In today’s New York Times, the opportunistic Reverend Al Sharpton reviews The One, a new book on James Brown by R. J. Smith. And of course he begins with an homage to—Sharpton:
When James Brown’s children and I brought his body back to Harlem from Georgia after his untimely death in 2006, tens of thousands greeted us in the streets upon our arrival.
Predictable. What distinguishes this review is its unrelenting tedium, its attempt to draw huge lessons about Brown and the black experience. The writing is leaden:
For years, writers have attempted to tell James’s story and to dissect his complex and multilayered life. Either too naïve or just unaware of the nuances of societal challenges and cultural norms alike, they failed to fully grasp the depth of value that James and his music played in transforming American life as a whole. Going to great lengths researching and interviewing those closest to the music icon (myself included), Smith not only effortlessly highlights James’s unmatched musical career, but also provides a well-studied historical context for the basis of his artistic expression.
Sharpton makes James Brown something that he never was in real life—boring. He was The Hardest Working Man in Show Business, and mesmerizing to watch. It’s a sign of Sharpton’s ham-handedness that he doesn’t mention even one song by The King of Funk. Where is “I Feel Good”? “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag”? And my favorite, despite its political incorrectness, “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World“?
In its desire to get books appraised by celebrities rather than qualified reviewers, the Times screwed up here.
If you ever saw James Brown, you remember the cape routine. (If you didn’t, it’s too long to describe.) I always wanted to give a science talk like that, walking offstage with a minion draping me with a cape, and then throwing off the garment to return to the podium. Oh well . . .
At any rate, the dullness of Sharpton’s prose made me look on YouTube for some James Brown, and there’s a lot. Here’s an unknown gem: Brown doing a duet of “Man’s World” with, of all people, Luciano Pavarotti!
And perhaps Brown’s greatest recorded performance ever: the T.A.M.I. Show in 1964, which included stars as diverse as Leslie Gore, Brown, the Beach Boys, the Supremes, Chuck Berry, and the Rolling Stones. (If you can get a CD of this concert, by all means do.) His rendition of “Night Train” may be the most energetic bit of soul music ever filmed. Here’s part of it (the cape routine begins at 5:30).
You either love James Brown or you hate him. I’m in the first group.