Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Short Review: A blessed contrast with inauthentic biographical works, James McBride writes something more than a biography of James Brown. Instead, McBride documents a pilgrimage, a lengthy journey to understand musician James Brown with greater context than ever before. The result is a complex dissection of Brown from the perspective of those who knew him better than all others.
Some celebrities are easy to know, insofar as layfolk can really know them. They wouldn’t know me from a hole in the wall, but you can’t tell me I don’t know Oprah, Steven Tyler, or any number of celebrities whose goings on I follow on social media.
James Brown wasn’t that type of celebrity. That’s precisely why, after 10 (or maybe closer to 15) biographies on the subject, James McBride’s book continues to unearth new facts about the singer. What makes Kill Em and Leave different is McBride’s unprecedented access to the few remaining men and women who knew the singer best. Managers and guitarists, childhood friends and distant cousins all come to McBride’s table with a piece of the puzzle. The result is an unvarnished look at a man who was somewhere in between loyal, abusive, scared and proud. All of those traits can be debated, but one cannot– his loneliness was fact.
If readers walk away with one fact from in-depth interviews with Mr Bobbit (his manager), Leon Austin (his best friend), and Al Sharpton (his mentee), it’s that Mr. Brown did not want to be known. He did not want to be familiar. He did not want to be regular. Above all else, Mr. Brown was a proud and hardworking man with intimacy issues who was deeply aware of his own flaws. He was difficult to love, likely because he had trouble expressing love himself, but he was a master of his craft.
“During the course of his forty-five-year career, James Brown sold more than two hundred million records, recorded 321 albums, sixteen of them hits, wrote 832 songs, and made forty-five gold records,” writes McBride. Mr. Brown, in his ironclad will, left the fruits of his labor to underprivileged youth in the South Carolina and Georgia school systems. Brown regretted his lack of education, and stressed its importance to children on numerous occasions.
Years after his 2006 passing, none the millions has reached the children for whom it was intended, instead blocked in circuit court where maligned ex-wives and greedy children fight over money that wasn’t meant for them. It’s devastating to read, especially as McBride recounts the poverty in the area where Mr. Brown spent much of his life.
Out of five stars, I gave this book four. Unsurprisingly, McBride has done his homework; he went to the backwoods of Georgia and South Carolina so we wouldn’t have to. But the book is not without its small drawbacks. McBride’s sometimes repetitive writing and overbearing voice both detract from the reader’s experience, but not enough to overlook the book’s importance as a musician biography. Actually, McBride’s musical training makes him uniquely qualified to write this book, and allows the reader to more greatly understand the difficulty in creating delicious ear candy.
If you’re interested in James Brown, in musical history, or in the importance of music in black/American culture, this book is for you. More importantly, if you’re looking for a more accurate portrayal of Mr. Brown than Get On Up, or if you’re familiar with James McBride’s previous work, you should snatch this book right off the shelf. Kill ‘Em and Leave is complex in its analysis, and complete in its research.
Now of course, I have to leave you with The Godfather himself. Just watch that footwork!
Disclaimer: I received this book in exchange for an honest review.