National Book Award winner McBride (The Good Lord Bird, 2013, etc.) dissects the career, legacy, and myth of the Godfather of Soul.
One of the most iconic figures in pop music, James Brown (1933-2006) is also one of the most unknown and falsely represented figures in American cultural history. Taking the recent biopic based on his life as an example, McBride shows how Brown’s late-career downward spiral into drug abuse, erratic behavior, and jail time is exaggerated and how it overshadows his legacy as a hardworking and dedicated singer who was a positive cultural force. Part of this misrepresentation was caused by the mystery of Brown, which he perpetuated during his lifetime. As the author points out, Brown was constantly on the run from himself, careful never to reveal too much of his personality in public or private. As Brown put it to his young protégé Al Sharpton, “come important and leave important.” McBride traces Brown’s philosophy of “keeping ’em guessing” through his upbringing in rural South Carolina and Georgia and back to a telling myth of a local ancestor. As the author sums it up: “you can’t understand Brown without understanding that the land that produced him is the land of masks.” Anecdotes and digressions are the preferred narrative mode for McBride, as he eschews an overarching, linear structure in favor of the rhythm of vignettes. Through his adventures to uncover the “real” Brown, there is significantly little discussion of Brown’s musical career; instead, the author focuses on the people around him and the defining moments of his life outside the spotlight. But for McBride, the story of Brown is the story of money and greed—not on Brown’s part, who put his $100 million estate toward the education of poor children, but of his heirs and family members who have tied up that money in years of litigation.
An unconventional and fascinating portrait of Soul Brother No. 1 and the significance of his rise and fall in American culture.