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.
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Nevertheless, for a long time prior to my receiving the award, and for a little while after, whenever I have made some especially great leap, and the tabloid press and gossipmongers kick in with their dirt, I can’t help but feel that while making a name for myself as a Black man in America in a field where creativity and sexuality are factors, one hand wins awards for me and the other is an invitation to those in power to put those shackles right back on me, tighter than ever.
Among the books about Brown not attributed to him, the most rigorous and thoroughly researched is The One: The Life and Music of James Brown, by R.J. Smith, a smart Los Angeles–based music writer who had previously written a stylish history of African-American life in mid-20th-century Southern California, The Great Black Way. Published six years after Brown’s death at 73 from congestive heart failure on Christmas Day in 2006, The One draws on interviews conducted by Smith, as well as on material collected by Tucker but not fully utilized in his book, and on archival sources, including the secret White House tape of the meeting between Brown and Richard Nixon in 1972. (Nixon extended generic politesse, and Brown pressed him vigorously on the emerging idea of commemorating Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday as a national holiday.) It’s a fine book, a model of music biography, researched and written according to time-honored methods.
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With Kill ‘Em and Leave, James McBride has gone his own way and made a Brown book like no other. In a section dealing with the long relationship between Brown and the Rev. Al Sharpton, McBride quotes Sharpton on the singer’s self-image:
Normal life to him didn’t exist. He said, “Reverend, if I got to compromise to make it, I’m not rising. I’m somebody else rising. I got to be me. I rise on my own terms….” And that’s what he ingrained in me—success was you making it as you were, not changing who you were to make it.
Kill ‘Em and Leave is McBride’s own testament to Brown’s philosophy. It’s a stunningly unorthodox book, indifferent to the conventions of biographical nonfiction. It honors its subject by its brave peculiarity, rising (for the most part, but sometimes falling flat) on its own terms. The book is a hybrid of forms, largely a telling of Brown’s life story and partly a telling of McBride’s search for that story, with digressions about the author’s own life, essayistic ruminations on Brown and his music, and free, looping riffs that have the energy of improvisation.
In a startling passage early in the book, McBride describes having taken on the project solely for the money. “I needed the dough, plain and simple,” he writes. For several pages, he describes the circumstances of his divorce and the resultant financial problems. Living on spaghetti and meatballs in a “cold-water flat in Hell’s Kitchen,” McBride is approached by a mystery man who claims: “I got the James Brown story. The authentic one. From the family.” Demurring at first, McBride eventually agrees to pursue the lead and write a book about Brown because he is “broke,” with three children. Six months later, when the lead turns out to be a disappointment, McBride finds himself “sucking on the James Brown vapors just like every two-bit writer who’s ever needed a contract.”
McBride’s value as a writer is considerably greater than two bits: He won the National Book Award in 2013 for The Good Lord Bird, a picaresque novel about an imagined friendship between the abolitionist John Brown and a male slave who wears a dress, and he wrote two additional novels, both on African-American themes. (Of his novels, I’ve read only The Good Lord Bird and found it deliciously imaginative and strange.) His earlier nonfiction book, The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother, which I’ve also read and admired, is an emotionally and intellectually probing memoir of McBride’s having grown up with a Jewish mother and an African-American father. In addition to this writing, McBride has, somehow, maintained a second career as a solid jazz-pop saxophonist.
Like much about Kill ‘Em and Leave, McBride’s humble act about being a two-bit writer working for the cash should not be taken at face value. He is generally more concerned with the literary force of his writing than he is with the exactness of its details. (Hector Tobar, reviewing The Good Lord Bird for the Los Angeles Times, noted: “Those looking for verisimilitude or gravitas in their historical fiction might want to avoid” the book.) There’s no point in wondering if McBride really lives in an apartment with no hot running water; or if James Brown’s first single was released in 1955, as McBride states at one point in Kill ‘Em and Leave, or in 1956, as he says elsewhere in the book; or if Brown owned one jet, as McBride writes several times, or had more than one, as he claims in another passage—or if Brown leased jets for his tours, as other sources say. McBride’s book is not the place to go for hard data on Brown’s recording career, which, according to the author, comprised no fewer than 321 albums—a figure that works out to more than seven albums a year, on average. (According to standard sources, there are 136 albums under Brown’s name, including nearly 50 compilations.)
If McBride decided to write a book about James Brown for the advance payment, he took on a subject that is clearly dear to him, and financial motivation doesn’t necessarily corrupt a work any more than Robert Graves’s decision to write a memoir for the money despoiled the masterful Goodbye to All That. With Kill ‘Em and Leave, McBride provides something lacking in most of the books about James Brown: an intimate feeling for the musician, a veracious if inchoate sense of what it was like to be touched by him. He accomplishes this by fairly unconventional means: He introduces the reader to a select group of Brown’s intimates, one at a time, and lingers with each of them before breaking away at unexpected points to veer off on fanciful tangents.
We meet Leon Austin, the man who, when he and Brown were boys, brought Brown to his house and showed him how to play chords on the piano. Austin would remain close to Brown until the end of the singer’s life, one of the people Brown turned to just to go for a drive, chow down on sardines and crackers, or talk about nothing in particular. We meet Nafloyd Scott, the guitarist who was, at the time McBride interviewed him, the last surviving member of Brown’s early group, the Famous Flames. Blind and poor, damaged by a life of hard drinking, he recalls the grueling years of one-nighters in the Jim Crow South: “There was a sign on the road to Baldwin, Louisiana,” he tells McBride. “It said, ‘Run, nigger, if you can read this. If you can’t read it, run anyway.’” We meet Alfred “Pee Wee” Ellis, the saxophonist, composer, and arranger who collaborated with Brown to develop the ultra-tight and sinewy sound that is the near-definition of funk. And we meet Charles Bobbit, the “facilitator” in Brown’s organization—the “hundred-dollar man” that Brown counted on to grease the requisite palms and handle the countless other hazy necessities of the touring life unmentioned in business school. As Brown tells Bobbit (according to McBride): “You’re the only one I let know me. You’re the only man that knows I don’t know how to love.”
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Through the accumulation of this kind of testimony, which McBride generally allows to speak for itself, Kill ‘Em and Leave presents a portrait of Brown that feels “real” in the sense of being true to the witnesses’ experiences. It is hardly a complete portrait. For reasons unclear, McBride chooses not to look too closely at Brown’s well-known womanizing and the multiple charges of domestic abuse and violence in his history. Nor does he say much about Brown’s substance abuse, except to explain it as something “he had turned to…because his career had nose-dived and he was depressed.” However irregular and spotted with holes, the patchwork of reminiscences that make up much of Kill ‘Em and Leave is earthy and warm.
When McBride breaks away from oral history and takes off on one of his writerly flights, the book is a joy. In the chapter on Nafloyd Scott, he quotes Scott on the touring life. “One-nighters are a killer,” the guitarist says, and McBride is off:
I know the feeling. I did tours of one-nighters in my life, once in the States and once in Europe. Never again. You forget how big this world is till you drive it.
Returning to Scott, McBride riffs:
They’d be burning in the summer, freezing in the winter, always searching for something to eat. They’d experience the rise of playing for howling audiences, the fall of being the last to leave the clubs, trying to get your money from some slick hustler, then staring at the grim white line of the highway in the wee hours, half awake, watching the driver….
Scott may not have given McBride much more to go on than “One-nighters are a killer.” But McBride, a musician as well as a writer, knows the road firsthand. I’m not sure how close this takes us to “the real James Brown.” But it may be as close as we’ll ever get.