Kill Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul By James McBride

Summary Kill Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul

National Book Award winner James McBride goes in search of the “real” James Brown after receiving a tip that promises to uncover the man behind the myth. His surprising journey illuminates not only our understanding of this immensely troubled, misunderstood, and complicated soul genius but the ways in which our cultural heritage has been shaped by Brown’s legacy.
Kill ’Em and Leave is more than a book about James Brown. Brown’s rough-and-tumble life, through McBride’s lens, is an unsettling metaphor for American life: the tension between North and South, black and white, rich and poor. McBride’s travels take him to forgotten corners of Brown’s never-before-revealed history: the country town where Brown’s family and thousands of others were displaced by America’s largest nuclear power bomb-making facility; a South Carolina field where a long-forgotten cousin recounts, in the dead of night, a fuller history of Brown’s sharecropping childhood, which until now has been a mystery. McBride seeks out the American expatriate in England who co-created the James Brown sound, visits the trusted right-hand manager who worked with Brown for forty-one years, and interviews Brown’s most influential nonmusical creation, his “adopted son,” the Reverend Al Sharpton. He describes the stirring visit of Michael Jackson to the Augusta, Georgia, funeral home where the King of Pop sat up all night with the body of his musical godfather, spends hours talking with Brown’s first wife, and lays bare the Dickensian legal contest over James Brown’s estate, a fight that has consumed careers; prevented any money from reaching the poor schoolchildren in Georgia and South Carolina, as instructed in his will; cost Brown’s estate millions in legal fees; and left James Brown’s body to lie for more than eight years in a gilded coffin in his daughter’s yard in South Carolina.
James McBride is one of the most distinctive and electric literary voices in America today, and part of the pleasure of his narrative is being in his presence, coming to understand Brown through McBride’s own insights as a black musician with Southern roots. Kill ’Em and Leave is a song unearthing and celebrating James Brown’s great legacy: the cultural landscape of America today.

Praise for Kill ’Em and Leave

“The definitive look at one of the greatest, most important entertainers, The Godfather, Da Number One Soul Brother, Mr. Please, Please Himself—JAMES BROWN.”—Spike Lee

Please, please, please: Can anybody tell us who and what was James Brown? At last, the real deal: James McBride on James Brown is the matchup we’ve been waiting for, a musician who came up hard in Brooklyn with JB hooks lodged in his brain, a monster ear for the truth, and the chops to write it. This is no celeb bio but a compelling personal quest—so very timely, angry, hilarious, and as irresistible as any James Brown beat.”—Gerri Hirshey, author of Nowhere to Run: The Story of Soul Music

“An unconventional and fascinating portrait of Soul Brother No. 1 and the significance of his rise and fall in American culture.” —Kirkus Reviews Kill Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul

As far as biographies go, Kill em and Leave is a much smaller vantage that in my view is specifically about James Brown and his impact on his small circle of family and friends. What is strange is that I would not call it an intimate book, just a much smaller scope. Because of this, I think provides a broader view more nuanced history of the man but not necessarily his importance in the saga of America.

The phrase Kill em and leave appears to describe both his guiding principles and his pathos. James Brown's peak popularity was between the 60's through mid 70s. McBride tells the story through a series of interviews with various people who surrounded James Brown. Prominent among them was the Reverend Al Sharpton who grew up under the counsel of James Brown. The distilled compilation of Brown based on these interviews was that he was a man with what appears to be deep seated, systemic self-esteem issues associated with being a Black man from the South in relentless in pursuit of respect and adoration, without many opportunities. He was driven, clever and talented and who practiced a rather profound tenet of life. Kill em and leave was his way of saying give a dazzling performance and then get the heck out. Come important and leave important.” James Brown said as if the longer he remained in view, the quicker his magic diminished. The portrait was of a man growing up mistrustful and insecure about his position and his power. Trusting no one, including his family, James Brown was both scoundrel and victim. He was a womanizer. He didn't believe in banks. Mistreated his band members and worse cheated them of writing credit and money. Had massive tax issues. He was a drug addict. He claimed he wanted his estate to go towards educating poor Black children in Georgia; however, he knew his fortune tied up in controversy and would be consumed in court and lawyer fees as his family and acquaintances contest his will. The people he had financial relationships with are also bankrupt with legal fees defending against accusations and claims in the wake of Brown's death. It was a tragic story of a talented, conflicted man.

