JUNE 10, 2016
IN HIS WIDELY PRAISED 2014 New York Times magazine essay, “The Ballad of Geeshie and Elvie,” John Jeremiah Sullivan uncovered the stories of two blues singers from the early 1930s who created some of the “masterpieces of prewar American music.” His compulsive search through the American South for the truth about these vanished geniuses, entailing interviews with octogenarian ethnomusicologists, scans of old photographs and letters and interview transcripts, and musical samplings, yielded a B-side history of the blues that was a masterpiece in itself.
Two years earlier, the documentary Searching for Sugar Man followed the investigation by two Cape Town aficionados into the rumored death of folk singer Rodriguez — reported to have committed suicide onstage — whose songs had become a cultural sensation in apartheid–era South Africa more than two decades after he recorded them. This superb record of how they discovered the singer alive and working for daily wages in Detroit, unknown in his native United States and unaware of his following, rightly earned an Academy Award.
Following suit in the quest to add flesh and bone to musical myth, the distinguished James McBride has written Kill ’Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul. His search, however, is not for a forgotten artist about to finally be given his due; instead he’s investigating one of the most influential entertainers of the 20th century. Neither Brown’s ubiquity, nor the onstage manifestations of suffering and exultation that he took to breathtaking extremes, revealed the man. Behind the assertiveness, the grunts, the primordial screech, the Godfather of Soul and the originator of funk was a puzzle, to his friends and acquaintances as well as his audience. Al Sharpton, a protégé and something of an adopted son, told Rolling Stone soon after Brown’s death in December 2006, “The closer you were to him, the less he told you.”
It’s counterintuitive to think of this manically outward performer, nicknamed the Hardest Working Man in Show Business, as an unknown. In the culture of the 1950s and ’60s, Brown’s performance was, very simply, volcanic. Elvis, who gyrated to “Hound Dog” the year that Brown’s band, the Famous Flames, released their 1956 debut single, “Please, Please, Please,” had upset the puritanical order, breached the color divide from the other side, and made sure that the United States was never going to be the same again. But Brown’s performance was all the more menacing for the place it came from. As Sharpton said, James Brown “released the scream in all of us that had so much scream built up in us but never had the nerve to let it go.” That scream seemed to contain the entire African-American experience: exultation but also pain, rhapsody but also anger, swagger but also fear.
Nobody could squeeze more out of the most banal of words or phrases — most famously the word “please,” in the above-mentioned track, repeated over and over. In “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” he’d sing “this is a man’s world,” then repeat it, stretching the vowel to put more emphasis on “man,” as if we’d missed something the first time, didn’t get what he was telling us — the idea that this “maaan’s world” was something darker than we’d first understood. (And never darker than when he sang that line to American soldiers in Vietnam.)
Likewise, the dancing was more than just expert footwork — evidence of supreme artistry, certainly, but also disturbingly frenzied, a premonition of an emotional breakdown. The James Brown performance seems as intensely internal as external. It can be disconcerting, even if exhilarating, to watch old footage of Brown, bent over, screaming a word again and again, a couple of band members standing near, one patting him on the back as if to console him. Choreographed though it may be (the taps on the back are indeed to the beats of the song), it has the look of intervention, trying to bring a man back from the edge. “I can’t stop singin’,” he cries repeatedly at the end of “Cold Sweat,” and we’re almost with him, fearing for what will happen if he stops.
In Soul Survivor, the 2003 documentary, Brown said that the root of his lifelong pain was, as a child in the segregated South, seeing two water fountains in the same place, but only being allowed to drink from the one marked “colored.” Born in South Carolina in the early ’30s, Brown grew up confronting the indignities of both segregation and abject poverty. His mother abandoned him when he was four (only to reappear 20 years later, in New York City, after one of his performances at the Apollo). As a result, Brown was sent to relatives in Augusta, Georgia, a town best known today for the Masters Golf Tournament. For Brown, however, as for any black person for much of the last century, it was a very different place. There, he grew up in a brothel run by his aunt, Handsome “Honey” Stevenson. Living “as poor as you could be,” he wrote in his autobiography, he saw Honey’s business activities, which also included running a gambling den and selling bootleg liquor, not as crime but as “survival.”
