When James McBride was a boy in St. Albans, Queens, in New York City, he lived with his 11 siblings on the poor side of the tracks.
"But on the other side of the railroad tracks was the high life," he writes, a neighborhood of fine homes owned by stars like Lena Horne, Count Basie and Roy Campanella.
For McBride the most fascinating was a "huge, forbidding" black-and-gray house owned by R&B legend James Brown.
The Godfather of Soul, the Hardest-Working Man in Show Business — to a young biracial boy with musical aspirations in the 1960s, James Brown was a deity. McBride's 11-year-old sister, Dotty, got up the nerve to knock on the door and was rewarded with Brown himself telling her, "Stay in school, Dotty. Don't be no fool!" McBride tells us, "My jealousy lasted years."
In his new book about Brown, Kill 'Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul, McBride writes, "He is easily one of the most famous African Americans in the world, and arguably the most influential African American in pop music history. ... He is also arguably the most misunderstood and misrepresented African American figure of the last three hundred years."
Kill 'Em is McBride's effort to correct some of those misunderstandings and misrepresentations, and do a whole lot more.
There are other biographies of Brown, who died in 2006 at age 73 of complications of pneumonia, as well as a couple of memoirs by the man himself. McBride notes 14 books by "some pretty good writers," although he reserves special scorn for the "mostly fiction" 2014 biopic of Brown, Get on Up, directed by Tate Taylor, who also directed "another white version of black history," The Help.
McBride has something else in mind. Kill 'Em is not a linear just-the-facts biography or a celebrity gossip fest; it's a biography enfolded in cultural criticism, an attempt to explain an extremely complex man who, the author discovers, really didn't want to be explained.
Brown's lawyer, Buddy Dallas, tells McBride, "You did not get to know James Brown ... because he did not want to be known. In twenty-four years of working with him, I have never known a person who worked harder at keeping people from knowing who he was."
Readers can be grateful that McBride takes that as a challenge. He dives deep, talking to a wide range of people who knew Brown, as much as anyone could. Family members tell him about Brown's childhood in South Carolina and Georgia, surrounded by poverty and love, and the roots of his career in the music of black churches. Brown's first wife, Velma, who remained a close friend after they divorced, offers insight into Brown's devastation at the accidental death of his talented, beloved oldest son, Teddy, at age 19.
McBride talks to someone who was a friend of Teddy's and became a surrogate son to Brown: the Rev. Al Sharpton. Already a "boy wonder preacher" at age 17 when he met Brown, Sharpton tells the author how the singer took him under his wing and shaped almost everything about him. Sharpton also tells the story that gives the book its title. At the height of his fame, celebrities and other powerful people would gather in Brown's dressing room after his mind-blowing performances. But Brown would slip out without meeting them.
When Sharpton asked why, Brown always told him, "Kill 'em and leave, Rev. Kill 'em and leave." In other words, always leave them wanting more.
Brown's accountant, David Cannon, who rescued the singer from an IRS demand for $15 million in back taxes, offers details about Brown's paranoia about money. He was generous, sometimes startlingly so, yet he often demanded to be paid in cash and stashed thousands of dollars under carpets, in ceilings and in jars buried in his back yard. Cannon tells McBride that Brown used a safe at Cannon's home to store as much as $3 million in cash and once "cart(ed) $9,000 in silver dollars into his house in a wheelbarrow."
Some of the most engrossing chapters come from McBride's interviews with members of Brown's band. "The fact is," McBride writes, "James Brown's band, the 1965-69 version, fronted by Pee Wee (Ellis), was, I would argue, the greatest group of rhythm and blues musicians ever assembled." (Having seen them perform in Tampa during those years, I can testify. It was like standing in the middle of a perfectly controlled hurricane.) Ellis, a saxophonist and composer, and guitarist Nafloyd Scott share their complicated feelings about Brown.
McBride also sheds light on one of the most tragic elements of Brown's story. His personal life — four wives, countless affairs, six "claimed" children and perhaps as many as 13 he didn't claim — was chaotic. His fortune at his death was conservatively estimated at $100 million, and his will directed that most of it be used to educate needy children in South Carolina and Georgia. That will has been the subject of a vicious, byzantine court fight that's not over yet. A decade after his death, McBride tells us, the only people who have seen any of the money are an army of good old boy lawyers.
McBride even interviews Charles Reid, the funeral director who handled Brown's complicated (of course) multiple funerals. Reid tells a strange and touching story: Michael Jackson traveled to his Augusta, Ga., funeral home to view Brown's body in private, in the middle of the night. "Jackson spoke of his love for Brown, the influence Brown had had on his childhood. He was there for five hours. Not once did Jackson sit down."
The author brings special strengths to the recounting of Brown's life. McBride's 1995 memoir, The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother, was widely acclaimed. His novel Miracle at St. Anna was made into a film by Spike Lee, and his 2013 novel, The Good Lord Bird, about abolitionist John Brown, won the National Book Award. He's an accomplished musician and composer as well who has won the Stephen Sondheim Award and toured as a saxophonist with jazz legend Little Jimmy Scott. He has worked as a journalist for Rolling Stone, People and the Washington Post.
That skill set yields an illuminating portrait of Brown and the culture that rewarded and rejected him. Does McBride ever really get to the core of James Brown? Here's what he learns from Emma Austin, wife of one of Brown's oldest friends and herself one of those closest to the man: "I've never met anyone in my life ... who worked harder to hide his true heart. Mr. Brown worked at that very hard. He had a sensitive heart. If you knew that about him, there was not much else you needed to know."
Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.