What was left out for me was his impact on the world. During the 60s and 70s, James Brown had several anthems that I believe uplifted spirits and pride for Black people. For me as a young kid in the 70s, his song Say it Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud was on continued repeat everywhere. It was obvious immediately who Eddie Murphy was portraying in a Saturday Night Live skits. He inspired dance moves for Michael Jackson. He is considered one of the originals in the musical genre of funk (though personally I think there is evidence to support the idea that he was a seed of hip hop with strong rap leanings…and no I do not listen to music of any kind enough to make such authoritative judgements). Though stylistically part of the music scene in the 70s, it feels like he was one of the original artists that made it necessary to have a horn section. Many of his musicians went off to success on their own. Who doesn't know Maceo on the sax? Not much of this was covered in the book which as I mentioned seemed to concentrate on his impact on the people around him rather than about the man himself and/or his contribution to the world. A very interesting read but also in my view, some missed opportunities.

4ish Stars

Listened to the audiobook. Dominick Hoffman was a good but not great narrator. Kill Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul Kill ‘Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul by James McBride is a 2016 Spiegel & Grau publication.

I always liked James Brown. His music, his showmanship, and the way he often found himself stepping in to keep the peace, and his promotion of education.

While I know the same facts about James that anyone else knows, I’ve never read any books or watched any movies based on his life.

So, when this book was recommended to me, I was very eager to learn something more comprehensive about ‘The Godfather of Soul’

Musical biographies often walk on a fine line with too much of one thing, but not enough of another. It depends on the author as to which approach to take and while I was in the mood for a very detailed portrait of James Brown, the author took a different tack, but it was, in its way, kind of refreshing.

The author didn’t attempt to gloss over, sugarcoat, or make excuses for James’ darker side, revealing the performers crimes, his penchant for being difficult, his mistreatment of women, his numerous marriages, his drug use, and various other ways he was unpredictable or contradictory.

Yet, the author’s goal seemed to be focused on how James was remembered, the battles he won, the ones he lost, and the incredible mess his estate turned into once his will was discovered. We learn who James really trusted, who were the people closest to him and who stuck by him all his life, and this is as much their story as it is Brown's or McBride’s, in many ways.

The author also takes a look at the racial climate and atmosphere James was raised up in and the way this environment influenced him. This part of the book, I think, is supposed to help explain why James felt like he did, what shaped his attitude, and prompted him to act or react the way he did during his adult life.

But, the author’s spirit also penetrates the book, which under any other circumstance might be considered a biography faux pas, but in this case, it actually creates a dual look at James Brown. Not only do we get personal reflections from the people McBride interviewed, but we see the how the information seeps into the author’s soul, and the obvious effect writing this book must have had on him.

I wouldn’t say this approach is one everyone will appreciate and I don’t know if would work with any other subject or author, but I thought it was a nice touch and made the journey appear more personal.

Still, at the end of the day, I’m not sure if I really got that intimate portrait the author was going for. I do think I understand James Brown a little better, but his vital spirit or essence, just didn’t bleed through, despite the personal tones employed.

This was not exactly the type of biography I was hoping for, but was one that gave me deeper insight into the man behind the electric voice and performances that set the world on fire.

If you are an aficionado and already know all the facts about the man, his music, songs, and all the rest, then this is a book you will want to add, in order to get a deeper understanding of James’ roots.

If, like me, you are a fan, liked his music and enjoyed his amazing on stage presence and showmanship, but didn’t know a lot about him otherwise, this might not be the best book to give you that in depth look at his recordings, his political work, the inner workings of his relationships with wives and children, or a closer inspection of his addictions and events leading to his prison terms. However, once you have gained more than a basic knowledge about Brown, I think this personal assessment will take on deeper meaning.

Overall, this is a fresh approach to examining James Brown’s life and is an enjoyable journey, which has increased by my curiosity about the private performer. Thanks to McBride, I know which places I should perhaps avoid in my search for accurate information, which will be very helpful. I’m stalling just a bit here, not sure of how I want to rate this one. I keep waffling between a three and a four -star rating- so, for my personal record- 3.5 stars will have to suffice.

Kill Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul [Brown said to a lifelong friend] 'Don't let folks get too familiar. Don't stay in one place too long. Come important and leave important . . . Kill 'em and leave.' He did it for almost fifty years. James Brown was not common. James Brown was not easily found or discussed or discovered - by anyone. James Brown kept his distance. But his past he could not kill and leave. -- the author, on pages 32-33

