The Real Dirty South: Bios of James Brown, Harry Crews
Alright kids… only a few weeks until school’s back in session. How are you doing with Principal Hanley’s summer reading list?
Actually, set aside that dog-eared copy of To Kill a Mockingbird for now. Hell, just watch the film on Netflix (spoiler alert: Gregory Peck loses the case but wins the lead role in Captain Newman, M.D.). Let’s take a trip through the real Dirty South with recent bios of James Brown and writer Harry Crews.
With Kill ‘Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul, author James McBride doesn’t create a bio as much as a collective remembrance, based on a non-linear set of interviews with some of Brown’s main confidants and former business associates.
Childhood friend Leon Austin shares some grit about Brown’s early years in Augusta GA. Although the two boys lived in abject poverty (Brown’s dad Joe was barely present and his mom left for good when he was around five years old), they always found a way to make a little cash – shining shoes, boxing other kids at the local auditorium, competing in talent shows… But Austin’s greatest contribution to modern American culture was introducing Brown to “the blasting trombones, the pounding drums, the nonstop groove, the swaying, high-stepping musicians of the United House of Prayer’s legendary shout band.” Brown was hooked for life – and all of us can be thankful for that, because here’s what that sound morphed into: There Was A Time
One of the Godfather’s closest allies was the Rev. Al Sharpton, who joined Brown’s inner circle in 1971 at the age of 17. Whether serving as the band’s road manager or schmoozing politicians and CEOs, Sharpton tirelessly promoted his boss and remained his strongest advocate until Brown’s death on Christmas Day, 2006.
We also meet David Cannon, a white Republican from South Carolina who took care of Brown’s very fluid and mostly suspect finances. As Brown predicted would happen, a massive legal brawl broke out among members of his extended family after he passed away – and an estate estimated at over $100 million dwindled to a small fraction of that, syphoned off by a hungry pack of high-priced attorneys. No one suffered more than Cannon. He was accused, and later convicted, of stealing cash from Brown (McBride portrays Cannon as an unfortunate victim who was caught in the crossfire) and lost his entire net worth, not to mention his reputation.
McBride saves most of his thoughts on Brown’s music (and a few key influences) for the chapter on Pee Wee Ellis – “student of the legendary tenor saxophone great Sonny Rollins, the principal architect of James Brown’s sound and one of the most important figures in American music history.” Ellis directed the band during the glory years of 1965 to 1969 and co-wrote some of Brown’s classic hits, including Mother Popcorn, Licking Stick and Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud.
As McBride points out, Ellis’ jazz background played a major role in the making of Cold Sweat, which borrows heavily from Miles Davis’ So What. “Even a novice can listen to Miles’ lead horn line on ‘So What’ and the horn hits on ‘Cold Sweat’ and hear it: they’re in the same key, but the difference is the groove. ‘So What’ swings. ‘Cold Sweat’ grooves.” Here’s aural evidence (I sampled Davis first, then Brown): So What/Cold Sweat
If you’re looking for a buttoned-up narrative on Brown, McBride’s not your guy. But he riffs and improvises like a true jazz artist (he played sax with singer Little Jimmy Scott and wrote songs for Grover Washington Jr., among others). And I enjoyed his wide-lens view of a very complicated man – deeply flawed, paranoid and often cruel to his band members, but laser-focused on creating a whole new form of music: American funk. Of course that musical vision, as well as Brown’s central role in promoting black pride, ended up changing the world.
In Blood, Bone, and Marrow: A Biography of Harry Crews, writer Ted Geltner takes a more ordered approach with his messy and, for long stretches in his life, miserable subject. We follow Crews from his hardscrabble roots in “the rickets-and-hookworm belt” of South Georgia and, later, Jacksonville (think of him as a highly literate Ronnie Van Zant) into the heady environs of academia – specifically, the Creative Writing department at The University of Florida in Gainesville, where Crews gained notoriety for his profane, explosive lectures.
More important, he was an uncommonly gifted writer with a particularly dark take on the Southern Gothic tradition, exemplified by fellow Georgian Flannery O’Connor. Geltner’s rich backstories reinforce that connection… but he drives the point home by noting that midgets play key roles in Crews’ first three novels, and that many of his stories end in complete chaos and violence.
Although Crews struggled with alcohol and substance abuse throughout his adult life, his most difficult years might’ve been his first seven. Among other indignities, he suffered a bout with polio that left him unable to walk for months, and he accidentally fell into a boiler used to scald the hair off of dead pigs. He offers vivid details of those setbacks (and a few lighter moments) in A Childhood: The Biography of a Place – as Geltner puts it, Crews’ “pinnacle of literary recognition.”
This passage from the book could describe anyone living on the edge: “The world that circumscribed the people I come from had so little margin for error, for bad luck, that when something went wrong, it almost always brought something else down with it. It was a world in which survival depended on raw courage, a courage born out of desperation and sustained by a lack of alternatives.”
With his teaching job providing a steady income, Crews also followed his peers Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson into the realm of “New Journalism,” writing classic pieces for Esquire, Playboy and other publications on subjects ranging from Ku Klux Klansman David Duke to carnival sideshow freaks.
Geltner’s hefty bio might seem a bit much for the casual Crews observer. But I felt like an EMS driver on the midnight shift, witnessing every form of human frailty. One cringe-worthy incident involves an over-stimulated dog at a dinner party. In another, Crews jumps up on the bar at a nightclub in St. Augustine and pisses on the head of a sailor who accused him of cozying up to his girlfriend. Of course, if Crews weren’t an artist of the highest caliber, no one would bother chronicling his bad behavior.
Although they experienced the redneck South from different vantage points, Crews and Brown shared some common ground. Both grew up with nothing. Both wrestled with demons they never really overcame. Both left their marks through a combination of fierce ambition and bold artistic vision (although Crews could only manage cult status while Brown became a global cultural icon). And both lived their lives knowing they would always be outsiders in this world.
Again, Crews, from the introduction to A Childhood: “For half of my life I have been in the university, but never of it. Never of anywhere, really. Except the place I left, and that of necessity only in memory.”
Let’s close with a clip of JB in his prime – one of several videos of Brown and band we’ve featured on this site. This one shows the Godfather and longtime associate Bobby Byrd movin’ and groovin’ to the 1970 hit Sex Machine (just a dance baby!):