Kill 'Em and Leave : Searching for James Brown and the American Soul
by James McBride

Overview - National Book Award winner James McBride goes in search of the "real" James Brown after receiving a tip that promises to uncover the man behind the myth. His surprising journey illuminates not only our understanding of this immensely troubled, misunderstood, and complicated soul genius but the ways in which our cultural heritage has been shaped by Brown's legacy.  Read more...

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More About Kill 'Em and Leave by James McBride
National Book Award winner James McBride goes in search of the "real" James Brown after receiving a tip that promises to uncover the man behind the myth. His surprising journey illuminates not only our understanding of this immensely troubled, misunderstood, and complicated soul genius but the ways in which our cultural heritage has been shaped by Brown's legacy.


Kill 'Em and Leave is more than a book about James Brown. Brown's rough-and-tumble life, through McBride's lens, is an unsettling metaphor for American life: the tension between North and South, black and white, rich and poor. McBride's travels take him to forgotten corners of Brown's never-before-revealed history: the country town where Brown's family and thousands of others were displaced by America's largest nuclear power bomb-making facility; a South Carolina field where a long-forgotten cousin recounts, in the dead of night, a fuller history of Brown's sharecropping childhood, which until now has been a mystery. McBride seeks out the American expatriate in England who co-created the James Brown sound, visits the trusted right-hand manager who worked with Brown for forty-one years, and interviews Brown's most influential nonmusical creation, his "adopted son," the Reverend Al Sharpton. He describes the stirring visit of Michael Jackson to the Augusta, Georgia, funeral home where the King of Pop sat up all night with the body of his musical godfather, spends hours talking with Brown's first wife, and lays bare the Dickensian legal contest over James Brown's estate, a fight that has consumed careers; prevented any money from reaching the poor schoolchildren in Georgia and South Carolina, as instructed in his will; cost Brown's estate millions in legal fees; and left James Brown's body to lie for more than eight years in a gilded coffin in his daughter's yard in South Carolina.

James McBride is one of the most distinctive and electric literary voices in America today, and part of the pleasure of his narrative is being in his presence, coming to understand Brown through McBride's own insights as a black musician with Southern roots. Kill 'Em and Leave is a song unearthing and celebrating James Brown's great legacy: the cultural landscape of America today.

Praise for Kill 'Em and Leave

"Thoughtful and probing . . . with great warmth, insight and frequent wit."--Rick Moody, The New York Times Book Review

" McBride] turns out to also be the biographer of James Brown we've all been waiting for. . . . McBride's true subject is race and poverty in a country that doesn't want to hear about it, unless compelled by a voice that demands to be heard."--Boris Kachka, New York

"The definitive look at one of the greatest, most important entertainers, The Godfather, Da Number One Soul Brother, Mr. Please, Please Himself--JAMES BROWN."--Spike Lee

"A feat of intrepid journalistic fortitude."--USA Today

"This is an important book about an important figure in American musical history and about American culture. . . . You won't leave this hypnotic book without feeling that James Brown is still out there, howling."--The Boston Globe

"Illuminating . . . engaging."--The Washington Post

  • ISBN-13: 9780812993509
  • ISBN-10: 0812993500
  • Publisher: Spiegel & Grau
  • Publish Date: April 2016
  • Page Count: 232
  • Dimensions: 0.75 x 6.5 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds

Related Categories

Books > Music > Genres & Styles - Soul & R&B
Books > Biography & Autobiography > Entertainment & Performing Arts - General
Books > Biography & Autobiography > Cultural Heritage

Publishers Weekly Reviews

Publishers Weekly® Reviews

  • Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
  • Review Date: 2016-02-08
  • Reviewer: Staff

McBride, mainly known for his bestselling 1995 memoir, The Color of Water, returns to nonfiction with an investigation into the life, times, and death of James Brown, the “hardest-working man in show business.” Though the soul singer’s musical legacy is ingrained in the collective American unconscious, many details about Brown’s personal life and the lives he touched along the way remain obscure. McBride reveals them while seeking to correct misconceptions perpetuated by the recent film Get On Up. Most notable among McBride’s tales are those involving Al Sharpton, whom Brown unofficially adopted; the relationship shines a light on both men’s lives that is often overlooked. Chasing down Brown’s life story all over the South, McBride enters some shady situations and stumbles on a story even larger than the Godfather of Soul himself: the fate of Brown’s estate, which has been so preyed upon by various lawyers that the poverty-stricken children for which it was meant haven’t seen a dime. McBride’s storytelling is heavily impeded by clichés and trite metaphors, but the power of his subject matter nevertheless shines through in this solid work of journalism. Agent: Flip Brophy, Sterling Lord. (Apr.)

BookPage Reviews

Understanding the Godfather of Soul

James Brown’s impact on American popular culture reverberates so deeply through music and race relations that writers are still attempting to uncover the man behind the legend. In Kill ’Em and Leave, acclaimed writer James McBride (The Color of Water) seeks to explain why, for African Americans, Brown remains the “song of our life, the song of our entire history.”

The troubled soul singer revolutionized American music—fusing jazz and funk, for example—but he didn’t appear on the cover of Rolling Stone during his lifetime, and music critics often treated him as a joke.

McBride’s portrait of Brown is part cultural history, part music criticism and part memoir—as a child, McBride stood across the street from Brown’s house in Queens, waiting for a glimpse of his hero. Drawing on interviews with the singer’s family and friends, many of whom have never before spoken on the record about Brown, McBride paints a gloomy portrait of a man haunted by the demons of insecurity and mistrust, a musician whose career ascended rapidly and descended just as quickly, and an individual who insisted that children stay in school and who left most of his fortune to provide financial aid to children caught in the web of poverty. Brown so distrusted banks that he hid money everywhere and, McBride writes, always walked around with $3,000 worth of cashier’s checks for the last 20 years of his life. 

Brown’s insecurity filtered down to members of his band, whom he mistreated, paid poorly and often spied on to see who was speaking badly of him behind his back; in short, McBride points out, he “dehumanized them.” In the end, Brown is a product of the South—a land of masks, in McBride’s words—where no one, especially a black man, can ever be himself.

McBride’s energetic storytelling, his sympathy for his subject and his deeply personal writing tell a sad tale of one of our most influential musicians.


This article was originally published in the April 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

BAM Customer Reviews