James Brown always wanted to take the stage last.
Back in October 1964, promoters insisted that The Rolling Stones close out a concert they were billed on together. As music lore has it, Keith Richards would later say that following James Brown was one of the biggest mistakes the Stones ever made. That night, Brown didn’t so much take the stage as levitate onto it: feet in constant motion, that legendary hair bobbing up and down to a beat he owned, all while the crowd screamed.
“At the time, he was so funky and so hot and so good, and he danced so well,” writer James McBride says. “He was like watching a preacher preach without having to get saved to Jesus.”
When McBride, a National Book Award winner for his novel The Good Lord Bird, decided to write an entire book about James Brown, he wanted to push beyond the hype and racism he says haunts Brown’s legacy. He saw the musician’s time in jail, drug use and allegations of domestic violence as well documented. Instead, McBride’s Kill ‘Em And Leave: Searching For James Brown And The American Soul zooms in on the James Brown from Barnwell County, S.C. — whose mother left, who never graduated from high school, who wanted to leave his wealth to educate poor kids like the one he used to be.
“You know, you pick up these biographies in the bookstore and you just find out how the guy died,” McBride says. “The more I found out about him, the more I liked him, the more I realized that he truly felt misunderstood and lonely.”
To aid his own understanding of the man, McBride tracked down a constellation of folks from Brown’s life: cousins, his first wife, former band members and more. He recently spoke with NPR’s David Greene about how and why Kill ‘Em And Leave — named for Brown’s own saying about how to nail a performance — came to be.
David Greene: There’s an amazing scene in the book where James Brown is a young janitor at a school in Georgia. You spoke to a couple people who were students there, who would sneak down to the basement and find him practicing the piano.
James McBride: Yeah, one of the ladies who remembers it said it was a great performance. She was about 7 or 8 years old. They weren’t supposed to go in the basement, but they just couldn’t resist.
So the ’60s and ’70s, you describe that he really personified the essence of black American pride. Why him, and not the musicians coming from Motown?
Well, James Brown saw himself as a kind of competitor to Motown. He was a guy who you really felt represented the community. Not that Diana Ross and The Supremes and The Temptations didn’t, but they were the “Sunday best” people. James Brown was the Monday-to-Friday guy. He was the hardest man in show business. He was like your dad and your uncle: He showed up and he hit hard. He gave out free bicycles at concerts. He was always trying to tell you, directly, to do better and to educate yourself.
You, as a young person, were sort of close to him. You were a kid in the ’60s growing up in Queens, and you wrote about looking up at this very imposing house in your neighborhood.
Oh, yeah. His house was across the tracks, on the good side of St. Albans. I used to sneak over, across the Long Island Railroad tracks, and me and my friend Billy Smith, we would stand outside. A bunch of us! Because the rumor was that he would come out of the house, and if you’d promise you’d stay in school, he’d give you money.
That was the rumor.
That was the rumor. It never happened. [Laughs.] And so kids would stand outside his house all the time, and then one day, my sister Dottie did something that no kid I ever thought had the guts do do: She just went up to the front door of this beautiful house, and just knocked. And she met him! And so she came running home and said, “I met James Brown.” And we asked, “What did he say?” “He said, ‘Stay in school, Dottie.'” And that became the clarion call of my sister for a long time.
Look, we loved James Brown in my house. He was loved; he was admired. His music and his whole persona was so funny. He made up words. He was a complete original.
And he took his role, it sounds like, so seriously. I mean, he did want kids to get educated; he gave reduced ticket prices for kids to come to his concerts. And he also cared so much about his personal appearance, just spending hours on what he looked like. Where did that come from?
They call that, down South, “being proper.” People from down South, of all races — they try to be very proper. And because he was so poor, and he was always a snotty kid with raggedy clothes and his hair wasn’t combed and so forth, he was always very self-conscious about how he was seen, how he was treated and how he treated others. In fact, his best friend, Leon Austin — when he first met him, Leon Austin’s mother took James Brown and Leon Austin into her back room and put them both in the tub, and just washed. She couldn’t stand it. And when she was finished washing, she said, “Now I can stand you.”
Can you explain the darker side of him? And not just the reputation for his treatment of women and dabbling in drugs, but some band members who just felt so mistreated. He would fine his own band members for the smallest infraction — I mean, not shining their shoes.
First of all, when you run a band, it’s not easy. You got one guy who can really play, but he’s just hard to handle. And then you got another guy who’s a really nice guy, but he can’t cut the part.A band is not a democracy: It’s show business.
The other part, about him being womanizer and having women problems: I mean, that’s true. But I don’t he’s any [more] unique than some of these other people in show business, who have all kinds of women problems.
Do you think people should excuse it for that reason?
Absolutely not. Of course not. A lot of it was very true. But there were a lot of elements that were also very true, that are never talked about. The fact that he was very generous. The fact that he was never given credit for creating these different styles, that are tabulated now by Billboard and Rolling Stone.
So I think, to some degree, he represents African-American musicians who have never had their say, in terms of history. When you talk about the Rock and Roll [Hall of Fame], when you walk through there and you see Elvis — as much as I loved Elvis — musically, in a technical sense, Elvis was not the cat that Louis Armstrong or James Brown was, in my opinion. Maybe I’m wrong! But the music speaks for itself. James Brown’s music still sounds as fresh and as good and as new as it did when he first created it.