No. 20: James Sullivan, “The Hardest Working Man: How James Brown Saved The Soul Of America”

Michaelangelo Matos | December 24, 2008 2:00 am

You want a Great Pop Moment? James Brown playing Boston Garden right after MLK’s assassination, having it broadcast live on TV, and having the city respond by largely staying home and not destroying the city—that’s one for the ages. Which makes it kind of odd that no one thought to write a book about it until now.

Not just any book, either. The Hardest Working Man: How James Brown Saved the Soul of America may have been saddled with an ungainly, not-exactly-appropriate subtitle (he did no such thing, not provably at least, though “How James Brown Saved Boston From Getting Torn the Fuck Up” would probably not have worked so well for the book’s more loftily aimed marketing purposes), but it might very well be the best James Brown book ever written—including JB’s own crackling autobio, The Godfather of Soul, and Douglas Wolk’s cinematic Live at the Apollo.

James Sullivan is a Boston reporter who knows the city and its history well—or, at least, he learned so much while working on this book that he could pass himself off as an expert. Aces either way: this is a committed local story as much as a world-historical one, and Sullivan’s sharp eye and terrific feel for the city as a backdrop enhances the larger picture immensely. He also writes pungent analysis of Brown’s music (the horns of 1964’s “Out of Sight” are “like the multiple exclamation points of an action comic book”), chooses his quotes with exacting care, and made slow-reader me race through his book in two nights. Don’t just saw “ow,” say OWWWW!

The Hardest Working Man [Penguin Books]James Brown’s Cape Finale (Boston, MA 1968) [YouTube]80 ’08 (and heartbreak)