So, it’s actually been a while since I finished reading James McBride’s brilliant Kill ‘Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul (2016)—at least a month. The biography seals, for me, my personal classification of McBride as a master storyteller.
As a child of the early 1970s, the youngest in a family where my mom was alternately a hardcore partier and a holy roller and my thoroughly teenage sister and two older brothers who pretty much left me out of everything cool I never got to truly appreciate the genius of “the hardest working man in show business”, Mr. James Brown—“Mr. Brown”, as he insisted people address him.
McBride’s biography, as much about himself as the book’s subject, didn’t make me want to watch hours of Youtube videos of Mr. Brown, although some of the feats that McBride claims for Mr. Brown have to be seen to be believed. Rather, the text left me wondering how far this country has come from the time that Mr. Brown reigned supreme as a musical icon. It also made me wonder what would be written about me once I’m no longer walking this big beautiful planet.
Essentially, the text does what truly inspired writing is meant to do: it makes you ask the bigger questions.
I spent a couple of weeks on the text, not because it was particularly challenging—it’s a quick read in many ways. Rather, I found I needed to take my time; to slow down and let the words sink in. In fact, I found myself stopping numerous times to marvel at McBride’s profound mastery of language. The man plays words like a true jazz musician plays his true instrument—which makes it only right that in addition to being a best-selling writer he is also an accomplished composer and saxophonist.
Check out his inspired website: www.jamesmcbride.com
Take these last few lines—a few of too many to count—from the book:
But there’s no guessing when I play song number 14. Their hands shoot up. Their faces light up. They hear hollering. They hear the scream. They hear the groove. They hear the tightness. And you say to yourself, They will remember him. He will make them remember him. He’s hollering from the back of the buss of history, just so they’ll know who he is. So Vanessa will know. And Cecil. And Maddy. And Laura. And Helen. And even little Ni Ni and the twins Malcolm and Malik. And in knowing who he is, maybe one day they will know who they are (228).
McBride tells a good part of Mr. Brown ‘s story through the artist’s relationships with other people in his life; some of them well-known, others not so much. For example, I learned that THE Reverend Al Sharpton was a protégé of Mr. Brown. And that Mr. Brown went to the aid of Michael Jackson when the money-hungry vultures descended on him with their bogus child molestation charges a few years back.
I also learned the sad truth that Mr. Brown stipulated in his will that all of his fortune be donated to educating poor children in the south. However, his money-hungry vulture family has made sure that not one dime has gone to fulfill his wishes. That hurt.
I have proposed that the biography is as much about Mr. McBride as it is about Mr. Brown. Indeed, McBride chooses to inextricably link their lives and their work in the text. Fortunately for us, McBride is still among us, gracing us with his genius.
The sense of their interconnectedness is most evidenced by the way that McBride ends the narrative with his own intervention on the lives of young budding musicians in loving memory of the first person he ever saw read music, Sister Helen Lee, the organist at the church that his parents founded in 1955.
If we refer back to those lines that I quote above we should note that song number 14 is by none other that the Godfather of Soul and the names that McBride lists belong to children in the music program that he started for those from the Brooklyn housing projects where he grew up. What a fitting tribute to a legend.
“Kill ’em and leave, Mr. Brown, kill ’em and leave!”