Picks and Pans Review: The Godfather of Soul

updated 12/08/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/08/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

by James Brown with Bruce Tucker

At 53, Brown has been performing long enough to predate the Motown sound, the disco craze and the rap attack—and he is still recording such successful tunes as Living in America. This surprisingly perceptive autobiography is more than just another chronicle of pop-music celebrity. Born poor in South Carolina in 1933 and jailed for theft by age 15, Brown became known at the Georgia Juvenile Training Institute as Music Box. By 1953, a year after his release, he was part of a group called the Flames, whose style developed from circuses, minstrel shows, gospel music and almost anything else that passed through Greenville, S.C. In 1956 the group released Please, Please, Please on the Federal label, which eventually sold 1 million copies. From that start Brown pushed on to become known as the "hardest-working man in show business," recording such hits as Papa's Got a Brand New Bag and I Feel Good in the process. Music buffs will enjoy his story for such anecdotes as the time in Toccoa, Ga. when Brown sang and danced Little Richard off the stage. Yet Brown's life also represents the challenges and triumphs that have moved black America through the past half century. He tells not only of integrating concerts in Augusta, Ga. in the early '60s but also of meeting with such leaders as Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King Jr. With his 1966 song Don't Be a Dropout, Brown began stressing the importance of education to black youth. Of his political activities, he writes, "People sometimes try to use you, and others misunderstand." Still, Brown, never one to understate his own achievements, ends up portraying himself not only as the publicity hype "Godfather of Soul" but also as a kind of cultural godfather of black America. To the extent that his popularization of black music and his contribution to the civil rights movement served as an inspiration, it's hard to argue with him. (Macmillan, $18.95)

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