James McBride pays tribute to the Godfather of Soul

April 4, 2016 GMT

“Kill ’Em and Leave” (Spiegel & Grau), by James McBride

James McBride, best-selling author of “The Color of Water” and “The Good Lord Bird,” has written a furious ode to the troubled life and legacy of the incomparable James Brown.

Part appreciation, part biography, the book is structured as a mystery: Why has this singular figure in American culture — a genius on the order of Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan — been so grievously misrepresented and misunderstood, all the more so since his death in 2006 at age 73?

Unlike other writers who have focused largely on Brown’s groundbreaking music, McBride seeks to investigate the “amorphous blend of black politics, culture and music” that shaped the Godfather of Soul.

He travels to the South to interview Brown’s first wife, former manager and other close associates, including the last of the Famous Flames. In England, he talks to former Brown bandleader Alfred “Pee Wee” Ellis, who wrote the music to “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud,” lyrics McBride argues changed the self-image of black America “in one fell swoop.”

He sits down with Brown’s protege, the Rev. Al Sharpton, to whom Brown imparted his hard-won lessons in showmanship, among them “Kill ’em and leave,” the title of this book. And he unearths a tangled and tragic story, one rooted in Brown’s personal history of growing up dirt-poor in a broken family in the segregated South and in America’s vicious history of slavery and racism.

Heroes emerge, including a small-town reporter who has doggedly pursued the legal maneuvering surrounding Brown’s contested estate, and villains abound, most looking to make a buck.

The entertainment industry, McBride asserts, is one of the bad guys, treating black life as “fragile compost for the American storytelling machine,” grinding “old stereotypes and beliefs into a kind of mush porridge best served cold, if at all.”

This is an angry book, but also one that sings and soars. A saxophonist and composer, McBride has an astonishing sense of rhythm and uncanny ability to conjure the sound of human voices.

He writes sentences that swing, invents images that pop: “Brown’s saga is an industrial-strength story, a big-box store of a life ...” or Brown is “hollering from the back of the bus of history.”

There are sour notes as well — for instance, his account of the marital and financial woes that led him to write this book. But anyone who loved his earlier books — or was a fan of the hardest-working man in show business — won’t be disappointed.