James Brown’s impact on American popular culture reverberates so deeply through music and race relations that writers are still attempting to uncover the man behind the legend. In Kill ’Em and Leave, acclaimed writer James McBride (The Color of Water) seeks to explain why, for African Americans, Brown remains the “song of our life, the song of our entire history.”
The troubled soul singer revolutionized American music—fusing jazz and funk, for example—but he didn’t appear on the cover of Rolling Stone during his lifetime, and music critics often treated him as a joke.
McBride’s portrait of Brown is part cultural history, part music criticism and part memoir—as a child, McBride stood across the street from Brown’s house in Queens, waiting for a glimpse of his hero. Drawing on interviews with the singer’s family and friends, many of whom have never before spoken on the record about Brown, McBride paints a gloomy portrait of a man haunted by the demons of insecurity and mistrust, a musician whose career ascended rapidly and descended just as quickly, and an individual who insisted that children stay in school and who left most of his fortune to provide financial aid to children caught in the web of poverty. Brown so distrusted banks that he hid money everywhere and, McBride writes, always walked around with $3,000 worth of cashier’s checks for the last 20 years of his life.
Brown’s insecurity filtered down to members of his band, whom he mistreated, paid poorly and often spied on to see who was speaking badly of him behind his back; in short, McBride points out, he “dehumanized them.” In the end, Brown is a product of the South—a land of masks, in McBride’s words—where no one, especially a black man, can ever be himself.
McBride’s energetic storytelling, his sympathy for his subject and his deeply personal writing tell a sad tale of one of our most influential musicians.