two directions: boilerplate legend bolstering from black-oriented magazines and newspapers--particularly the Chicago Defender, as well as a terribly written but illuminatingly obsequious 1972 piece by Soul magazine's Sharryn Watts--or explain-it-to-white-folks mainstream press profiles. Of the latter, Doon Arbus (New York Herald Tribune) and Albert Goldman (New York Times) are most representative, both of them uneasily mixing astute observation with questionable caricature.

Those approaches are unsurprising: Brown ran a tight ship, and most pop-music writing was still essentially tied to promotion and keeping bad habits secret until the early '70s, when John Lennon spilled the goods on the backstage Beatles in Rolling Stone and essentially birthed the rock-era tell-all. The first hint of what would become predominant J.B.-profile pattern comes with Mel Ziegler's "James Brown Sells His Soul" (Miami Herald, 1968), in which undeniable respect for Brown's achievements are balanced with taking his promotional glad-handing to task. But the deluge comes with Pat Kelly's "Papa Takes Some Mess," from a 1975 issue of Crawdaddy--the book's first real salvo at Brown's once-bulletproof persona, in the year his star more or less fell for good. ("The Payback" and "Funky President" were hits in 1974, but after that a new James Brown single was no longer guaranteed R&B airplay.)

Even given decades of subsequent reports of J.B.'s tyrannical temper and mistreatment of band members, Kelly's piece remains jolting, from Quincy Troupe telling Kelly about the Godfather's overburdening a flight to Zaire with his massive entourage (and picking on fellow passenger Bill Withers) to his band's voluminous complaints and mockery of the boss. Kelly's frank descriptions of Brown's declining audience are withering. Describing a pair of underattended concerts at Gaithersburg's Shady Grove Music Fair, one line may be this book's cruelest: "There aren't enough there for a mass exodus." (Speaking of painting the master in an unflattering light, it's hard not to wish the Reader had come out later so it could include Sean Flynn's "Papa," on the battle over Brown's estate by his many, many unofficial heirs, from the April 2008 GQ.)

As Brown's career faded into the oldies circuit (even 1986's "Living in America," a Rocky IV soundtrack cut that went No. 1, traded on J.B.'s past glories rather than blazing new trails), the scope of his earlier work became ever more apparent. First funk and disco artists stretched out or simplified his groove, then rappers and sample-based dance artists transmogrified his actual recordings to their own ends, and then--as he mentions to several of the journalists the Reader collects--most of modern pop became unthinkable without his innovations.

The career-overview pieces that dominate the book's second half are often built similarly--contemplating Brown's impact, ruminating on his autumnal status, picking up his band members' mutterings--but they don't all read alike any more than Brown's funk anthems all sound alike. As Brown ages and Star Time and its fellows cement his legacy to the earth's core, the Reader's pieces get both sharper and more grandiose, climaxing with twin monuments by Philip Gourevitch (The New Yorker) and Jonathan Lethem (Rolling Stone), and he's given a movingly modest afterword in a Macon Telegraph piece featuring Woody Marshall's byline but mostly told in the words of Fred Davis, a former J.B. business manager who recounts his old boss visiting Graceland upon Elvis Presley's death, then replaying the scene for himself.

But things aren't quite that tidy in The James Brown Reader as in Brown's life. The three pieces covering Brown's late-'80s incarceration (by the Philadelphia Inquirer's Michael Vitez, the Village Voice's Ivan Solotaroff, and the Washington Post's David Mills) are all profoundly disturbing. By the time of his arrest for leading police on a two-state car chase (the last few miles of which Brown drove with his tires shot out), he'd been abandoned by his old associates ("Where are his friends?" old Famous Flames vocalist Bobby Byrd rhetorically asked Vitez. "They're as far away as they can get."), regularly abused his third wife, and was in denial about his PCP use. His habit, as Solotaroff puts it, of having "spoken publicly in purposeful proclamations" had turned into the ravings of a man badly out of touch with himself and the world he'd transformed, and though the Reader's later pieces (particularly Gourevitch's and Lethem's) paint him with dignity, that caricature came to dominate his public persona. Credit The James Brown Reader for refusing to gloss it over any more than Brown did his own rough muse.

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