Who Was James Brown?: Inside James McBride’s “Kill ‘Em and Leave”
James Brown may have been the hardest working man in America, but he’s now the hardest to find, most elusive figure in popular music. Almost four years ago, RJ Smith delivered what looked to be — and in many minds remains — the definitive biography of Brown, The One: The Life and Music of James Brown (Gotham, 2012). As I wrote in my Publishers Weekly review then, “Smith’s compelling and detailed portrait of one our greatest musicians reveals affectionately and honestly the reasons we jump up every time ‘I Feel Good’ comes on the radio.”
In the intervening years, Hollywood served up a caricature of James Brown in Get on Up (2014), and though many critics praised Chadwick Boseman’s portrayal of Brown, the movie — as movies are wont to do — exaggerated episodes from Brown’s life and got many of them plain wrong. Just after the movie opens, for example, Brown walks into an Augusta office building he owns, toting a shotgun, angry that one of the employees has used his private bathroom. The shotgun accidentally discharges, blasting a hole in the ceiling. In the movie, Brown lets loose a curse, then runs as the police arrive and start a chase. Maybe it makes for a humorous scene, but those events never happened. He did own a hunting rifle, but it didn’t have a firing pin. He rested the rifle in a corner, asked folks not to use his private bathroom, and turned to leave. Someone reminded him of the rifle, and he said, “Thank you,” picked up the rifle, and left. The police did “chase” Brown, but he didn’t run a police barricade — as in the movie — and destroy two police cars. The police riddled Brown’s truck with bullets following the chase and destroyed the truck when two bullets hit the gas tank.
According to acclaimed writer James McBride (The Color of Water) in his new book, Kill ‘Em and Leave: Searching for the Real James Brown (Spiegel & Grau), we’ve never known the real James Brown … and we don’t much know him after we’ve read McBride’s book, either.
McBride has his own stories about his search for Brown and his own reasons for trying to find the real Godfather of Soul. As a child in the 1960s, McBride lived not far down the street from a “huge, forbidding, black-and-gray house” where Brown was reported to live. McBride would often wait across the street from the house, hoping to glimpse Brown and hear the singer utter his famous phrase “stay in school.” McBride’s sister, Dotty, ventured up to the house one day and asked to see Mr. Brown. He appeared at the door, greeting her with a handshake and his famous phrase. McBride’s own interest in the man began that day.
Drawing on interviews with Brown’s family and friends, many of whom have never before spoken on record about Brown, McBride paints a rather gloomy portrait of a man haunted by the demons of insecurity and mistrust. He portrays Brown as a musician whose career ascended rapidly and descended just as quickly. He insisted that children stay in school and left most of his fortune to provide financial aid to children caught in the web of poverty. Brown so distrusted banks that hid money everywhere, and, writes McBride, always walked around with $3,000 worth of cashier’s checks for the last 20 years of his life.
Yet, McBride’s search is motivated not only by a desire to find the “real” James Brown — in fact, Brown’s music is almost ancillary to the book; McBride gives us not so much another biography — Smith’s is unbeatable in that respect — or critical analysis of the music but more a social and cultural history of the way that growing up in poverty in the South created the man that James Brown became. As McBride admits — and he’s not alone in this judgment — “there is nowhere in the USA quite like the American South; there is no place more difficult to fully understand or fully capture … you cannot understand Brown without understanding that the land that produced him is a land of masks. The people who walk the land, both black and white, wear masks, then masks beneath those masks. They are tricksters and shape shifters, magicians, and carnival barkers, able to metamorphosize right before your eyes into good old boys, respectable lawyers, polite society types … and everything’s-gonna-be-all-right Maya Angelou look-alikes — when in fact nothing’s going to be all right.”
As McBride points out: “No one is more aware of the power of America’s southerners than the blacks who walk among them …[Brown] was an expert at dodging the white man’s evil; he had years of practice covering up, closing down, shutting out … hammering up false doorways and floorboards to trap all comers who inquired about his inner soul.” Brown always had a way out, an escape route, because behind the windows of his life, Brown’s fear of having nothing overwhelmed him.
McBride points out that Brown’s fears often filtered down to his treatment of his musicians. He was insecure around his musicians, often manipulated them, and certainly dehumanized them. He failed to trust them and often asked them to do things — like getting them to buy cars or houses, then firing them and watching as they suffered under the debt — and his treatment of his band is one of his saddest legacies.
McBride’s notes from fans tell a sad story, but it’s also a story that we’ve resisted telling so often — the beautifully ugly nature of the South — that it long ago began to eat away at the fibers of our national fabric. Although Brown is “easily one of the most famous African Americans in the world … he is also arguably the most misunderstood and misrepresented African American figure of the last three hundred years, and I would speculate that he is nearly as important in American social history as, say, Harriet Tubman or Frederick Douglass.”
With his usual energetic storytelling and colorful writing, McBride valiantly attempts not only to locate the real James Brown, unfettered by the chains of legend and falsehoods, but to use Brown as a lens through which to see the fault lines of race that still divide — those which, in the South, both blacks and white cover up simply to survive. In this respect, McBride’s book makes an excellent bookend to Charles L. Hughes’ Country Soul: Making Music and Race in the American South (UNC Press, 2015).
As McBride concludes: “James Brown was our soul. He was unquestionably black, unquestionably proud. He was real and he was funny. He was the uncle from down South who shows up at your house, gets drunk, takes out his teeth, embarrasses you in front of your friends, and grunts, ‘Stay in school!’ But you love him. And you know he loves you.”