"Can we hit it and quit?"
When it came to rhetorical questions, nobody beat James Brown. And the more you learn about him, the more layered his shouts during "Sex Machine" become: behind the "unscripted" banter, he was a harsh and unforgiving despot to his band, driving them relentlessly through a tightly-rehearsed show. No wonder their answer is always "yeah!" Yeah, you can hit it and quit. Whatever you say, James.
It is hard, as a white person born in the 80's, to fully appreciate the impact that James Brown had on America. Michael Jackson is easier for me to grasp: I grew up in a poor, racially-diverse neighborhood in Lexington, Kentucky, and I can still remember going over to a friend's house with my brother and seeing portraits of Jackson on the wall, in much the same way that the father in The Commitments keeps a picture of Elvis hung in the living room (right above the pope). James Brown was before my time and out of my sphere, so my appreciation, while sincere, is always more cerebral than heartfelt.
But if you want to get a little closer to understanding, this decade has been a good one for books about the Godfather of Soul. R.J. Smith's endlessly quotable The One came out in 2012, and now James McBride has tackled his legacy with Kill 'Em and Leave 'Em. Despite McBride's background as a musician, this isn't a deep dive into soul music. It's also not really a biography, in part because as McBride discovered, James Brown didn't let anyone into his confidence. He kept everyone at a distance, both fans and friends. The title is a quote, from Brown to the Rev. Sharpton: "kill 'em and leave 'em," he'd say, before slipping out from his shows, unseen by the fans waiting outside.
McBride interviews everyone he can find who knew Brown, ranging from his distant cousin, to his tax lawyer, to Alfred "Pee Wee" Ellis, the bandleader during Brown's greatest hits. Many of them are reluctant to talk about him, either because the memories are painful, or because he kept them at arms length, or both. Instead, what emerges is a kind of portrait of how James Brown left his mark on American culture, by way of his friends, family, and business partners.
It's a tribute to McBride's skill that he's able to weave these disjointed, scattered viewpoints into a compelling narrative. But part of what makes the tale so gripping is that unlike a traditional biography, McBride doesn't stop with his subject's death. In his will, James Brown left millions to fund education scholarships in South Carolina and Georgia, but not a dime was spent: lawsuits from disgruntled family members, and interference from the South Carolina government, immediately tied up the fortune and eventually all but depleted it.
Before he died, Brown told his friends that they wouldn't want to be anywhere near his estate when the end came. Indeed, the fallout was colossal. His attorney and accountant, both men who had helped haul him out from under IRS investigation, were ruined in the process. For all his faults, Brown deeply cared about giving poor kids like him a leg up, and to watch the estate disintegrate this way is painful. It's a tough pill to swallow at the end of a biography.
But let's be clear: any biography that claims to frame its subject neatly for the reader is kind of a fraud anyway. Who was the real James Brown? I don't think McBride really knows — I think he'd say that nobody really knew, not even the man himself. More importantly, he hints that it may be the wrong question to ask. Kill 'Em and Leave 'Em chronicles the impact that James Brown had on those around him, how that rippled out through communities (black and otherwise), and how it continues to inspire Americans today. James Brown is gone, McBride argues, but he's still telling our story.