DAVID GREENE, HOST:
James Brown, a.k.a. Mr. Dynamite, Soul Brother No. 1, the Godfather of Soul, always wanted to take the stage last to finish the show. Well, when promoters insisted back in 1964 that the Rolling Stones close out a concert, music lore has it Keith Richards from the Stones said following James Brown was one of the biggest mistakes the Stones ever made. That night, Brown didn't so much take the stage as he levitated onto it, feet in constant motion, that legendary hair bobbing up and down to a beat he owned. All the while, the crowd was screaming.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JAMES BROWN: (Singing, unintelligible).
JAMES MCBRIDE: At the time, he was just so funky and so hot and so good. And he danced so well that people just - he was infectious. You know, he was on fire. It was like watching a preacher preach without having to get saved to Jesus.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BROWN: (Singing, unintelligible).
GREENE: "Kill 'Em And Leave" is writer James McBride's new biography of James Brown. He took the title from Brown's own saying for how to nail a performance. With so many depictions of the music legend already in books and movies, James McBride wanted to push beyond the hype and racism he believes haunts Brown's legacy. There was his time in jail. There was drug use - allegations of domestic violence. There was also the James Brown from Barnwell County, S.C., whose mother left, who never graduated from high school, who wanted to leave his wealth to educate poor kids like the one he used to be.
MCBRIDE: You know, you pick up these biographies in the book store and you just go to the back to figure out how the guy died. And the more I found out about him, the more I liked him - the more I realized that he truly felt misunderstood. And he was truly lonely.
GREENE: So to understand him, James McBride tracked down a constellation of sources - cousins, James Brown's first wife, former band members, even some in Toccoa, Ga., who recall a young janitor dreaming of a different life.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAYBE THE LAST TIME")
BROWN: (Singing) Maybe the last time.
MCBRIDE: I spoke to a couple of people who remember him practicing the piano in the basement and shoveling the coal to warm the school. This is a white school.
GREENE: Students would sort of sneak down to the basement and find him playing the piano. And to look back now and realize that they were listening to a man named James Brown is just incredible.
MCBRIDE: Yeah, one of the ladies who remembers it, she said it was a great performance (laughter).
GREENE: I'm sure it was.
MCBRIDE: She was 7 or 8 years old. They weren't supposed to go in the basement.
MCBRIDE: But they just couldn't resist, you know?
GREENE: So the '60s and '70s, you describe that he really personified the essence of black American pride. Why him and not the musicians coming from Motown?
MCBRIDE: Well, James Brown saw himself as a kind of competitor to Motown. He was a guy who you really felt represented the community - not that Diana Ross and the Supremes and The Temptations didn't, but they were the Sunday best people. James Brown was the Monday-to-Friday guy. He was the hardest-working man in show business. He was like your dad and your uncle. He showed up, and he hit hard, and he gave out free bicycles at concerts. He was always trying to tell you directly to do better and to educate yourself.
GREENE: And you as a young person were sort of close to him. You were a kid in the '60s growing up in Queens. And you wrote about looking up at this very imposing house in your neighborhood.
MCBRIDE: Oh, yeah, I used to go to - his house was across the tracks on the good side of Saint Albans. And I used to sneak over across the Long Island railroad tracks. And me and my friend Billy Smith, we would stand outside his house - a bunch of us - because the rumor was he would come out of the house, and if you promised you'd stay in school, he'd give you money.
GREENE: That was the rumor.
MCBRIDE: Yeah, that was the rumor (laughter). That never happened to me. You know, and so kids would stand outside his house all the time. And then one day, my sister Dottie actually just did something that no kid I ever thought had the guts to do. She just went up to the front door of this beautiful house and just knocked. And she met him. And so she came running home and she said, I met James Brown. We asked, what did he say? He said, stay in school, Dottie. You know, and that was just like - that became the clarion call of my sister for a long time. Look, we loved James Brown in my house. He was loved. He was admired. And his music and his whole persona was so funny. He made up words - something like skibooda (ph). He was a complete original.
GREENE: And he took his role, it sounds like, so seriously. I mean, he did want kids to get educated. He gave, you know, reduced ticket prices for kids to come to his concerts. And he also cared so much about his personal appearance - you know, just spending hours on what he looked like. Where did that come from?
MCBRIDE: They call that down South being proper. And people from down South of all races, they try to be very proper. And because he was so poor, and he was always a snotty kid who had raggedy clothes, and his hair wasn't combed, and so forth, he was always very self-conscious about how he was seen and how he was treated and how he treated others. In fact, his best friend, Leon Austin - when he first met him, Leon Austin's mother took James Brown and Leon Austin into her back room and put them both in the tub and just washed. She couldn't stand it. And then when she was finished washing them, she said, now I can stand you.
GREENE: Can you explain the darker side of him - and not just the reputation for mistreatment of women and sort of dabbling in drugs - but some band members who just felt so mistreated? He would fine his own band members for the smallest infractions - I mean, not shining their shoes.
MCBRIDE: Well, first of all, when you run a band, it's not easy. You've got one guy who can really play, but he's just hard to handle. And then you've got another guy who's a really nice guy but he can't cut the part. A band is not a democracy. It's show business. The other part about him being a womanizer and having, you know, women problems - I mean, that's true. But I don't think he's any less unique than any - some of these other people in the show business who have all kinds of women problems. I mean, you know...
GREENE: And do you think people should excuse it for that reason?
MCBRIDE: Oh, absolutely not - of course not. No, I'm not saying that. A lot of it was very true. But there were a lot of elements that were also very true that are never talked about - the fact that he was very generous, the fact that he was never given credit for creating these different styles of music that are tabulated now by Billboard and by Rolling Stone. So I think to some degree, he represents African-American musicians who've never had their say in terms of history. When you talk about the Rock 'n' Roll Museum, and you walk through there, and you see Elvis - as much as I loved Elvis, you know, musically, in a technical sense, Elvis was not the cat that Louis Armstrong or James Brown was, in my opinion. Maybe I'm wrong. But the music speaks for itself. James Brown's music still sounds as fresh and as good and as new as it did when he first created it.
GREENE: James McBride, it's been great talking to you. Thank you
MCBRIDE: Pleasure, thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GET UP OFFA THAT THING")
BROWN: (Singing) Get up offa that thing and dance 'til you feel better.
GREENE: James McBride's new book is called "Kill 'Em And Leave: Searching For James Brown And The American Soul."
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