Kill 'em and Leave is not (nor was it intended to be) a standard or straightforward celebrity biography of arguably the most famous and popular American soul singer of the 60's and 70's. Instead, it is a sociological contemplation on a number of U.S.-entrenched topics - poverty / wealth, race relations, good ol' boy political networks or strongholds, and tabloid journalism, to name a few - connected to the colorful but yet often troubled life of the late superstar James Brown, and I think this book largely succeeds in this offbeat but nimble approach. Author McBride - who is a triple-threat of experience / knowledge with his background as a professional musician, an entertainment journalist, AND a novelist - takes a mostly sympathetic but also realistic view, attempting to wade through the numerous myths and the misinformation to present a more practical portrait of a complicated and sometimes controversial man. I especially liked the comparisons, in some of the later chapters, of Brown and Michael Jackson - two hard-working, talented, and misunderstood performers (and they were also friends) who erected barriers between their unique personas and the public, likely in large part to avoid being hurt. The general narrative is also sometimes a sobering reminder that becoming or being 'rich and famous' frequently comes with its own assortment of distinct problems. Kill Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul It looks like McBride did his interviews for this book about music phenom James Brown in 2012, long before this book was published in 2016. In the Foreword McBride crankily reveals he was being taken to the cleaners in a divorce settlement and he needed to write this book—any book—to bring in a little money.

Any flaws this book contains then become perfectly understandable, and McBride keeps up that level of honesty and casual explanation all the way through. This is no stilted celebrity biography covering well-trod ground. This is down home and personal, comfortable conversations with the men (they were mostly men) and women who knew most about James Brown and his life.

At the end of his story, McBride highlights the 62-year-old grandmother journalist Sue Summer who, writing for the financially strapped Newberry Observer in South Carolina, has kept in the public eye the disgraceful carnage made of James Brown’s $100 million estate. Brown’s will stipulated the bulk of his estate should go to educate poor children in Georgia and South Carolina, the states where he grew up, but within days of his death on Christmas Day in 2006, his family had arrayed a bevy of lawyers to contest the will citing ‘undue influence.’

That ‘influence’ would have been the South Carolina lawyer David Cannon who had been hired by Brown to extricate him from IRS charges of underpayments. Cannon and Buddy Dallas, a Georgia lawyer, were white men who had never worked for a black boss before. They brought Brown back from destitution when his act suffered the toll performers experience when they age, and when the IRS realized they’d been robbed. They set up what they’d thought was an unbreakable trust serving poor children and then suffered personal attacks and rake-backs as the trust was contested.

James Brown played a role in McBride’s youth—in every young black man’s youth, is McBride’s contention—being a role model and human divinity of soul. His concerts and records made a difference in how the world turned. The 1960’s-70’s were the height of his popularity, but he made a mark that lasted to his death, and McBride argues, will long after. “Kill ‘em and leave,” Brown exhorted the younger men he mentored. Don’t hang around after a concert for folks to pick your carcass clean. Make ‘em wait.

McBride spins his story out slowly, the way he collected it, through innumerable interviews with band members and managers, friends, and family. He is conversational and not cruel when he tells us the plain facts of James Brown’s lonely upbringing, early incarceration, exceptional singing talent, and enormous drive. Brown never wanted to be hungry or lonely or dependent ever again, especially to the white man, who he feared.

There was a moment near the end of McBride’s story about Brown that widened out for me into a real down-home truth we all learn eventually: “there’s talent everywhere.”

“I remember having lunch years ago with a legendary record executive in L.A., bending his ear about a great unsigned singer I knew. The guy listened, nodded, yawned, reached for his triple-decker sandwich, and took a bite. ‘Great singers,’ he said between chews, ‘are a dime a dozen.’”
That’s right. That’s right for every field. If they don’t have ‘em, they’ll make ‘em. But more importantly, and listen to this: those executives—they aren’t so special either. They do a job, but somehow we’ve allowed them to capture an unnatural percentage of the take. They have nothing without the talent and the rest of the organization, but you wouldn’t know it talking to them. But there is a truth in that it takes more than talent to be a great star, if that is where you are aiming. It takes more determination than talent.

Brown had determination. He wanted to present his best side to the world, so no one would have cause to put him down. After shows he would sit through 3 hours of treatment under the hair dryer to get his pompadour back in shape…and then he would leave without seeing the fans waiting for him. Kill ‘em and leave.

I loved the way McBride told this story, mixing a little of himself in there. He’d gone to Columbia Journalism School in 1980, so was undoubtedly aware that the reporter should scrupulously keep himself out of the story. But his ease with the scene and his knowledge of the backstory, his understanding of the silences between questions and his sense of the real meaning of James Brown gave us the mystery of the man and a deep sense of his place in pantheon of black culture. I loved hearing the familiar names, Rev Al Sharpton and Michael Jackson among them, and seeing how they fit in this picture.

It’s a comfortable, unstrained telling of a difficult life built on success. Race is everywhere in this book, though it is rarely mentioned. The fact of America’s race situation both made James Brown who he was as a performer, but it constrained him as a human being. McBride gives us that, shows us how that was. A book by McBride is cause for celebration, no matter that the editing was a little off, or he repeated sections. This is a story you won’t want to miss. Kill Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul This book is not a balanced, unbiased, chronological account of James Brown’s life and musical career. It is, however, an impassioned, sometimes meandering defense of a music legend and his complicated legacy, which for my money makes it much more interesting than a straightforward biography.

