When James McBride was a boy in St. Albans, Queens, in New York City, he lived with his 11 siblings on the poor side of the tracks.
“But on the other side of the railroad tracks was the high life,” he writes, a neighborhood of fine homes owned by stars like Lena Horne, Count Basie and Roy Campanella.
For McBride the most fascinating was a “huge, forbidding” black-and-gray house owned by R&B legend James Brown.
To a young biracial boy with musical aspirations in the 1960s, James Brown was a deity. McBride’s 11-year-old sister, Dotty, got up the nerve to knock on the door and was rewarded with Brown himself telling her, “Stay in school, Dotty. Don’t be no fool!” McBride tells us, “My jealousy lasted years.”
In his new book about Brown, “Kill ‘Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul,” McBride writes, “He is easily one of the most famous African Americans in the world, and arguably the most influential African American in pop music history. … He is also arguably the most misunderstood and misrepresented African American figure of the last three hundred years.”
“Kill ‘Em” is McBride’s effort to correct some of those misunderstandings and misrepresentations, and do a whole lot more.
This is not a linear just-the-facts biography or a celebrity gossip fest; it’s a biography enfolded in cultural criticism, an attempt to explain an extremely complex man who, the author discovers, really didn’t want to be explained.
McBride dives deep, talking to a wide range of people who knew Brown, as much as anyone could. Family members tell him about Brown’s childhood in South Carolina and Georgia, surrounded by poverty and love, and the roots of his career in the music of black churches. Brown’s first wife, Velma, who remained a close friend after they divorced, offers insight into Brown’s devastation at the accidental death of his beloved oldest son, Teddy, at age 19.
He delivers an illuminating portrait of Brown and the culture that rewarded and rejected him.
“Kill ‘Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul”
By James McBride
Spiegel & Grau, 232 pages