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Soul Survivors

So LaRhonda went to concert after concert.

"I was on him like a canker sore," she says with a laugh. "I never would quit. That's the James Brown in me."

The James Brown in LaRhonda would become a matter of legal fact courtesy of LabCorp, which determined a 99.99 percent probability that the "Hardest Working Man in Show Business" was indeed her father. Later, a woman in Florida and a woman in Canada would step forward and pass the same test. The three have since spent a lot of time bonding on the phone, comparing life stories and plotting legal strategies. All three now want the courts to give them what their father never did: respect and full recognition as heirs of James Brown.

"What is rightfully mine should be rightfully given to me," LaRhonda says, her voice rising. "Nobody knows what I went through as a kid. Nobody knows. There is a debt here. There is a debt."

The Payback

Papa has left quite a mess.

An epic, Superfund-size mess that just keeps getting messier, which, we can safely assume, is not what Papa had in mind. A control freak who once said that he ran his band the way a warden runs a prison, Brown demanded total obedience from both employees and kin. If you couldn't play by his rules, you were fired or shut out.

This was life with a man who considered himself a figure of destiny, and it is impossible to separate his tyrannical impulses from his historic, up-from-nothing career. He was ever the tireless, hyper-competitive titan of funk, a 5-foot-6, 135-pound tornado who never stopped spinning. His career spanned dozens of hits and 50 years.

It ended soon after a trip to his dentist's office in Atlanta, where he was to get new dental implants screwed into his jaw. "He said, 'Doc, I'm going down slow,' " recalls Terry Reynolds. Sent to a hospital, Brown died of congestive heart failure caused by pneumonia, even as he talked about an upcoming New Year's Eve concert in New York City.

With Brown gone, whatever order he once imposed has vanished. A circuit court in Aiken, S.C., has become the main stage for a probate fracas so complicated and bitter that some of the lawyers involved have hired lawyers and started suing one another. Brown had at least 10 children -- including the three newly certified daughters -- with at least seven women, only four of whom he had married. Or maybe it's just three. The court has yet to determine whether the last wife, Tomi Rae Brown, was ever legally married to the guy (since she may never have annulled her previous marriage to a Pakistani man). Still undecided, too, is whether her son, James Brown II, is actually James Brown's son. He was conceived after Brown claimed to have had a vasectomy.

All of these people were treated equally in Brown's rather straightforward five-page will, which is to say that they were equally shafted. Well, not totally shafted. Six of his children were given the not-so-grand prize of the "personal household effects" in his mansion. The education of his grandchildren was taken care of through a trust. (Yes, the "new" grandchildren, too.) But the pot o' gold -- his home, music catalogue and the rights to market his name and image -- were left to the I Feel Good Trust, to educate underprivileged kids in South Carolina and Georgia.

A man who rose from the grimmest poverty, Brown seemed to hate the idea of bestowing riches on anyone, his children included. But five of the six children named in the will want it tossed out. They have accused three of their father's former business associates, who were trustees of the estate until they quit a few months ago, of siphoning millions from his accounts. The sixth child, a son named Terry Brown, contends that his half siblings should be cut out entirely, because of a codicil that dispossesses anyone who contests the will.

James Brown's putative widow is seeking half the value of the estate, which she might just get under South Carolina's "omitted spouse" rule -- if she can prove she was actually married to him. Then there are the children, like LaRhonda, whom Brown sired on the road.

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