Author Spotlight: R.J. Smith

The former Los Angeles magazine senior editor whose new biography of James Brown is receiving raves reviews reflects on the iconic singer’s time in the city of Angels
James Brown liked Los Angeles without ever exactly feeling comfortable here. It was a place he kept coming back to, sizing up from various angles. In the early 1960s L.A. was where Brown went to retool his look, moving out from under the Little Richard hairdo to more of a modified Tony Curtis.

It’s also where he picked up Jimmy Nolen, the great guitarist, for his band. Nolen was the inventor of the chank-a-chank guitar style that dominated Brown’s sound on songs like “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” and “Out of Sight.”

Brown was hungry to break into Hollywood. He fed the press reports that he was making assorted movies—a biography of boxer Henry Armstrong, a story of a pool hustler, starring in a picture directed by Senegalese filmmaker Johnny Seka. For years he said he was talking to Dick Clark about producing the James Brown Story. Brown did some great soundtrack work on the 1973 Black Caesar and Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off soundtracks, while remaining critical of the stereotypes in the blaxploitation genre (though he did admit to liking Blacula!). He rocked a toasty cardigan in 1965’s Ski Party costarring Dwayne Hickman and a yodeling polar bear. But Brown’s charisma never found a home on the movie screen, which is a shame.

A biopic is a real possibility. But who could possibly play the Godfather? Brown thought Usher had a shot, and the names of Eddie Murphy and Wesley Snipes have been bandied. I could see Mos Def in the role, but none of them were Brown’s first choice. Who did he think captured his true essence? LeVar Burton. Good God!

The One: The Life and Music of James Brown is available at bookstores and online.