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James Brown: the electrifying one and only

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Matt Dunham/STF/AP

(Read caption) James Brown "wanted to walk in a room and not have people say 'Where is he?' but 'There he is!,'" says journalist R.J. Smith said of James Brown.

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"This is a man's, a man's, a man's world," sang James Brown. But when he was on stage, it was one man's world and one alone. He danced like his pants were on fire and sang as if his soul felt the heat. If he felt good – and he did, never mind all those trials and tribulations, the drugs and the arrests, the grooves that he couldn't get back – you did too. RJ Smith, a Los Angeles-based music journalist and author of the new book The One: The Life and Music of James Brown, may have come closer than anyone to understanding how James Brown became James Brown. "This book’s sparkle speaks for itself, as does Mr. Smith’s ability to take on his screaming, moaning, kinetically blessed, unbeatably shrewd subject," wrote Janet Maslin in The New York Times.

In an interview this week, Smith talked about the best of Brown's music, the singer's bold choices regarding race and the challenges Smith himself faced in getting Southerners to be more than just hospitable when he came a-knockin'.

Q: If a Martian landed in front of you and asked about James Brown, how would you describe him?

A: He's the ultimate intersection of singing, dancing and stagecraft. If you had one line for great performers, like a Fred Astaire or Michael Jackson, and another line for a great soulful vocalist, and another line for great people who knew how to command your attention, respect and response – at the intersection of all these lines would be James Brown.


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