RJ Smith

RJ Smith has been a senior editor at Los Angeles magazine, a contributor to Blender, a columnist for The Village Voice, a staff writer at Spin, and a contributor to numerous other publications. His award-winning cultural history, The Great Black Way, was a Los Angeles Times bestseller. His new biography of James Brown is titled The One.



"There Was a Time: James Brown in Augusta"

One city looms largest in the shaping of James Brown, and it isn’t the home of the Apollo Theater. Augusta Georgia is a straight up roughneck paradise, a southern town where money shouted. It’s the city that Brown walked into circa 1939, and the place he never really left.

I’ll talk about Brown’s multilayered relationship to the city through a discussion of his actions during riots in the city in 1970. A 16 year old African American had been killed in the Augusta jail, and word spread quickly. Soon protesters occupied the street; Governor Lester Maddox called in 1000 National Guardsmen and 150 state troopers. By the time the riot was over, six African Americans had been killed, all shot in the back. At least 20 downtown buildings went up in flames. Brown’s relationship to these events is far more complicated and heartfelt than his intervention in Boston the night that Martin Luther King was killed.

To understand Brown’s actions, and his connection with the city, we’ll look at two figures Brown experienced as a young man in Augusta, two icons in the neighborhood from which Brown rose: the boxer Beau Jack and the kingpin of the prosperity gospel, Daddy Grace. Grace spent a great deal of time in Augusta, and the music of his United House of Prayer had a major impact on Brown’s sound – and on American music – that has passed with little comment.

Brown’s relationship to the events of 1970 says much about who he was, and how he felt about the city he called home.