Kill ’Em And Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul by James McBride, Spiegel & Grau 2016
Rick Moody wrote a review of this book in which he suggested that African American writers bring something different to books about African American musicians. Somewhat predictably he was taken to task for even daring to suggest such a thing. I read Moody’s review in the NY Times and then I read George Saunders’ response in The New Yorker. George Saunders’ article might have seemed justified but I now wonder if he had read McBride’s book. If you followed this small controversy at the time and have since read the book, try rereading the review and its follow up. It’s Moody who seems reasonable and Saunders who sounds like he’s missing the mark.
To some extent, Kill ’Em And Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul is as much about the latter part of the title as it is about the former. Somewhere in the book, McBride makes the interesting observation that America can only handle one African American superstar at a time. There is a meteoric rise followed by a spectacular fall that clears the way for the next contestant. There are examples aplenty to support this thesis in popular music. I immediately thought of Sam Cooke, Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix, Chuck Berry, and the proto Michael Jackson, Frankie Lymon. McBride draws Jackson himself into his discussion of James Brown. There was a strong connection between the two. When the former child star was up on charges and his career was in free fall, Brown deployed Rev. Al Sharpton to stand by him. Sharpton was initially reluctant and McBride’s story of how Brown finally compelled him to go to LA is a good one. Jackson, for his part, stood by James Brown to the bitter end. Sadly, he only outlived the older man by a couple of years.
But at its heart, this book is pure Southern Gothic. It kicks off with McBride being warned to watch himself in a diner as he researches James Brown’s early life in Georgia and South Carolina. His late night meeting with Brown’s cousin on a back road puts the book in Midnight in the Garden of Evil territory. Brown never really left the South. His extensive network of friends, business associates, ex wives, children and cousins is the stuff of a humid multi generational blockbuster. Though he died more than a decade ago, his family continues to fight over the crumbs of his estate while lawyers get rich. Bleak House, as rendered by Tennessee Williams.
I enjoyed the part where McBride acknowledges that he didn’t want to write the book at all but needed the money following an expensive divorce. He tried to pass the project off on to Gerri Hirshey, the Motown chronicler of note, but the publisher wanted James McBride, a black musician and writer. That was the perspective the publisher had in mind. It’s what Rick Moody was referring to and what Saunders and others completely misconstrued.
I have only ever been a casual fan of James Brown. Like everyone else, I have owned Live at the Apollo in at least four formats, along with a greatest hits collection purchased during a brief teenage Mod phase. I saw him once too. In the mid 80s he played the Ontario Place Forum in Toronto with its revolving stage. It was a strange show. He did about five songs. Two of them were It’s A Man’s World. Then he came out with the cape, etc, for an encore. You guessed it, It’s A Man’s World one more time. I walked out of there like Robert Bly with a six-pack.
While I was reading the book, however, I listened to some of his early albums with the original Famous Flames. His stage show and distinctive delivery is so famous that it is easy to forget that he began as a prodigiously talented soul singer. Unlike so many other singers of the period, he did not begin singing in the church. After a stint in reform school, he sang with a small harmony group. One thing led to another and he scored an early hit with Please, Please, Please in 1956. It doesn’t quite fit, does it? That’s the year Elvis went national. What was James Brown, a figure of the 60s and 70s, doing on the radio in 1956? It is this seemingly incongruent and off kilter aspect of Brown’s career that McBride draws out.
James McBride’s provocative account of Brown’s career makes one thing clear. The self styled Godfather of Soul does not fit easily into the received story of rock and roll. Motown makes sense. The Beatles drew from Motown. Chess makes sense. The Rolling Stones found something there. But James Brown’s legacy, in rock and roll at least, is less obvious. The story of his upstaging of the Stones is famous. Keith Richards has said that trying to follow him was the dumbest thing the band ever did. Brown, by some accounts, begat funk which begat disco. Okay, but we’re still talking about tributaries that exist outside of the rock and roll critical river. James McBride’s point here is never stated explicitly but his meaning is clear. James Brown is central to the African American experience of popular music. The standard Elvis – Beatles – Bowie – Punk – and so on story is arguably a very white one that, while not excluding black music, does sideline it. Elijah Wald explored this theme in his book How The Beatles Destroyed Rock and Roll a few years ago. James Brown’s story is certainly illustrative of it. If you’re shaking your head, think about this: The Beatles have appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone more than 30 times. James Brown, one of the key innovators in popular music, has appeared twice. The first time, in 1989, was well after his heyday and the second time, 2006, was after his death.
Brown’s struggles, musically and personally, are detailed here through intimate interviews with family, friends, and business associates. At the end of his life, his world collapsed in the grand Faulknerian manner. I couldn’t help thinking about Poe too. The story of James Brown’s body in the mausoleum on his daughter’s lawn, the same daughter who sued him for a the royalties of a songwriting credit he gave her when she was a toddler, was right out of Tales of Mystery and Imagination.
McBride himself tasted literary stardom a few years ago with his memoir, The Color of Water. He is a formidable prose writer who has also worked as a professional musician. It’s not surprising that this book made so many ‘best of’ lists for 2016. As one era in the White House ends and we await the full implications of the one that will follow, McBride’s story of a man who scored his first hit in 1956 couldn’t be more relevant. The search for the soul of America is ongoing.
Teaser: Pee Wee Ellis, Brown’s tenor sax man, explains in technical terms the late 60s transformation of James Brown’s sound from soul to funk.