The Godfather of Soul

James BrownProud: The Story of James Brown
By Ronald J. Lankford, Jr.
(Morgan Reynolds, 2014, Greensboro, N.C., $28.95)

Renowned for perfectionism, politics, and theatrical performances, James Brown helped shape American music in the latter half of the twentieth century. The man who served as midwife to soul and funk grew up in the blues: born into poverty, abandoned by his mother at four, Brown was raised by various relatives in segregated Georgia and South Carolina. At sixteen, he went to prison for breaking and entering. How he soared from prison to the pop charts seems nothing less than an American fairy tale.

In Proud, music scholar Ronald D. Lankford explores Brown’s remarkable ascent to stardom. He skillfully intertwines musical and American history with Brown’s story to educate young adults about the entertainer’s contributions to pop music and the Civil Rights movement. Lankford does not neglect the uglier side of the sixties; he describes the unfair treatment black soldiers encountered while serving in Vietnam. He also articulates Brown’s complex political position: a strong belief in equal rights coupled with an unwavering faith in America as a land of opportunity. Finally, quotes, often poignant, from Brown and those who knew him, complete Lankford’s portrait of the volatile, ambitious, and larger-than-life musician.

Proud is a nuanced young adult biography of a complicated and important artist. Today, over one thousand hip-hop tracks contain samples from Brown’s oeuvre; these songs, along with Proud, should introduce Brown to a new generation of fans.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

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