“In New Orleans, Brown announced he was retiring soon,” we learn on page 183 of The One. That was circa 1966, mind you, and of course he announced he was retiring soon—in a city where he’d steeped in history (see chapter five). This was the legendary cape routine writ larger, surrounding himself with a self-drawn shroud only to whip it off when showtime hit. “Brown was taking the rumors to a higher level, and they seemed to serve a personal need,” writes R.J. Smith.
“He had entered diva territory, evoking Sarah Bernhardt morbidly lugging her casket with her from town to town. ‘Love me now,’ he was saying. ‘I may not be around tomorrow.’”
All people must pass, but James Brown like a few others from different circumstances, like James Dean and Elvis and Hank Sr. and John Wayne and Lady Di, etched their own iconography. They evinced.
Their deaths seem footnotes to their evincing. All the more astounding from, in Brown’s case, a child who quite aside from being black and poor in the Deep South, died at birth and didn’t breathe until his stubborn Aunt Minnie breathed life (and maybe stubbornness) into his tiny body for several minutes. So sayeth James.
“That’s a devastating entrance,” remarks Smith. “It’s also impossible because a stillborn infant is dead in the uterus…. But Brown felt different…. He saw his stillborn entrance as the moment his specialness first revealed itself.”
In other words, he got that feeling, and that feeling begat all else. Smith’s fine with facts and respectful of the story facts tell, but he wisely does not deny his subject’s force of nature. When you evince with that ferocity, you conquer facts along with everything else.
I’m sorry James Brown apparently doesn’t merit a two-volume history like Elvis did by Peter Guralnick, but that’s not Smith’s fault. Smith begins the story long before his subject’s birth and ends it after his death. Elvis is in there too: “But it wasn’t the man he liked. Not really. It was the crown.” There could be only The One.