Kill ‘Em and Leave- Searching for James Brown and the American Soul by James McBride

Takeaway: Can we really know someone who does not want to be known?

It has been about two decades since I read James McBride’s breakout book about his mother, The Color of Water. Kill ‘Em and Leave is the first book of McBride’s I have read since then. Like Color of Water, McBride is a character in this sort of biography of James Brown. Half of the book is really about how hard it is for anyone, including McBride, to really understand James Brown.

Throughout Kill ‘Em and Leave, McBride recounts his interviews with the people who knew, worked for, loved, and were harmed by James Brown. There is little gloss here. James Brown was a musical genius and a nearly impossible person to be around. Those who stayed with him the longest were those who were willing to do what he said. If you ate with James Brown, you ate what he ate, and only what he ate. If you worked for him, you did what he said. If you played for James Brown, you showed up on time, played what he wanted, and supported Brown as the star.

But McBride also captures the importance of James Brown as a cultural figure for the African American community. There are a ton of stories about children just wanting to see a famous Black man who owned a plane and radio stations and said, “I’m Black, and I’m proud.”

This is important to McBride as well. McBride identifies with Brown in some ways. Kill ‘Em and Leave was partly written because McBride needed to write a book. He was broke after a divorce. He was living in a small NYC apartment. McBride has had big hits, but at 55, he was starting over again, similar to Brown. And McBride has no problem identifying the aspects of Brown’s life that were impacted by racism.

However, the biggest image of Kill ‘Em and Leave was of a man who was unable or unwilling to be known. His best marriage was his first as a young man before becoming a star. But she didn’t want to travel with him and didn’t like his philandering while he was traveling. Their divorce was about their different goals, more than a lack of love, and they stayed close throughout his life. His musicians were around him, and he owed much to their musical influences to his sound. But even those who were around him longest didn’t claim to really know him. Some of them didn’t want to talk about him. Many of them continue to live (or died) in poverty.

After a career that went downhill with the rise of disco, financial and tax problems, and eventually drug and legal troubles, James Brown returned to be a star. A good manager and accountant got him back on track, and at his death (2006), he was worth an estimated $100,000,000. Much of the book’s end is about the continuing legal battles over his estate. While leaving his family and friends some money, the bulk of the estate was put into a trust that was to be used to educate poor children in North Carolina and Georgia. But as McBride says over and over and over again, not a penny has helped a child yet. Lawyers are the only ones who have helped so far.

It is not that this isn’t an important part, and I am glad that McBride spends time talking about legal battles and Brown’s attempt to address poverty through education, which he said throughout his life. But this book is repetitive. A couple of themes and phrases get beat into the ground. No money has gone to children; he was worth $100,000,000 at his death; Kill ‘Em and Leave; and about a dozen other phrases were used to death.

Part of this is the method of the book. The basic facts of his life are here. But Kill ‘Em and Leave circles Brown trying to find a way in. The wives, the musicians, the business partners, the money, the long-term employees, and the early friends all give their insights. But that circling is part of what makes the repetition worse. The method works well as a presentation of an unknowable man. But a more ruthless editor and time could have tightened up the presentation.

The good outweighs the bad. McBride knows how to write and how and where to put himself in the book to make it personal without being about himself instead of James Brown. But I can tell he needed to get this book out. His publisher must have needed to get the book out as well. It could have been a much better book with some editorial oversight. The publishing world has lost some ability to slow down and ensure the book is done well.

McBride knows (and wrote about) the music world being quite corrupt. McBride is a jazz musician who has played professionally and is an author and journalist. Some of his early journalism covered the music world, including following a big Michael Jackson tour for People Magazine. Part of the defense of Brown is that he had to be a bit eccentric and corrupt to have risen to the place he did. Others had more talent, but Brown had more drive.

Brown, for all of his inability to be known, did have a talent for identifying people to be encouraged. Al Sharpton is Al Sharpton because of James Brown. Sharpton was basically adopted by Brown when he was 17 and spent about a decade touring with and being mentored by Brown until the 80s when Sharpton went back to NYC and started his civil rights work.

There were others as well, mostly musicians. But that mentoring could only go so far until it bounced up against Brown’s direction, and the mentee would have to leave to be able to find their own way.

Maybe that is the real story of Kill ‘Em and Leave. Brown, for his talent, drive, and insight, could only get to the point of being dependent on his own strength. His formative years were full of people who let him down. And he let his own children down in many ways. Hurt is often cyclical. Those who are hurt end up hurting others because they don’t know how not to hurt.

Kill ‘Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul by James McBride Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audiobook

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