So, first things first—what are some common misconceptions about James Brown that really need to be cleared up?
He was much more than “The Godfather of Soul.” He was a son of the south. Very sensitive guy. Very misunderstood. A living symbol of what’s wrong and right about American history.
In the Foreword, you refer to the fact that Brown’s legacy is “scattered everywhere but where he wanted it.” Can you elaborate on this for our readers?
Brown left his entire estate, valued at between $100 and $150 million, in a trust to educate poor children of all races in South Carolina and Georgia. He left them everything: his likeness, music, music publishing. Since then, it’s been tied up in South Carolina court by his “widow” and his children going on 10 years this December. Millions have been paid to lawyers and creditors while they fight about it. Meanwhile, not a single child has been educated.
You speculate in the book that Brown is “nearly as important and as influential in American social history as, say, Harriet Tubman or Frederick Douglass.” That’s a bold statement. What do you feel to be Brown’s lasting legacy?
His imprint on American music will last as long as any popular music we know, or have known in the last couple hundred years. His social significance and effect on black American life is extreme; he is in many ways an amalgam of modern American history. In the book, you state “Black history in the United States is low-hanging fruit for anyone who wants to play Tarzan and swing down into the open jungle of African American life to pluck the easy pickings. You can make a few dollars in the storytelling world that way.”
The James Brown you write about is flawed, real, and truly relatable. Did you set out to avoid the “easy pickings” in relating Brown’s story, or as you wrote and researched, were you surprised at the level at which he had been misrepresented in Hollywood up to that point?
No I’m not surprised at the Hollywood treatment. Hollywood is not known for its deeper understanding of any person or issue. So long as the movie or series is made and money changes hands, so be it. Some of this was Brown’s fault as well. Brown wasn’t understood by the media because he was a complicated guy and didn’t want to be understood. He was sensitive and he hid his sensitivity. It was the easier way.
Are there any other celebrities or public figures on your radar for the biography treatment?
I’m not sure when or if I’ll do another biography. I did this one for James Brown. And for the children of South Carolina and Georgia that he wanted educated with his hard-earned money.
Finally, what have you read lately that impressed you or stuck with you the most? Any books or authors that you’d recommend?
I’m reading The Dorito Effect by Mark Schaztker. I highly recommend it. You’ll never look at food the same way again.
Book Title: Kill ‘em and Leave
Author: James McBride
Sub-Head: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul
ISBN: 9780812993509 | $28.00 HC | Spiegel & Grau | Available 4/5