Title: Kill ‘Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul
Author: James McBride
This was not a book on my ever-growing list of books to read. I would not call myself a James Brown fan. I know him, of course. I bet most of my generation can name a few songs. In a soundtrack of the Black experience, he’s got to be there with his howls, his grunts, his soul, and his funk. But could I state one personal detail about him? No. Have I ever played a single album? No. I didn’t even realize until reading this book that he passed away in the mid-2000s. In my mind, he had long been gone, which is sad.
I selected this book not because of James Brown, but because of James McBride. I suppose I can be called a James McBride fan. I confess I have started and not finished Deacon King Kong at least three times. But Five Carat Soul is a beautifully written short story collection. And The Good Lord Bird both tickled and intrigued me. I had no idea he had written this book, published in 2016, examining the life of James Brown and I was surprised when I saw it as a suggested read on my Libby app. I checked out the e-book out because of McBride and because of the title, one that I sensed immediately had to be a quote from James Brown. The combination made me want to know more — to experience McBride’s nonfiction and to get to know Brown.
This is not a traditional biography. It’s not a linear telling of Brown’s life. It’s a story that spirals, each loop linking arms with a different person who may have known Brown well, whatever it meant to know Brown. That’s a challenge that McBride faced. So many of the people he interviewed reiterated an essential point — James Brown only ever told you what he wanted you know, showed you what he wanted you to see. When a young Al Sharpton asked him why he never stayed for the celebrities lined up after a show, hoping to congratulate him, Brown explained, “When you kill ’em, Rev, you leave. You kill ’em and leave. You understand that, son? Kill ’em and leave.” His road manager Charles Bobbitt recalled Brown saying it this way, “Don’t ever stay nowhere for a long time. Don’t make yourself unimportant. Come important and leave important.” A decades-long friend and colleague that Brown called Sis shared, “I’ve never met anyone in my life that worked harder to hide his true heart. Mr. Brown worked at that very hard.”
I would be remiss if I did not point out that there are no harsh critics of Brown in this book. The closest to animosity may be Pee Wee Ellis, who would lapse into silence instead of answer tough questions about life on the road with Brown. Most of his children (“six claimed, one adopted, and at least four others unclaimed”) were glossed over. And only one of Brown’s four wives, his first, was given voice. So we do not get to hear firsthand how James Brown was as a husband or a father to the others, although we can infer, from the few hints of domestic and drug abuse mentioned and from the drama of the 15-year court battle over his estate, that they may have very few nice things to say.
So, though McBride may not succeed in definitively showing us Brown’s “true heart”, he does succeed in showing us a bit of its shades and complications. And in doing so, McBride adds a splash of color to a history that those of my generation are assumed to already know from pop culture references and biopics. I have not seen Get On Up but I appreciated McBride setting the record straight on one of the major fictionalized scenes and also the context of the production — there was no love lost between Brown and the movie’s producer, Mick Jagger. Knowing that gives the movie a different tint.
Thinking of Get On Up, starring the late Chadwick Boseman, brought a rush of other thoughts. Time passes so quickly, and history is also shaped by that passing. So much of the humanness behind our legends, our cultural icons, gets lost as the years pass. I thought of the the Browns and the Bosemans, and then by the book’s end, also the Charles Bobbits, the Pee Wee Ellises, the David Cannons, the Leon and Emma Austins… The generations that would remember their names are passing. And once they are gone and forgotten, how much longer before Brown’s legacy goes too?
Instead of a chronological telling of Brown’s life, this is more an oral history, a curated collection of conversations about the past. I finished this book not knowing everything about James Brown, but more than I expected to know about James McBride and the people with whom he spoke for this book. McBride understands that historical moments do not exist within a vacuum and it is undeniable that James Brown was an historical moment. But you don’t find soul on the leaves, it’s down at the root. I say McBride did a great job digging.