For Brown, another means of survival was music. He sought salvation first in a 10-cent harmonica, and then in a piano that sat unattended in the house. His main musical influence was the church, which would inform much of his stage show later on, from the essence of gospel, to the flair of preachers, to the call-and-response style that became a James Brown hallmark. For stealing from parked cars, at age 16, he was sentenced to prison, where he eventually formed a gospel quartet. Paroled three years later, he soon joined the group that became the Famous Flames. From there, Brown was on his way to a singular career, arguably as the United States’s preeminent black entertainer of the second half of the 20th century. At one moment in Soul Survivor, as he’s giving a tour of Augusta, there’s a shot of his old school (which he dropped out of) through the window of his limousine. In the same frame are champagne glasses lining the limo’s windowsill: a perfect symbol of how far he’d come.
James McBride is an unconventional biographer. Kill ’Em and Leave is not the kind of account that reeks of the archives, with interminable pages of endnotes and sourcing. Nor is it a chronological account of the life of his subject. Instead, McBride develops an idea of Brown mostly through journalistic profiles of the people who knew him, including Sharpton, his accountant, his manager, members of his band, and other close friends. Some still seem exhausted by the James Brown experience. The singer declared himself a Napoleon in performance on the stage, but this was just an extension of what he was in life, a genius-tyrant and control freak who drove band members to physical and psychological extremes, famously imposing fines for perceived infractions, from hitting the wrong note to having a wrinkle in a dress.
The book’s title is taken from a line Brown would repeat to Sharpton, punctuating his decision to skip town immediately after every concert, avoiding fans, reporters, and music industry dignitaries. He was almost pathological in his aloofness. According to McBride, this is the legacy of an American South where all “wear masks and more masks, then masks beneath those masks,” disguising themselves into “everything’s-gonna-be-all-right” types “when in fact nothing’s gonna be all right”:
It is peopled by a legion of ghosts that loom over it with the same tenacity and electric strength that propelled a small group of outnumbered and outgunned poor white soldiers to kick the crap out of the northern Union army for three years running during the Civil War 150 years ago […] They obstruct your view with a politeness and deference that gives slight clue to the power within.
Brown, playing the Southern Gentleman (that quintessence of refinement and courtesy), never stopped “showing a mask to the white man.” He was, writes McBride,
an expert at dodging the white man’s evil. He had years of practice covering up, closing down, shutting in, shutting out, locking up, locking out, placing mirrors in rooms, hammering up false doorways and floorboards to trap all comers who inquired about his inner soul.
The stage was as much a place to hide as to exhibit himself, behind the Little Richard–inspired glitzy getup and the meticulously conked and pompadour hairstyle. He evoked Du Bois’s “double consciousness,” reminded always of white America’s eyes, its perception of black people, of him. “Leaving,” in the sense of McBride’s title, was the only way to preserve something authentic. Eddie Murphy might have been on to something in his legendary send-up in 1983’s Delirious, when he caricatured Brown’s speech as completely incoherent, but added that “[whatever] James said” — as evidenced by the way he grunted for emphasis — “was some heavy, heavy shit to James.”
“He meant that shit,” Murphy quipped — and each grunt had him turning back the needle, wondering, “what the fuck did I just miss?”
With the odds working against him, McBride searches the inscrutable South for the answers, but the Augusta that produced Brown is but a memory. The land seems spent, more depressed than it was in the ’40s and ’50s: Aunt Honey’s bootleg liquor has been replaced by drugs, and the neighborhoods where black men and women had once established businesses and a sense of community are now “spotted with homes that are boarded up tight.” And the friends and ex-friends profiled here, now carrying on in a post–Brown world, have the aura of survivors of some major cataclysm. McBride scores points for the eerie mood he creates, but unfortunately the profiles, in the aggregate, don’t yield as much as the reader might like. It’s too elliptical an approach, and as he jumps from character to character, the story becomes disjointed. At times he seems more committed to perpetuating Brown’s mystery than uncovering it.
