Book Review

Everything You Know About James Brown is Probably Wrong

June 08, 2018

A Book Review of the James McBride book Kill Em and Leave

James McBride's " Kill 'Em and Leave: The Search for James Brown and the American Soul" is not the definitive biography of James Brown, nor was it intended that way. But McBride makes a good argument here that the definitive James Brown biography perhaps could never be written, so rich his legacy, but also so maligned his public persona, opportunistic his handlers, and so profound (and largely undocumented) his influence on America as a whole from the late 1960s.

For Brown was a man who was more than a just a soul singer, McBride reminds us. “During the civil rights movement, which was his heyday, [James Brown] epitomized that striving and pride of the African American struggle,” McBride writes.

For this book, McBride focuses in on a handful of interviews from close personal and professional associates of Mr. Brown, each one telling their story illustrating a different aspect of JB - his hardscrabble Georgia upbringing, his relentlessly touring band, his family, his - sometimes quirky - affairs with money. His longtime accountant tells of how he'd stash stacks of thousand-dollar bills around the world - in his house, with confidantes, even in at least one case under the carpet of a hotel room. He insisted that his fee by paid on cash, before the show, from sketchy promoters.

In setting out to tell Brown's story, McBride expends a lot of effort telling us of his own challenges at finding the right people to interview, perhaps even to the point where you start to wonder McBride he did all his homework for the book. But opportunists abound, and they muddy up the waters considerably, frustrating McBride to no end. "Black history, in the United States, is low-hanging fruit for anyone who wants to play Tarzan, and swing down into the open jungle of African American life to pluck the easy pickings," he writes.

One piece of business he dispatches right off the bat, with severe, and deserved, prejudice: the damaging misperceptions caused by both the 2014 James Brown biopic "Get on Up" and the James Brown documentary, "Mr. Dynamite." Both films were, by the way, underwritten by one-time JB colleague of the stage, none than the Rolling Stones' lead singer Mick Jagger. Both efforts both lionize James Brown but at the same time strangely undercut his legacy.

In one scene, "Get on Up" portrayed a PCP-crazed James Brown driving through a Georgia State Police barricade, destroying two cop cars. "Not in Georgia, he didn't," McBride writes. "Brown was a black man from the south. He wasn't stupid." What actually happened was far sadder, and more typical of the south, with the cops pursuing a scared Brown in a low-speed chase, shooting at his truck's tires, with some of the bullets dangerously puncturing the gas tank.

"The police said the chase started after Mr. Brown entered an insurance in an Augusta-area building he owns. They said he allegedly interrupted the class," the New York Times reported at the time.

The movie portrayed him as entering that class as a wild-eyed lunatic, demanding to know who used his bathroom. Again, the truth was more prosaic. He had recently had his wallet stolen in the building and, seeing an unlocked door, grabbed his rifle to see what was up-something "many a country-born, God-fearing South Carolinian might do," McBride writes. He spent three years in prison for this day.

"Thus one of the most humiliating moments of Brown's career was played for laughs in a movie distributed around the world for millions to see," McBride wrote. Moreover, the film showed no insight into black life or black culture of the U.S.

Of course, every pop star's gets dramatically exaggerated on the big screen, and perhaps Jagger could be seen as doing the Brown legacy a solid by bringing his music to a new generation. But there is a bit of a rivalrous history between the two singers, as McBride points out. And the images of Brown shown to the world by Jagger's film, was, most generously, a case of good intensions nonetheless doing malicious harm.

Flashback to 1964, to the filming of the T.A.M.I show, a concert movie that featured a number of the top pop performers off the day.

But first, let's pause here to appreciate the considerable efforts Mr. Brown took with his music. He pulled the sharpest cats from jazz, blues, R&B. At one point he had three drummers playing at once, and dups of each instrument in the band. He drilled them relentlessly, to the point of abuse. The second generation of the band got so tight that they could roll into the studio, start playing a groove whereupon Brown could make up the song on the spot, live, telling the band to hit the bridge, drop to another key, serve up a horn solo.

And they rolled this way night after night, playing multiple shows a day, traveling back and forth an often hostile country.

Now the T.A.M.I show would be for Brown his first appearance of national television, after years of slogging through the Chitlin Circuit in the south. And if that wasn't enough to fire him up, he had been snubbed by the show's producers, who didn't give him a dressing room (contrary to one shown in Jagger's flick). nor a bit of time on stage to practice.

"The snub charged Brown, and he hit the stage a man possessed. He and his high-stepping band left it in cinders," McBride writes.

Quotes and Notes