Like theologians and astronomers, biographers can sometimes deduce a great deal about things they can’t observe directly by watching their effects on visible phenomena. The Christian apostle Paul conceived of his God, “however invisible,” as “there for the mind to see in the things that He has made.” Over the past several decades, scientists have made celebrated discoveries about unseeable planets by measuring the impact of their gravity on the stars they orbit. And now James McBride, the novelist, memoirist, and musician, has set out to understand the late James Brown—to see the “real” James Brown—through the effects of his life on some of the people who were deeply touched by him.
McBride’s new book, Kill ‘Em and Leave, follows nearly a dozen others written by or about Brown so far, a couple of which have been fairly authoritative, if less daring conceptually than McBride’s project. Brown himself, collaborating with Bruce Tucker, a skilled professional ghostwriter, professed to tell “the real story” of his life in the first of two memoirs, The Godfather of Soul. The book was published in 1986, during the period of Brown’s popular resurgence with “Living in America,” his biggest hit since “I Got You (I Feel Good)” more than 20 years earlier, and his induction into the charter roster of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The book did an efficient job of walking through Brown’s life, from his impoverished childhood in the rural South to his juvenile imprisonment for breaking and entering, to his rise as a soul singer in the 1950s, to the pioneering innovations in funk that ensured his legacy as one of the most original and influential artists in American popular music.
In plain, unburnished language that reads like conversation, The Godfather of Soul conjures Brown as proud and independent. “I was left by myself a lot,” the singer recalls (by way of Tucker) regarding his early life. “Being alone in the woods like that, spending nights in a cabin with nobody else there, not having anybody to talk to, worked a change in me that stayed with me from then on: It gave me my own mind. No matter what came my way after that—prison, personal problems, government harassment— I had the ability to fall back on myself.”
Within two years of the chart success of “Living in America” and the publication of The Godfather of Soul, Brown would be caught in a late-career spiral, smoking PCP, getting arrested for aggravated assault and eluding arrest after a confrontation over the use of his private restroom in an office complex he owned in Augusta, Georgia, not far from his childhood home. (The scene is dramatized memorably—and embellished considerably—in Get On Up, the movie based on Brown’s life, starring Chadwick Boseman and coproduced by the great white Brown emulator Mick Jagger in 2014.) Convicted on the eluding-arrest charge and various related infractions, Brown was sentenced to six years in prison and released two years later.
His second memoir, I Feel Good, cowritten with the prolific celebrity biographer Marc Eliot, claimed, again, to tell “the real story of James Brown” and reads like a position paper intended to rehabilitate Brown in the public eye. The author, who is unmistakably Eliot, pontificates in elliptical sentences that sound more like Henry James than James Brown. “I thank the Kennedy Center so much for giving me their honor, and allowing me to retain my own,” Eliot has Brown saying in a passage on the prestigious recognition he received in 2005.