The Magazine

Troubled Soul

The man who started it all heads for the finish line.

Aug 1, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 43 • By MARTHA BAYLES
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I Feel Good

A Memoir of a Life of Soul

by James Brown and Marc Eliot

New American Library, 266 pp., $24.95

James Brown

The Godfather of Soul

by James Brown and Bruce Tucker

Thunder's Mouth Press, 384 pp., $14.95

"I TOOK A TRIP to Rome during one of my down periods a few years ago, and had the good fortune to be greeted by the pope." Reading about this encounter, one naturally wonders what the Hardest Working Man in Show Business and the Hardest Working Man in Religion had to say to each other. "The pontiff shook my hand three times," Brown continues, "and I told him I had been thinking about leaving the music business, and to my surprise, he advised against it. I asked him why. He said, 'Because, sir, you can get things done.'"

Was the Holy Father a soul man in the James Brown sense? Or was this standard papal advice to visitors long in the tooth? You won't find out the answer from I Feel Good, a carelessly written celebrity biography that barely skims the surface of Brown's fascinating life. For an in-depth look, read Brown's first autobiography, James Brown: The Godfather of Soul (first published in 1986, reprinted in 2003), coauthored with Bruce Tucker. In Tucker, Brown had a real writer to work with. In Eliot, he has someone best described as no Plutarch. Eliot has written bios of Cary Grant, the Eagles, Erin Brockovich, Walt Disney, Donna Summer, Roy Clark, Vicki Lawrence, Bruce Springsteen, Phil Ochs, Burt Reynolds, Barry White, and Kato Kaelin--more than is good for him, probably, and certainly more than is good for Brown.

The clear purpose of I Feel Good is to repair a very tarnished image. Brown has had a bad 20 years. Between 1988 and 1991, he served part of a six-year prison term for assault, failure to stop for an officer, resisting arrest, and illegal possession of a pistol and drugs. In 1998 he was arrested after a car chase and sentenced to a 90-day drug rehab. In 2003 he was pardoned by the state of South Carolina, but that didn't stop him from getting in trouble again. In January 2004, he was arrested for allegedly shoving his wife, Tomi Rae, to the floor of their bedroom.

But I Feel Good gives only a garbled account of these misadventures, laced with braggadocio and racial paranoia. Again, readers who would rather focus on Brown's accomplishments are advised to read Tucker. Not only does Tucker's book include old-fashioned aids like an index and discography (both maddeningly absent from Eliot), it also brings out the complexity of a man who, despite his recent decline, is an American icon. Rough yet refined, boastful yet humble, Brown is an extraordinary talent who also happens to be blessed (cursed?) with a sharp intelligence that cuts through the B.S. as cleanly as his incredible voice cuts through the air.

The true fan will say, "Skip the books and listen to the music." Good advice, since no amount of description can capture the essence of James Brown. But given the state of popular music these days, listening is not a simple proposition. To a large degree, what one hears will depend on one's background, age, and cultural outlook.

For white middle-class fans who grew up in the 1960s, Brown is the one who added funk to soul. That is, he took the style of black music then popular among whites and injected it with rhythmic steroids. For African Americans of the same vintage, Brown is one of several artists who secularized church music. That is, he took the burning heart of gospel, the "hard" style of the solo evangelist, and injected it with hedonism. To most whites, funk was all about sex--an appeal Brown exploited with titles like "Sex Machine" (even though the lyrics had nothing to do with sex and everything to do with dancing). To most blacks, funk, like soul, was full of echoes: Behind every "baby" they heard "Jesus."

In music, the line between sacred and secular is tricky. A century ago, African Americans drew it between instruments (tambourines okay, drums not) and practices (dancing with the feet apart okay, with them crossed not). In the 1920s a vaudevillian named Thomas A. Dorsey got saved at a Baptist convention and decided to incorporate the music he knew best--the blues--into a new genre called "the gospel song." People are still surprised to learn that the salty blues "It's Tight Like That" was written by the same man who wrote Martin Luther King's favorite hymn, "Take My Hand Precious Lord."