In 1966 James Brown released his new single ‘Don’t Be A Drop-Out’ which warned kids that “Without an education, might as well be dead”. Being James Brown he didn’t say it once but he said it loud, fifteen times.
The lyrics to JB’s R&B hits could be secondary to the main purpose of getting in his new bag, getting in the groove, getting ants in his pants and wanting to dance, but ‘Don’t Be A Drop-Out’, perhaps more than any other James Brown single – and I’m including ‘Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)’ - got to the core message of Brother James, the Hardest Working Man in Show Business.
When Brown died forty years later he left a conservative estimate of 100 million dollars to educate poor children. It was a lifelong passion and a recurring theme through James McBride’s new book, Kill ‘Em & Leave: Searching For The Real James Brown which attempts to explain “the amorphous blend of black politics, culture, and music that helped shape the man.”
Who James Brown was depends on your standpoint. One right-wing UK newspaper recently described him as “a monster of greed and vanity, a bully, a tax-dodger on an industrial scale, a wife-beater and all-round maniac”. For James McBride he was “the greatest soul singer this country ever knew” and “arguably the most influential African-American in pop music history”. Brown could, possibly, be all those things but McBride writes as if presenting a case for the defence.
One early revelation comes that not one dime of the money Brown put aside has made it to help educate those children. A legislative battlefield has witnessed 47 lawsuits with lawyers, politicians, even family members munching on the “carcass and bones”, as McBride calls it, of Brown’s will. If there’s any money left now, there soon won’t be. The Man will have gobbled it up. Taken it.
The book’s most interesting parts are the events following his death and those at the beginning of his life which discover the roots of James Brown, his complicated family tree, and of growing up in the south - the poor south, the black south. From picking cotton and shining shoes, a teenage Brown was sentenced in 1949 for eight to sixteen years for four counts of breaking and entering (stealing cars and parts). He served three and half of those years and when released found the place he spent much of his childhood - Ellenton in South Carolina - is one of six small towns in South Carolina that had been cleared away by the government. Everything and everybody moved out, shattered to the wind, to make way for 310 square miles of the Savannah River Nuclear Site, the biggest bomb factory in the world.
McBride surmises this played a part in Brown’s distrust in officialdom, which could take away anything they wanted, whenever they wanted. A young James had already seen family members leave, his liberty taken away and now whole communities wiped out. Whatever he obtained from now, he was going to keep. He sure as hell wasn’t going to trust a bank to look after his money. This, of course, would get him in a financial pickle later on. When the IRS came after him for 15 million dollars in taxes Brown claimed he was exempt because Richard Nixon had announced he was a national treasure and also that he was part Indian related to Geronimo. Nice try. Brown dealt in cash – up front – which he proceeded to hide: in suitcases, under the floorboards, buried in the garden, under trees, in hotels he stayed in on tour to which he would much later return. Brown took tight control over everything he did and woe betide anyone who crossed him.
It’s surprising therefore to hear Brown described as generous man but McBride is such a huge fan much journalistic impartially has been put aside. It’s written at times like a pulp detective story with McBride at the centre of the action. As a series of blog pieces it would work better but I don't care about McBride’s music career, his days as a student of journalism, his divorce, his repeated moans about young people wearing their pants around their asses and their caps back-to-front. When interviewing people I want to hear their stories not what they had to eat or the difficulty the author had finding somewhere to park his bike.
The interviewees, by and large, don’t have a great deal to offer. It’s nice to hear from the only survivor of the Famous Flames, guitarist Nafloyd Scott, but he has no fresh insight. He also, to his credit, has no axe to grind. Those who talk remain loyal to Brown preferring to say nothing than badmouth him. Charles Bobbitt, Brown’s personal manager for 41 years and there at his deathbed, chooses not to divulge much; Pee Wee Ellis, such an integral part of the classic JBs line-up, would rather not talk about his ex-boss; and Miss Emma, the wife of Brown’s close friend Leon Austin and the woman JB called “Sis”, when asked about the drugs, relationships with women, the beatings, the cruelty replies "I was taught you don't talk low on somebody. Especially if they're dead".
On a more positive note, his relationship with Leon Austin dispels the perception - hardened in the Get On Up movie – that James Brown couldn’t do friendship, that he was alone as a man. Also, Brown’s first wife Velma speaks fondly of her ex-husband, the bond that remained between them, and of the shared agony of the death of their son Teddy, killed in a car crash. McBride concludes JB was “more southerner than he was black or white, more sensitive artist than he was superstar".
James Brown, whatever we think of him as an individual, is in a league of one when it comes to his music but this book says little about that. There’s a detailed and rounded biography to be written but this isn’t it. The New New Minister of the Super Heavy Funk is cast in a better light than sometimes afforded but he was a hard man to get to know. He was guarded, his defence built up, he kept his distance, he didn’t like to mingle. “Arrive important, leave important,” he would say. “Kill ‘em and leave, kill ‘em and leave”.
Whatever legacy James Brown left behind on Christmas Day in 2006 when his body finally collapsed it wasn’t the one he wanted: to help kids stay in school. He wouldn’t have felt good about that.
Kill ‘Em & Leave: Searching For The Real James Brown by James McBride is published by Orion Books, priced £20.