The memory has stuck with James McBride. Sometime in the 1960s, his 11-year-old sister Dotty and a friend bravely knocked on the door of the imposing house in Queens’ St. Albans neighborhood. The manor belonged to a king, a legend, a mystery known as James Brown.
Alerted by a maid, Brown came to the door “with two white women, one on each arm, both dressed in sixties wear, complete with beehive hairdos,” recounts McBride in “Kill ’Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul,” his genre-juking consideration of one of the 20th century’s most electric and influential entertainers.
“My jealousy lasted years,” McBride confesses. So consider “Kill ’Em and Leave” payback. For in this eclectic, peripatetic book, McBride goes knocking on doors in search of insights into the man who was “one of the most famous African Americans in the world, and arguably the most influential African American in pop music history.”
A great deal has been written about the singer-songwriter, bandleader, funk originator and dancing phenom. His first hit, the Famous Flames’ “Please, Please, Please,” came out in 1956; his last, R&B single “Static,” in 1988. Along the way, he had seven Billboard Top 10 singles; recorded 321 albums; had 114 single artist hits on the R&B charts; and in 1968 wrote “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud,” an empowerment shout-out for a roiling time.
Even so, there has yet to be a definitive biography of Brown. His 1987 autobiography, “The Godfather of Soul,” written with Bruce Tucker, doesn’t cut it. Not according to Charles Bobbit. Brown’s personal manager of four decades tells McBride, “He just told the guy anything he wanted.”
“Kill ’Em and Leave” isn’t that elusive biography, either. McBride — author of the best-selling 1996 memoir “The Color of Water” and the National Book Award-winning novel “The Good Lord Bird” — doesn’t intend it to be. This is a work of excavation but also of identification, one artist wrestling with the tumultuous life and uncanny talents of another. More stirringly, it represents the efforts of one black man to speak authentically of another black man’s tribulations, successes and faults. Additionally, McBride, a composer and sax player, has a deep appreciation for just how essential a number of musicians were to the James Brown Sound. Like actor Don Cheadle’s film “Miles Ahead,” about jazz titan Miles Davis, “Kill ‘Em and Leave” is a unique response to a dynamic call.
McBride begins his search in the South, where he spends time in the places that shaped Brown and sits with the people who loved him.
He travels to Barnwell County, South Carolina, where Brown was born to Joseph and Susie Brown in 1933. To Augusta, Georgia, where as a boy he was taken by his father to live with his aunt Handsome “Honey” Stevenson. To the countryside southeast of Augusta, where in 1951 the federal government emptied six towns of their citizens — some of them Brown’s people — to make way for the Savannah River Site nuclear reservation.
He calls on Brown’s first wife, Velma; Famous Flames’ guitarist Nafloyd Scott; musical director and saxophonist Alfred “Pee-Wee” Ellis; as well as the lawyer and the accountant who cleaned up Brown’s IRS troubles and established his trust.
“Of its many potent themes, the book’s most dogged focuses on Brown’s estate, stuck in the courts since his death in 2006.
On this twisted matter, McBride doesn’t hold back. “At least $100 million left behind to educate poor children of all races in South Carolina and Georgia. And ten years after he died, not a dime of Brown’s money would go to educate a single impoverished kid in either state. Why?” McBride asks. “The short answer is greed.” He blames the “bottom-feeder lawyers who lined up to pick at his bones.”
As for the book’s nicely lethal title, it comes from the man himself. In the ’70s, Brown took a 17-year-old boy preacher named Alfred Charles Sharpton under his sequined cape. Early in what became a lifelong friendship, Sharpton accompanied Brown to Las Vegas. After the show, Brown told his manager to get the plane ready.
“We just got here,” Sharpton said.
“Lemme tell you something, Rev,” Brown replied. “When you kill ’em, Rev, you leave. You kill ’em and leave. You understand that, son? Kill ’em and leave.”
It’s a great turn of phrase, to be sure. But McBride’s book suggests otherwise. Yes, for decades Brown slayed ’em — and for that, he lingers still.