BOOK REVIEW: Kill ‘em & Leave: Searching For The Real James Brown by James McBride
Penguin Random House
Reviewed by Shane Pinnegar
James McBride has some authority on his subject: a musician and author himself, he also worked PR for Michael Jackson during a period when Jackson was close to the self-proclaimed “hardest working man in showbiz.”
McBride doesn’t approach this like a traditional biography, though. For starters, that would be extremely difficult as he rarely let anyone into his inner circle, often told contradictory stories to obscure the facts of his life, and ensured his story was never too easily unravelled. Each of McBride’s chapters is more like an essay on a different aspect of Brown’s complex and sometimes contradictory character.
Importantly, whilst McBride proudly (sometimes a little TOO proudly – black musicians were far from the only ones ripped off in the early days of rock and roll) flies the African American flag throughout this work (and provides many insights into the appalling injustices faced by people of colour in the United States), he doesn’t shirk away from Brown’s problems with drugs, women, tax, courts. Nor does he ignore the eccentricities which both made him the unique performer he was, and the difficult – often impossible to deal with – person who was often his own worst enemy.
The greatest tragedy of Brown’s life, McBride points out, is that despite all his ups and downs – all the musical triumphs, all the money, all the bizarre behaviour, all the legal problems and jail time – Brown left something close to 100 million dollars to educate poor children in South Carolina and Georgia… and even now, nearly ten years after his death, not a single cent of that money has been used as per the explicit instructions in his will. Instead family members squabble and fight over the fortune, while lawyers enormobill hour after hour working on the multiple cases, all the while whittling the fortune down and down until there may well be nothing left to even buy one kid one schoolbook.
For all his troubles, especially later in life, James Brown was always generous with his money and advice, always encouraging children to better themselves with education. He must be turning in his grave, even though he told his most trusted friends that he knew his estate would be a mess after he died.
McBride’s book is rivetingly illuminating: not just about his subject and those around him, but also about the overt racism that still exists in many parts of the South, and about the self-perpetuating greedmonster that is the American legal system.
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About the Author: Editor, 100% ROCK MAGAZINE