Early in Kill ‘Em and Leave, James McBride writes that “the James Brown story is not about James Brown. It’s about who’s getting paid, whose interest is involved, who can squeeze the estate and black history for more … It’s reflective of the sad state of the American popular emporium these days, where for the last decade talent shows judged by stars whose names we’ll forget five minutes past breakfast decide who has ‘talent.'”
That’s the ramp up of a formidable free-style book that isn’t straight biography (for that, see RJ Smith’s vivid 2012 The One) but a mix of history, street-level investigative reporting, hagiography, Deep South sociology, music criticism, memoir and some fiery preaching. McBride is a National Book Award-winning author (The Color of Water, The Good Lord Bird) and jazz saxophonist who thinks deeply about race and art. The man blows beautiful sentences that don’t shun punchlines; even those put off by his old-school pop perspective should find plenty to amen.
Especially rich are McBride’s profiles of Brown’s family and intimates: the singer’s loyal first wife and lifelong friend, Velma; the self proclaimed cousin CR, who reveals Brown’s mysterious family tree to McBride one night in a backwoods shack; and Brown’s trusted and fastidious white accountant, David Cannon, whose career was crushed in the shit-show of contesting interests following the Godfather’s passing in 2006.
It’s this aftermath that animates much of McBride’s reporting, and to an extent the book, from the scenes of Michael Jackson’s overnight with the dead singer in an Augusta, Georgia, funeral home; to the outrageous battle over Brown’s estate, earmarked in his will for poor Southern schoolchildren but eviscerated in the legal fray from an estimated $100 million to less than $5 million, by one account. Ultimately, McBride tells a story of a musician who not only changed pop worldwide but who was an icon of black self determination – a man whose fight against America’s racist heritage defined his life and, remarkably, his death.