If you think you know the Godfather of Soul (a.k.a. James Brown) based solely off old videos, comedy routines, previous biographies, and celebrity rumors, you don’t know the real James Brown. While we may never know the man behind the red cape and microphone, author James McBride presents a much deeper look at this musical genius.
Brown’s story has been told through a variety of platforms, including a movie, rock & roll history books, and magazines. McBride isn’t the first person to write about this historical legend, so what makes this book stand out from the rest? It’s in the details. A national award-winning author, composer, and jazz saxophone player, McBride wanted to not only tell the true story of songwriter, producer, and band leader James Brown, but also make readers aware that his legacy has been swept under the rug.
This book is not your typical biography that expresses the monumental events of a star’s life from beginning to end. Yes, you will learn the basics like his early life, how he became famous, his monumental career moments, and when he died. And while McBride exposes the voice and essence of James Brown, you also hear a lot of the author’s voice as well.
In this book, McBride expresses his anger with the entertainment industry, which uses black Americans as stereotypes. McBride writes, “The guy is finished. Gone. Perfect dead. Paying him homage now doesn’t cost anyone a thing. He’s like John Coltrane, or Charlie Parker, or Louis Jordan, or any other of the dozens of black artists whose music is immortalized while the communities that produced them continue to suffer.” He argues that Brown’s lack of recognition represents the historical pattern of the forgotten African American music community.
Throughout the book, the author praises Brown’s musical capabilities and past work. McBride mentioned to NPR that Brown brought historical significance to popular African American music in the ‘60s. While the R&B record company, Motown Records, tried to appeal to a mass audience through polite etiquette and catchy tunes, Brown created a groove that has stood the test of time. Brown’s abstract and stylized vocals, jazz-organ, choppy guitar, and bass guitar used in tracks like “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag” and “I Got You (I Feel Good)” helped build a foundation for funk music.
The author’s persistence to speak with people who initially resisted helped him communicate perspectives that are essential for understanding the complexities of James Brown. Brown’s first wife, Velma, was interviewed, along with his cousin, manager, accountant, one of his close friends, and civil rights activist Rev. Al Sharpton, and former members of Brown’s band, The Famous Flames.
Growing up with a broken family and being raised poor in then segregated South Carolina, life was not easy for Brown. McBride tells the online publication, National News Post, that the mentality for the black descendants of slaves was to “do whatever needs to be done, say whatever needs to be said, then cut for the door to avoid the white man’s evil.”
Brown’s group, The Famous Flames, created a tougher R&B sound that incorporated complex rhythms and riffs used in jazz. This combination was the emergence of funk music. The book also features former saxophonist and musical director for The Flames, Alfred “Pee Wee” Ellis, who wrote the music to the civil rights anthem “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.” The author argues that the song drastically changed the self-image of black America from a minority in fear to a person who was proud.
Kill ‘Em and Leave exposes two pivotal moments in James Brown’s career. The first was when Brown opened for the Rolling Stones in October 1964. His performance left the Stones speechless. Lead singer of the Stones, Mick Jagger, has been known to copy many of Brown’s moves after that performance. The second moment was on April 5th, 1968, when Brown stopped a near riot when he performed at the Boston Garden, the day after the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination.
The book concludes by telling the tale of the dark, final years of Brown’s career that have been misrepresented and over sensationalized, resulting in six years in prison for drug use, children out of wedlock, and accusations of domestic violence. Brown left $100 million in his will to educate poor children in South Carolina and Georgia, but in 2016, Brown’s money was instead distributed to his broken family. McBride tells NPR, “The more I found out about him, the more I liked him, the more I realized that he truly felt misunderstood and lonely.”
James Brown was more than just the godfather of soul/funk music. He was a vital icon for the civil rights movement and African Americans all over the world, while his music broke cultural and racial boundaries in America. If you are interested in learning about James Brown’s private life and the impact that he made on music and society, I would recommend this book.