National Book Award-winner James McBride’s “Kill ’Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul,” a portrait of the legendary soul singer, is a tour de force of cultural reportage.
‘Kill ’Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul’
by James McBride
Spiegel & Grau, 256 pp., $28
The Godfather of Soul.
Soul Brother Number One.
The hardest-working man in show business.
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The late James Brown knew how to hype himself, but perhaps more than any other African-American entertainer of the 20th century, the reality of his talent and cultural influence far exceeds the billing.
Brown, who died from a sudden illness on Christmas Day in 2006 at the age of 73, didn’t just dazzle generations of music fans over four decades. He helped popularize the very idea of “black pride” with his civil-rights-era song of empowerment, “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud.”
Brown was iconic and religious about presenting himself as an upstanding human, but as with other celebrities we think we know, he had another side, as his turbulent love life, conflicts with band members and employees, financial woes, later drug abuse and a stint in prison suggest.
Author and musician James McBride has his work cut out for him trying to make sense of these contradictions in his new book, “Kill ’Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul.” His impassioned investigation of Brown’s essence and legacy represents a tour de force of cultural reportage.
Brown is most often associated with funk music because of his songs’ down-and-dirty guitar grooves, killer percussion and stuttering horns. But McBride says Brown’s funkiness, his ability to make people “get up offa that thang,” captures only a little of what made him great.
Brown, who grew up dirt-poor around the South Carolina/Georgia border, created a whole sound and sensibility, McBride argues, one that helped him outlast and overshadow nearly every other major black music star between the 1950s and ’70s. Video footage of his 1960s stage performances shows Brown singing, dancing and shouting like a God-fearing man possessed by earthly temptation. He’s the living, shimmying embodiment of soul, back then a nascent music form rooted in old-time gospel and secular blues, one he was helping to shape. Brown deliberately leaves audiences wanting more, walking off the stage at the end of a show and straight out of the venue, not to return to soak up the glory. “Kill ’em and leave,” he’d always say. “Kill ’em and leave.”
The Brown aesthetic can be found everywhere in contemporary music, from early hip-hop loops to Michael Jackson’s fancy footwork and larger-than-life persona to Prince’s ultratight funk-rock. His political influence lives on in the activism of the Rev. Al Sharpton, who met and started working with Brown as a young pastor in New York.
But for a man who was such a brilliant entertainer, organizer of talent and devoted, financially generous advocate for black uplift, he was terribly conflicted and untrusting, McBride discovers.
McBride depicts Brown as a man who never went out in public in anything other than the finest, most “proper” threads, who was in a real sense an ambassador of African-American culture for the whole world, but who never revealed his true self or discussed his demons or vices. “I never met anyone in my life … that worked harder to hide his true heart,” says one of Brown’s lifelong friends in his adopted hometown of Augusta, Ga.
Brown hid other things — mistresses in different cities, a .38 pistol under his coat, bags of cash. Michael Jackson, the most reclusive and misunderstood of all megastars, could have related.
The Godfather of Soul was one of the King of Pop’s idols. And Brown adored Jackson. Of all the incredible scenes McBride re-creates, none is more touching or ominous than his description of Jackson arriving in Augusta to view Brown’s body at a funeral home in the middle of the night, standing for hours by his idol’s gold-plated casket. Jackson himself would die just as suddenly three years later.
Brown’s family continues to battle over how to divide up his estate, estimated to be at least $100 million at the time of his death, but which has been shrinking year by year as legal fees eat into it. In his will, Brown explicitly asked that the bulk of his fortune be used to educate poor children of all races in the region where he grew up. Thus far, not a cent has been used for that purpose. The situation, and the apparent greed involved, clearly upsets McBride, but his discouragement over that state of affairs doesn’t overpower his faith in Brown’s cultural and social influence.
James Brown may have left the building, but his beat goes on.