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Soul Survivors

We're just getting started.

Two of the original trustees have filed motions to withdraw their resignations, arguing that they were bullied into leaving by the judge. (The third original trustee is otherwise occupied; he's been threatened with jail time if he can't come up with the $373,000 in royalty money he admits to misdirecting to his own account.) The two new trustees are suing all three original trustees, claiming fraud and negligence. The attorney general of South Carolina has jumped in, to protect the charitable education trust. And many parties are questioning the validity of the will -- which, by the way, was drafted by an attorney now in prison for killing a club owner who'd ejected him for stripping while awaiting a lap dance.

"I'm 60 years old," says Robert Rosen, an attorney for Tomi Rae Brown. "I can imagine in 10 years being dragged out of an old-age home to argue this before the Supreme Court."

The case is so intractable that it verges on dark comedy, although only now have we come to the punch line: The estate of James Brown is broke.

Beyond broke, actually. It's about $1.6 million in debt and in what a judge called "deplorable" condition. How, you might wonder, could the coffers of the man who wrote and performed "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" and "Give It Up or Turnit a Loose," to name a few hits, and who toured virtually nonstop for decades, be empty?

This is a mystery.

What's certain is that the estate is so strapped it has auctioned off a few hundred personal items that were recently hauled out of Brown's mansion. Naturally, this flabbergasted the Brown heirs who inherited the stuff, but the trustees have broad discretion to keep the estate solvent. In mid-July, the high-end garage sale at Christie's raised just over $800,000, gaveling away Soul Brother No. 1's minks, capes, his red vinyl bucket-seat sofa, his Kennedy Center Honors medal, his jumpsuits with "SEX" stitched across the waist, his dome-shaped hair dryer and much more. The money will be used to pay tax bills and overhead, including legal costs.

Once revived and properly marketed, the estate of James Brown could be worth $100 million or more. But for now, everyone other than the lawyers remains empty-handed -- which is what makes this shambles so quintessentially James Brown. Aloof, temperamental and utterly self-obsessed, Brown spent his adult life surrounded by family members who wanted his love and attention, neither of which he would give them. With love and attention now out of the question, his family wants money, and they're not getting that either, at least not anytime soon.

James Brown couldn't give it up. The legal system can't turnit a loose. So far, the litigation has done little but crowbar open the very private life of James Brown, which he'd spent his career trying to keep under seal.

Locked Out

The massive wrought-iron gates at the entrance to the 62-acre grounds of James Brown's mansion in Beech Island, S.C., near the Georgia border, are locked with a chain, along with a sign that reads "Warning: Anyone entering or leaving the premises will be searched." One recent humid afternoon, Deanna Brown Thomas stared through the gates at the half-mile of road that leads to the house, described by those who have seen it as a cross between a French chateau and a vintage Cadillac.

Deanna lived here for four years in the late '70s, along with her sister and her mother, Brown's second wife. "I learned to drive on that road," she said, looking at the empty path. "I drove down here to pick up the mail."

Now, this is as close as she gets. Everyone needs permission and an escort to enter Brown's home these days. And for as long as that's true, Thomas and the four siblings she is allied with have refused to part with their father's body -- which the court granted them early in these proceedings -- even though they all believe that ultimately he should be buried in a mausoleum next to his house. There's talk of one day turning that house into a Graceland-style museum.


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