James McBride didn’t want to write about James Brown. The Godfather of Soul was “tough on writers,” McBride writes early on in his new book, “Kill ‘Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul.” When a man claiming to have access to the “authentic” James Brown story approached McBride’s publisher and agent, McBride tried to turn him away and send him to another, better qualified writer.
“I had a lot of offers to do books about other stars,” says McBride, a writer and musician. “I’ve just turned them down.”
But James Brown was different. McBride eventually came around to the idea. Sure, he admits, he needed the money. But there was something deeper, too.
“I loved the man and I loved his music. He’s an important symbol, one that I thought is misunderstood. I’ve never read anything about him that spoke to how he was different, the difficulties of his life and the difficulties of the community he’s often associated with,” McBride says.
And so McBride wrote that book. “Kill ‘Em and Leave” was released in early April. On Monday, April 18, McBride will be at The Music Hall Loft in Portsmouth to talk about the book as part of the Writers in the Loft series.
McBride interviewed those closest to Brown in search of a more complete portrait of the artist who called himself “the hardest working man in show business.” The picture that emerged, though, was vastly richer and more complicated than McBride expected. Brown’s life and legacy parallel the broader history of black Americans, McBride says. And Brown, notoriously flinty and single-mindedly focused on being the best, had a sensitive side he didn’t show the public. Brown’s death brought further complications — though he wanted all of his multi-million-dollar estate go toward educating children in his home state of South Carolina, a plethora of lawsuits have kept Brown’s wishes from being enacted.
The Sound recently caught up with McBride by phone about the book, Brown’s place in American culture, and the messy, decade-long legal battle over the singer’s estate.
James Brown didn’t trust anyone, and his friends and family have a similar mistrust. How difficult was it to research the book? How did you convince Brown’s family and friends to talk with you?
I do whatever work needs to be done to get the story, in order for the lighthouses of the story to appear. And then you work to connect the dots between them. Sometimes you have to work hard for someone’s trust, and sometimes you don’t win that trust at all. You forget the failures and work with the successes. It’s not always easy. You don’t get everything you want. Maceo Parker (Brown’s longtime saxophonist) never spoke to me. I called him and wrote him three or four times, and at one point his manager got back to me and we started a negotiation, but I thought it was a bunch of jive. Pee Wee Ellis and Fred Wesley were the main co-creators of James Brown’s sound. … I traveled over to England to see Pee Wee … and also went to Amsterdam to interview (bassist) Charles Sherelle.
Did being a musician yourself help when it came to researching and writing the book?
It helped tremendously. People who don’t know music tend to wax poetic about music and write all around it, dressing up the flowers with more flowers. It’s like admiring someone’s garden by planting another garden next to it. You miss the whole point about what is in front of you. As a musician, I can look at the garden and tell you at least what I, as a musician, think is special about it. It helps matters some because I think James Brown’s music was so powerful and magnetic that people don’t look past the music to what the man was trying to say. When John Lennon wrote “Imagine” — and I think John Lennon was absolutely incredible — it was a song in his heart. People looked past that song to the world John Lennon wanted. They don’t look past to the world that James Brown wanted. They think his music is good, or slick, or danceable, and that’s it.
Why is that?
Black people are not supposed to represent the kind of innocence in America that white people do. I don’t mean to say that in a racist way … but he doesn’t represent the kind of innocence to America that the Beatles did.
They had complicated lives, they had drug problems, they had the same kinds of issues that many stars have because the world rushes upon them and they’re simply unprepared. They’re artists, very sensitive people, and they’re not prepared for the strains and struggles of stardom. To their credit, every single one of those guys comported themselves with an enormous amount of dignity, dealing with the pressures they were facing. I would argue James Brown did the same thing, until the end of his life when his life simply went out of control … because he was carrying the weight of an entire people on his shoulders. That’s a weight John Lennon … and Elvis didn’t have to bear.
There was once a Life magazine cover (about Brown) that said, “Is this the most important black man in America?” There would never have been an article like that about Elvis … He wasn’t expected to carry white race on his shoulders … he was just seen as Elvis, a great artist, a great talented guy, a wonderful singer. James Brown was seen as the guy who could control black thought to some degree. Twice he was brought in (in the 1960s) to stop riots in Boston and Washington, D.C., and I always thought that was a little misleading. I understand why he was brought in, but I don’t know if he really saved those cities. He was so loved that he was floated out in front of people and they listened.
I think the reason why he’s important is he would do it. Would some of those other stars from that era do it? I doubt it. Someone like Smokey Robinson would’ve done it. But was he big enough?
Was Brown aware of that role that was placed on him?
I think he was aware of it, and I think he carried it with some measure of pride and some measure of it being a burden.
You write about how Brown’s life mirrors black American history. What was the point in your research when that idea began to take shape?
When you look at James Brown’s life and see how that life played out, you realize that the cloud of racism that covers us all impedes people from seeing his life properly. When you hear him play and see him perform, there’s a lot of assumptions you make about him if you understand black life. He knew he’d be seen as just a dancer, not as anything other than that. I didn’t go into the book saying his life is a metaphor for race and our inability to deal with it, but that’s really what it’s about. I don’t really like talking about this kind of stuff because I’m not the kind of guy to talk about this stuff, but the story is what it is.
The facts speak for themselves. There’s no way in the world that if Elvis Presley wrote his will, that the state of Tennessee would attempt to rewrite it. (Brown) wrote a will and he wanted to leave his money to poor kids of all colors, and his will was re-written at one point and it still hasn’t been put into action. I don’t know if that would happen to a white artist at James Brown’s level … and all of that is wrapped up in race and class and politics, and I don’t know many American singers … whose estate are wrapped up in the politics of a southern state that’s not known for its tolerance and diversity.
He tried his best. He did not lead a life of exemplary behavior that was above reproach and criticism. But at the end of his life, he sought to give back everything he