James Brown and the rock book biz

The enormous success of Keith Richards’s memoir Life, which was on the best-seller lists for over a year, prompted a number of musicians to ink similar book deals.  

Many of these biographies were on the fast track to get written up in a hurry and into bookstores, and now we’re seeing these books hitting the shelves, or about to hit stores. Greg Allman’s book just came out, Pete Townshend’s is coming soon, and there’s more rock bios that will be hitting the stores this year and beyond.

There’s eventually bound to be a glut in the music section of the local bookstores, but for now the music biography business is still going strong and one bio that’s been getting rave reviews is the James Brown biography, The One, penned by RJ Smith.

Smith has written for Spin, Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times Magazine. He certainly didn’t pick an easy subject, as Brown was a very complicated guy, and he can’t exactly be explained in a simple hour of Behind the Music.


As Smith told Made Loud, “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,” Smith continued. “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.”  Which is not to say at the end of the process that Smith solved the puzzle.


“I guess I’d say he’s come into focus for me, and he never had before,” Smith said. “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. 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.”


Although it’s not on the best-seller lists, Smith says TheOne is doing well in the marketplace, and the book comes at an interesting time in that we don’t have many book stores left, and it’s been hard for a lot of accomplished writers to get gigs. 

Quite a few writers finally decided to write the big, pimpy books they’ve always wanted to write because there’s not a lot of places left to write for when the recession hit, and again, this can also lead to a glut of music books in the marketplace that could ultimately burn out the demand for rock bios.


Yet as Smith assured Made Loud, “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 ever. I’m sure there’s a lot of dominos that will continue to fall, but a lot of dominos 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 gonna be in demand.”