Jazz great Count Basie once told soul singer James Brown to “become an institution,” as Basie himself had. A book like “Kill ’Em and Leave” suggests that Brown is exceeding that status, becoming both an institution and a myth.
Let us suppose that James Brown was Orson Welles’s Charles Kane. If he were, James McBride’s new book could have been called “Citizen Brown,” as it mostly consists of chapters giving perspectives about the singer from various people who knew him: from his first wife, Velma, whom he married in 1953, to his undertaker, Charles Reid; from his trusted friend and manager Charles Bobbit to the Rev. Al Sharpton, a protege of the volatile performer.
And if this is “Citizen Brown,” then the mysterious house in Queens that Brown owned during his New York years in the 1960s and that McBride introduces to us in the first chapter as the one that mesmerized him and his sisters, might be considered Xanadu. (Actually, Brown had several Xanadus.) And Brown’s will, which left at least $100 million in a trust fund called the I Feel Good Trust “to help educate poor children — white and black — in South Carolina and Georgia,” might be considered his “Rosebud.”
In the nine years since Brown’s death at age 73, the will has never been probated, and his estate is being bled to death in a tangle of lawsuits from which only the lawyers are getting rich. The mystery about this will, this “Rosebud,” is not that Brown wished to bequeath his money in this way. It is easy to understand why a black kid from the South who grew up without a mother, never finished school, was sent to a juvenile prison for theft and didn’t get a “pair of underwear out of a store” till he was 9 would want to help poor children. But knowing that his estate was “gonna be a big mess” when he died, why did he not simply establish a foundation for the education of poor children while he was still alive, when he could have done what he wished with his money? Why did he make helping poor children contingent on his death?
McBride, who won a 2013 National Book Award for his novel “The Good Lord Bird,” makes a curious (and, for some, gratuitous) confession that he is doing this book for money and that music journalist Gerri Hirshey was the superior author for the subject. In this respect, “Kill ’Em and Leave” turns out to be more revelatory about its author than its subject, although the Alan Lomaxesque “seeking the subject” aspect is engaging. And the author’s honesty gives the book an authority that is never snobbish. McBride writes well, and the fact that he is also a musician allows him to open up dimensions of Brown’s creativity that a non-musician critic could not. His comparison of jazz soloing to funk soloing, for instance, is illuminating.
But the informants here are not particularly forthcoming; indeed, most avoid saying anything especially critical about Brown. There are the usual stories about Brown the impossible, petty taskmaster with his band and his radio station employees; Brown the determined, intensely competitive young man who worked hard and was willing to do just about anything onstage to get an audience’s attention; Brown the aloof artist, who immediately left a venue once his performance was over (“kill ’em and leave”); Brown the cunning general, who ruthlessly played one member of his entourage off another; Brown the bad businessman, who owned radio stations, a private jet, restaurants and lost them all; Brown the race man, who made the pathbreaking hit “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud” in 1968 and who coached Sharpton; Brown the generous benefactor, who gave away cars, paid college tuition and provided loans for many; Brown the skinflint, who underpaid his band and many of his employees and hated charity with a Scrooge-like passion; and Brown the believer, who celebrated the American Dream with songs like “Don’t Be a Drop-Out”(1966) and “America is My Home” (1968).
There is the drug-addled Brown, the race victim convicted of leading police on a two-state chase and sentenced to six years in prison in 1988. (He served two years.) Brown the woman beater is mentioned here and there, but the grisly specifics of some of his more horrific episodes (involving singer Tammi Terrell, for example) are absent. Indeed, most of the informants describe Brown as more sinned against than sinning in his relationships with women.
In his autobiography, Brown describes how he went to Graceland as soon as he heard that Elvis Presley had died. At the open casket, he cried to the corpse, “Why’d you leave me? How could you let it go?” Brown claimed he was the one who needed consoling.
In the end, maybe only someone like Presley, another poor Southerner who craved stardom, could understand Brown’s life, Brown’s “Rosebud.” McBride acknowledges that knowing the South is the key to understanding Brown, but otherwise McBride’s Brown proves as inexplicable as Welles’s Kane.
Gerald Early teaches at Washington University in St. Louis and is editor of the Common Reader.
On April 7 at 7 p.m., James McBride will be at Politics and Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave NW., in Washington.
By James McBride
Spiegel & Grau. 256 pp. $28