If McBride’s goal, as he states at the outset, is “to explain the amorphous blend of black politics, culture and music that helped shape the man,” then surely there’s more to be said. Twice, for example, we’re told that the singer was “at his height” during the Civil Rights era, but McBride only obliquely discusses his contribution. Brown’s critical role in quelling riots in Boston and Washington, DC after Martin Luther King’s assassination is mentioned in a general summary of his life and career, but McBride never places the reader in those cities at those moments. Nor does he explore a compelling point that Sharpton once raised: that Brown’s successful appeals for peace to the thousands who attended those concerts provoked fear in the political establishment, which felt that a man who could induce so many to remain nonviolent could just as easily incite them to riot. This alone tells us so much about the temper of the times, and Brown’s place in that great era.
A related example is McBride’s discussion of “Say it Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud.” He acknowledges that the song — number one on the R&B chart for six weeks in 1968 — “would in one fell swoop change the self-image of the entire Negro nation,” including his 10-year-old, half-black, half-white self. He also, beautifully, deciphers its jazz chord movements and other musical properties, and highlights Pee Wee Ellis’s role in creating them, under typically immense pressure from his boss. But, again, he doesn’t explicitly place it in the context of the Civil Rights movement. The song came out just a few months after Martin Luther King’s assassination. Black Panther influence was peaking. The call to “say it loud,” to “rather die on our feet / Rather than keep a’livin’ on our knees” could easily be — and was — misconstrued by a nervous mainstream as a call to militancy, even as Brown preached the opposite. This anxiety about any black influence that was outside the reach of the mannerly political center spoke volumes. That anxiety seems to me implicit in Look magazine’s question about Brown on its February 1969 cover: “Is he the most important black man in America?” And that anxiety probably explains why Brown’s Vietnam tour several months before had been so tightly controlled. But that tour gets no mention here.
For what Brown accomplished musically, we need a discriminating interpreter, and this is where McBride is on much stronger footing. His description of the emergence of funk, of the difference between jazz and funk solos (comparing the former to basketball and the latter to baseball), and of funk’s emphasis on intuition rather than rote, is masterly. And the image of drummer Clyde Stubblefield emulating the “chug-a-chug” of the Southern Railway trains that Brown heard every day from a kitchen window in Chattanooga, Tennessee, is a marvelous metaphor for the connection between the South and the music it produced.
Indeed McBride provides an invaluable service to the history of R&B by highlighting the importance of lesser-known band members who created the music that made James Brown possible. These include Nafloyd Scott, the rhythm guitarist who quit the Flames early because of clashes with Brown, and whom McBride credits with a major role in the evolution of R&B from straight blues and country. These are the Geeshie and Elvie–like phantoms who, though unremembered in their own hometowns, changed American music and culture. The last survivor of the original Flames, Scott died in August 2015, taking a big chunk of undocumented history with him.
McBride also leaves us with a powerful image of the James Brown afterlife. Brown’s birthplace of South Carolina, a state that never much liked him (in 1988, he led police on a car chase across Georgia and South Carolina, for which he served part of a six-year sentence) still has its teeth in him a decade after his death. The court fight over his estate — still in the state’s custody and, according to one of McBride’s sources, shaved from well over $100 million to less than five million — has deprived the kids at South Carolina’s Reuben Elementary School, many of whose parents are too poor to afford a school lunch, of the legacy Brown intended to them. More to the point, it feels like bloody-minded revenge on the Brown legacy itself.
Fortunately, Brown’s musical legacy has resisted any forces trying to obscure him. Toward the late ’90s, McBride presents a brooding Brown confronting the fact that the “glory days were gone. The record business had a new king, rap music, and Brown’s body was breaking down.” But he needn’t have been so gloomy. Hip-hop might have subverted the musical order of things, but in this new dispensation Brown’s spirit could arguably be felt more than that of any other artist, his words and beats sampled by rap artists from Eric B. and Rakim, to Public Enemy, to Jay-Z and Kanye. Without James Brown, who knows if hip-hop would have even evolved as it has?
In illuminating what James Brown meant to our culture, we’re in good hands with the impassioned McBride: a fellow musician, he knows this world from within, knows what the music did and why it mattered. Ultimately, though, he leaves us with a sketchy portrait: the book’s total break from conventional biography accounts for its charm but also its weaknesses, and, at the end, we’re left wanting to turn back the needle, wondering what we’ve missed.