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You don’t have to search for James Brown’s musical influence

“Kill ‘Em and Leave” -- that was James Brown’s philosophy on stage, and it’s also the title of a new biography. Author James McBride joins Jeffrey Brown to discuss the godfather of soul’s inner life and his under-appreciated influence on American music.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Now a new look at the hardest working man in show business, a man of many contradictions, highs and lows, whose musical legacy opened doors and influenced black and white musicians alike.

    Jeffrey Brown has this newest addition to the "NewsHour" Bookshelf.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    He was the Godfather of Soul, an incredible entertainer, by any measure one of the most important and influential American musicians of the 20th century.

    But who was James Brown, the man, and what shaped him? Those questions are taken up by musician and writer James McBride, best known for his memoir "The Color of Water" and his National Book Award-winning novel "The Good Lord Bird."

    McBride's new book is "Kill 'Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul."

    We talked recently at the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C., AN historic hall where James Brown regularly performed.

    And I asked first about the power of Brown's music.

    JAMES MCBRIDE, Author, "Kill 'Em and Leave": Well, there's no music in America that you can listen to that doesn't have some James Brown in it.

    I mean, the whole creation of the synthesizers and these guitar parts and the beat, that was James Brown. Elvis Presley shook America up, and James Brown shook the world up, because his whole persona was that of someone whose consumed by this music, this sound.

    So, he was a phenomena. And he was really seen as a kind of a scream at the end of the dial, where black radio lived.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    A scream at the end of the dial? Yes.

  • JAMES MCBRIDE:

    Yes, he was this — he was — because everyone knows, "Wo, I feel good."

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Yes. Yes.

  • JAMES MCBRIDE:

    But, musically, he was very sophisticated. There is a lot of counterpoint in James Brown's music.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    This is not a traditional biography, though, that you have written, right? The subtitle says tell us that is searching for the American soul. And that means taking us to some deep places.

  • JAMES MCBRIDE:

    Well, yes.

    Well, I think James Brown's life is a metaphor really for how America has evolved. And it is a metaphor for how we can't talk about the business of race and class and North and South, because, in many ways, James Brown was much more a Southerner than he was a black man. Everything about the…

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And what does that mean?

  • JAMES MCBRIDE:

    Well, everything about the way he lived, everything about his lifestyle and his choices, personal and professional choices, were dictated by the decorum and the pride and the honor and integrity of Southern life.

    So, you know the whole business of him doing his hair, for example, and always being proper, and not showing his pain, the whole business of trust in the South, and especially in James Brown's world, and you talk to Southerners, this — this whole mentality of, if we trust you, we will trust you with our life, but if you betray that trust, our journey is over.

    And James Brown really typified that in many ways.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    But you also talk about the idea of putting on a face, right, not presenting your true self, partly out of fear as a black man in the South.

  • JAMES MCBRIDE:

    Well, that's right. He had a lot of fear of white people as well, because he grew up in a segregated part of the world, and he grew up in a world where there was a lot of cruelty, in a world where everyone had to stay in their own lane.

    And I think his fear of white people and his fear of being broke and his fear of people trying to — taking what he had, including the government and the IRS, which cleaned him to the walls twice, made him a very lonely and fearful person.

    But he never showed that to people. His face was that of bravado and pride and smiling. He never wanted to show — he didn't want people to know him.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Yes, that comes through. Right? I mean, he's a very hard man to know, even by those you talked to who were very close to him.

  • JAMES MCBRIDE:

    Well, you know, he compartmentalized people.

    You know, he had his black friends. He had his white friends. He had his manager that he trusted with his money, and his accountant that he trusted with his money. And he had this promoter that he trusted and that one he didn't.

    He lived in a world of many rooms. I don't know if he is that different from any of us. But he is an exaggeration of all of us, because he doesn't know how to quite function comfortably in any one place.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And what about the way he was treated, seen? I mean, you are talking about him rocking the universe. Elvis Presley, though, of course, gets much more — got much more attention.

  • JAMES MCBRIDE:

    Of course.

    Well, I mean, listen, the whole business of the evolution of black music in America is a difficult subject to talk about without sounding like a racist malcontent. But I have spent most…

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    But you have made it part of the story here of James Brown.

  • JAMES MCBRIDE:

    I had to. You can't avoid it. It is like — it's the elephant in the room.

    I mean, most black musicians, including James Brown, walked through department stores and hear ninth chords borrowing from their history. There is no pension for the guys who created…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You mean the Muzak, the music in the…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • JAMES MCBRIDE:

    Yes, the music — the music that plays into the…

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Yes. Yes.

  • JAMES MCBRIDE:

    They hear their own music piped back to them, as they're living lives of relative poverty and anonymity.

    And, I mean, history has gobbled up most black musicians' contributions. I never thought it would eat James Brown alive, but it has to some degree.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    So did he ever get his proper due?

  • JAMES MCBRIDE:

    I don't think he's gotten his just due, because I don't think he has seen — he is such a phenomena, that people remember him and they just remember he just gave them such a good time.

    They forget that, musically, he was brilliant, and that, personally, despite his personal struggles, which were painful to him and to others, that he put that aside in order to try to make people happy, and to try to make people, most importantly, get along.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Was it an easy story to tell? Was he an easy man to find in the end?

  • JAMES MCBRIDE:

    No, this was the hardest book I have ever done, because even after finishing this book, I don't really feel I know him completely.

    I don't think he wanted to — it's clear he didn't want to be known. But I have enough of the ghost of the man, the nub of the man, to tell the story in a way that I think people would relate to.

    It is hard to know someone who spent his entire life not wanting to be known. Michael Jackson was the same way. In fact, a lot of the celebrities are the same way. They have this penchant for privacy because they don't want to show you the pain that powers them.

    But the story — you know, the story is the pain that powers them. That's the fuel. That is the motor in the car. And so — and dissecting that with James Brown, you realize that a lot of what motored him along was his desire for people to see beyond the color of his skin. And that is something we still have a hard time working out in this country.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    All right, the book is "Kill 'Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul."

    James McBride, thank you.

  • JAMES MCBRIDE:

    Thank you very much.

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