Kill ‘Em and Leave is a difficult book to categorize—part biography, part music history, but what it most closely resembles in writing style and approach is a series of magazine articles on the subject of James Brown and his legacy. That is not meant as a criticism, and the book is written with energy and flair.
I do not know a lot about James Brown, and my general sense of his life may incorporate some of the information that McBride would be quick to point out as lies or exaggeration. But McBride is not setting out to whitewash, just to find the truth.
And the truth is hard to find. McBride tells us that Brown was secretive, not just about money and the details of his private life but about his real self. McBride is only able to find out fragments of the truth about Brown, because Brown let people make things up about him and was more interested in creating his own legend than in revealing himself. So, McBride pursues his subject by visiting the places where he lived and talking to old friends and employees.
McBride doesn’t want to focus on the drugs and the mistreatment of women and the scandal. He wants to explore Brown’s legacy to American music and to the people in his life, good and bad. The shocking handling of his estate, which was left in trust for the education of poor children and is being ransacked by a series of lawyers, is also a focus. The damage the suits have done to the reputations of the original trustees, including the imprisonment of his honest and innocent accountant, David Cannon, is a sin. But McBride makes clear that Brown was a bad employer, erratic, distrusting, tight, and more people than Cannon have taken a fall for him. And not one poor child has received a cent of his money.
This is a fragmentary but fascinating portrait of a complex man. If you are interested in the issues of African-American life, the history of American music, the issues of legacy, corruption in the music business or in South Carolina politics, or simply in a well-told story—any of these will assure your enjoyment of this book.