James McBride clearly has a lot of love for James Brown, and I could appreciate his point of view without being entirely won over. McBride doesn’t go into much detail about some of Brown’s personal struggles, glossing over or excusing them in favor of extolling his showmanship and lamenting his misfortunes. I’m not quick to brush off things like domestic violence and rape accusations, so I remain skeptical as to Brown’s true level of virtue, but I can readily agree that he was a cultural icon, and often a misunderstood one.

I chose the audio version, and really enjoyed the narrator’s impression of Brown’s raspy Southern drawl. Since I’m not familiar with much of Brown’s music (which fact I intend to rectify), the narration made him more real to me.

Kill ‘Em and Leave is as much about McBride as it is about Brown, and that’s not a bad thing. I’m a big McBride fan, and I jump at every opportunity to talk about the time I saw him perform live with his band as part of The Good Lord Bird book tour. He’s a musician as much as he is a writer, and as such he’s the perfect person to tell Brown’s story. Or at least one very interesting side of it.

More book recommendations by me at Kill Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul

National Book Award winner James McBride goes on a Citizen Kane-like search for the real James Brown and muses about race, identity, music, the north/south divide, and whether one can ever TRULY know someone. With interviews with distant cousins, ex-wives, life-long childhood best friends, former managers and accountants, and former band members, KILL 'EM AND LEAVE is a non-chronological journey into James Brown that bears a strong similarity to David and Joe Henry's FURIOUS COOL: RICHARD PRYOR AND THE WORLD THAT MADE HIM.

An utterly fascinating read. Kill Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul 3.5 stars

See me talk about this briefly in my May wrap up: Kill Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul First things first: James McBride wrote an excellent, excellent memoir called The Color of Water. Go read it.

Second, don't expect a traditional biography when you open Kill 'Em and Leave. Authors of biographies concern themselves with facts, typically in chronological order. That's not to say McBride isn't interested in the truth about James Brown; this book features input from many people involved in Brown's inner circle and some on the fringes: musicians, money men, friends and family. How McBride presents what truth he finds happens in a narrative that's personal and evokes an almost spiritual journey.

Explaining James Brown equates, one could argue, to trying to explain what Jesus actually looked like. Different versions of the Brown story/legend exist because, as we see in McBride's book, it's how Brown wanted it. For a man who enjoyed the spotlight, he craved the mystery and privacy just as much. The title of this book comes from advice Brown was fond of giving and sticking to: knock their socks off, and go. Kill 'em and leave. As McBride writes, James Brown's status was there wasn't no A-list. He was the list. Watch any clip of him on YouTube and try to argue.

McBride's narrative reminded me in part of Citizen Kane and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, in the respect that you have a person searching for story, looking for an answer (What was Rosebud? Who was the real James Brown?) and in the process you come across a variety of people whose interpretations not only magnify the legacy of the subject, but make them people you want to know better. McBride talks to the last surviving member of The Flames, Brown's early group, his first wife Velma, the man who helped save Brown from the IRS, surrogate son Al Sharpton, and Miss Emma, a devoted friend for decades. Their stories are raw and engaging and bring pieces of Brown's life together like a puzzle we're amazed to see at the end. It's more than a story about one the great soul singers, it's a history of black music and a social commentary about how we treat people, and how we revere some after death...and how greed makes us blind to the need of others. The story of James Brown after his death - the multiple funerals, the fight over his estate, the midnight visit from Michael Jackson - would make one hell of a movie on it own.

This is a book that will stay with you. It's awesome. Just read it.

ARC received from NetGalley. Kill Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul James Brown was an excellent performer. He was meticulous and methodical when it came to rehearsals. It sounds like he demanded much of his musicians, but didn't always pay them what was fair.

McBride speaks to people that were in Brown's inner circle, but these people don't always talk about Brown. So we never get a full picture of Brown as manager, friend, father. We don't get too much of a picture of him as the man on the stage, which is how Brown wanted it (kill'em and leave).

I found the anecdotes about life on the road and the history of R&B interesting. But this isn't a long book and parts of it felt repetitive which made me think the source material was sparse. Kill Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul Frustrated that every James Brown book is more about the myth surrounding the legend instead of about the real James Brown, McBride set out to rectify that. Truth be told, I don't think he accomplished what he set out to do. He added more to the myth imo.

But anyway, I still enjoyed this book. McBride uses the life of James Brown to dissect social and political aspects of American life (race, the South, the legal system, etc). If you're going into this expecting a typical music biography (the hits, shows, tours, etc.), you won't get that here. Very good, albeit a little repetitive. Kill Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul