Body and Soul: On James McBride’s Wild, Wonderful Kill ‘Em and Leave

James McBride

It’s incredibly difficult to read books without being reminded of other ones. For me it’s damn near impossible. So when I read James McBride’s Kill ‘Em and Leave, I was helpless in being reminded of the essay Zadie Smith pens for her ailing father, “Dead Man Laughing,” where she writes, “The funniest thing about dying is how much we, the living, ask of the dying; how much we beg them to make it easy on us.” Another irony about death is who actually has to live with it.  The dead cannot bury or cremate themselves. The dead cannot mourn the loss of their own body. (If they do we certainly can’t hear them.) It’s a frustrating conundrum for vain people like me who’d die just to see who’d attend the funeral. This could explain why James Brown, “the Hardest Working Man in Show Business,” worked so hard. All the wailing, screaming, yelling, fining, spending, spinning, splitting, singing and dancing would not be in vain. Brown made sure of it.

Importance has a price. One Brown paid while he was alive; and one he continued to pay long after he died. McBride’s rigorous investigation into what it cost James Brown to be James Brown is why Kill ‘Em and Leave functions like a spiritual and moral audit. As many entertainers will tell you, show business is 95 percent business, five percent show. To dedicate a book to that five percent, the things we see, is to perpetuate an insidious violence that’s been carried out against entertainers for centuries: “We don’t care about what it cost you to create, just tell us how much?” If the value cannot be expressed by the bottom line, if we can’t measure the worth in dollars and cents, then you might as well be talking with two heads ‘cause we ain’t listening. As someone who’s been behind the scenes—both as a writer and musician—McBride has an intimate understanding how the spotlight perniciously erases everything on the periphery of an artist’s life. This book is his way of writing the periphery into the center:

When a black man’s dream is deferred, when he fails in the matter of the heart, when he watches a town he gave so much to fall away to pieces by forces beyond his control, who can he blame for that? Drugs? Crime? When his dream fails or is deferred, where can he be allowed to show hurt, show the pain in his heart, show his own suffering when the stage lights are gone and it’s dark and he’s alone, and the very town he loves seems to reel beyond seeming repair and is unable to repay him for what he gave?

Questions that need answers. Ones only those who really knew Brown could answer. In a daring attempt to get these answers, McBride questions anyone and everyone—from Brown’s first wife, Velma, to his last manager, David Cannon. But no matter how many questions McBride asks, he invariably gets the same answer: “James Brown gives you what James Brown feels you deserve.” In many ways, Brown treated himself the way he treated his money. There were very few people he trusted with it. Brown didn’t use banks. The idea that there’d be someone or something standing between him and his money made him nervous so he carried, on his person, $3,000 worth of cashier’s checks—just enough to keep the IRS away. He demanded his payments for gigs to be in a brown paper bag, the kind kids would carry their sandwiches to school in. It didn’t end there. Brown buried money in backyards, hid it in hotel room ceilings and floors. He even convinced his manager David Cannon to allow him to hide money in Cannon’s personal safe. “This money belongs in a bank,” Cannon told him, “I’m not a bank.” Brown’s reply? “No, Mr. Cannon. It’s fine where it is.”

Always moving was how Brown stayed in control—of his money and himself. When McBride interviews Al Sharpton, Sharpton recalls Brown taking him along to a performance at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Aretha Franklin and Barry White were amongst the many of other black performers who were also at the hotel. Several of these artists had gone down for some pre-performance gambling and fraternizing. A young and wide-eyed Sharpton wanted to join but Brown stayed in his suite, and told Sharpton the same: “Ain’t nobody going to see James Brown till it’s time to hit. Everybody else down there, they’re being common. Don’t be common.” Instead of rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous, Brown and Sharpton called DJs from around the country to make sure they were playing Brown’s music.

After shows, Brown would spend hours under a hair dryer to make sure his hair would look the same way it did prior to performances. That night had been no different. And when he was finally finished getting his hair, instead of heading back to his suite for the after-party, Brown told his manager, Charles Bobbit, to ready the plane: “We’re leaving.” Sharpton attempted to protest. Brown wasn’t having it—and told Sharpton something he never forgot: “Lemme tell you something, Rev. When you kill ‘em, Rev, you leave. You kill ‘em and leave. You understand that son? Kill ‘em and leave.”

Brown’s advice to Sharpton— “Kill ‘em and leave”—is a major key in unlocking the spirit of this book; to a lesser extent, Brown’s life. In this navigation Brown becomes reminiscent to Orson Welles’s Charles Foster Kane. Or at least the Kane other people thought he was. Like Brown, Kane kept his private self so deeply submerged beneath his public persona there was no way of telling who he actually was. “He never gave anything away,” Jedediah Leland, Kane’s childhood friend, reflects, “he just left you with a tip”—which returns us to a recurring idea about Brown: he gave you what he felt you deserved.

Yes, Kane is fiction. A product of the creative and cultural imagination, but all fictions are anchored in some fact. Kane was a composite character, based on several wealthy American businessmen including Samuel Insull and William Randolph Hearst. Men who, by nature of being in the cutthroat world of business, adopted “kill ‘em and leave” ways of being—even to the extent of self-sabotage. Performance is America’s greatest export. Our gross domestic product. If there’s any difference between Welles’s Kane and James Brown (with race being the obvious) it’s this: Brown’s performance never ended. He was always keeping up appearances.  “I’ve never met anyone in my life,” Brown’s longtime friend, Miss Emma, confides, “that worked harder to hide his true heart. Mr. Brown worked at that very hard. He had a sensitive heart. If you knew that about him, there was not much else you needed to know.” Still there was more.

After several hours of prodding, Bobbit, one of Brown’s closest confidants and former managers, tells McBride that Brown’s fear of white men also played a serous role in how hard “the Hardest Working Man in Show Business” worked to conceal himself from others: “He was Mr. Say It Loud, but he knew the white man owned the record business. He wasn’t stupid. He wanted to stay ahead. That’s what he would always tell me. ‘Stay ahead of the next guy. That way you control the conversation.’” Brown’s ethos is Sisyphean and understanding it is to understand the land and region that produced it. “Brown was a child of a country in hiding,” McBride writes, “America’s South.” For black people living during Brown’s time, surviving the South depended on hiding. You constantly had to mask your true feelings for the white families you worked for; some of whom were even your relatives. You were incessantly worried about who you could and couldn’t look at. You could never let on to your own intelligence; how much you really knew; not even with people you trusted. A slip of the tongue could cost you your life. Living the way Brown did demand he be “the Hardest Working Man in Show Business.” Surviving the South was a job.

Six years before Brown died, he spent $20,000 in legal fees to establish his will. His personal effects went to his children (the ones that he claimed, anyway), a $2 million education fund was left to put his grandkids through college, but most of his money—from his estate, which was conservatively estimated at $100 million—was left in a trust to help educate poor children in South Carolina and Georgia. The trust was aptly named the I Feel Good Trust. None of that money ever reached those kids. What happened instead is a story that’s as heartbreaking as it is infuriating, which is to say nothing about its legality. Everyone from lawyers, to judges, to widows, to kids, had at that money. Claiming the will was created under the “undue influence” of Brown’s last managers, Buddy Dallas and David Cannon, South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster threw Brown’s original will out, rewrote Brown’s family into the will, and decided they’d oversee the trust. Dallas and Cannon, the two men responsible for getting Brown out of his $15 million tax debt to the IRS and getting Brown back on his feet, were tossed altogether. Cannon even got six months in prison. Brown’s body had literally not even been buried yet. The entire time this was going on, Brown’s body was still in the funeral home. (His body now lies in a mausoleum in his daughter’s front yard). And what about the children? “Ten years after Brown’s death, not a single child in Georgia or South Carolina has benefited, while the value of Brown’s estate, which, according to Cannon, was easily $100 million or maybe $150 million at Brown’s death has plummeted to an unknown figure.”

Just like all art is a kind of confession, all biographies are a kind of memoir. Even when a writer does their best to hide their tracks, you can still make out their footprints—if you’re paying attention: “Every man or woman in this life has a song, and if you’re lucky you can remember it.” Brown’s life didn’t end with his death. It found other ways to live—through his music, through his legacy, through the many rappers who continue to sample his iconic sound for a hit, and through the people who remember him. McBride was one of those people; one of those poor kids who still remembers staking out Brown’s house in St. Albans, Queens, hoping to get a peek at him.  McBride still remembers the day his sister Dotty came home breathless, sweaty and screaming because she and her best friend, Shelly, had knocked on Brown’s door, asked to speak to him. Brown not only came to the door, he asked both girls their names, shook their hands, and told Dotty: “Stay in school, Dotty. Don’t be no fool!” This was who Brown intended his money for—kids like McBride and his older sister Dotty. This journey wasn’t just business for McBride; it was personal.

A popular belief about the dead: when we dishonor them, they turn over in the graves. I am one of the people who believe this. It’s my way of reminding myself the only lives lost are the ones the living decides to forget about. In writing Kill ‘em and Leave, McBride reminds us, as he does himself, all was not lost with James Brown. His body may be gone, but we still have his soul.

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