James McBride’s Kill ‘Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul isn’t your typical biography. It’s about roots and family and friendships. It’s about business and “the business,” and family greed. It’s about the artistry of James Brown and what he meant to Black America. But it’s not “just” about James Brown — the man, the artist, the performer. It’s also about the “idea” of a James Brown in America. Ultimately, it’s about the country and culture that birthed a “James Brown,” a culture that builds it’s heroes up only to tear them down. It’s about a culture that will always have your back until they feel you forgot your roots — your “upbringing” —and then they will talk —or worse — behind your back. It’s about a country where there are different strains of racism — Southern and Northern — and how they differ to African-Americans.
McBride tells the story of Brown’s America in a distinctly African-American voice; in fact, it feels like a “southern” voice, which is odd. McBride is from Brooklyn. He tells the story with a ton of both empathy and musical knowledge; not so odd, since he’s a working jazz musician. And of course, being an award-winning author, his writing is wonderful.
What really makes this book such a gratifying read is how McBride is able to paint a series of small, sort-of-connected vignettes into a larger and telling portrait of the hardest working man in show business, soul music, and America and its “soul.” Brown’s and America’s stories are very much intertwined, at times beautiful and inspiring, and at others, mean-spirited and ugly. The Pee Wee Ellis chapter (Brown’s longtime arranger and sax man) and McBride’s final chapter about his "payback" are wonderfully personal. Conversely, the story of what becomes of Brown’s estate and his desire to use that money to educate poor children and the ensuing family legal squabbles is downright depressing.
The books title, Kill ‘em and Leave, was what Brown once told a young Reverend Al Sharpton, whom he had taken under his wing. "Come important and leave important. Kill 'em and leave." It could also serve as a sort of performance mantra for Brown, meaning put on a great show and leave the audience wanting more. Fittingly, James McBride’s excellent book on the Godfather of Soul does just that.
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