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Soul Survivors

Thomas won't say much about the current location of the body. But if pressed, she will shake her head wearily and complain that, frankly, providing round-the-clock security for a casket holding a colossus of pop music is kind of a headache. Which is as close as she'll come to acknowledging what everyone around here knows: The earthly remains of James Brown are stored in a crypt in her yard.

"You don't think someone would try to dig it up?" she asked, when quizzed about her discretion.

"I was at the barbershop the other day," adds her husband, Shawn Thomas, an immense and goateed former bodyguard of Brown's, "and someone said, 'Is it true that he's buried in a gold casket?' I said, 'I don't know.' "

Earlier that day, the Thomases sat in a restaurant in Augusta, Ga., a city not far from Beech Island and the place where James Brown spent much of his childhood. The conversation turned to life with "Mr. Brown," as everyone, even his daughter, calls him. He sounds like the kind of guy who should have come with a 600-page owner's manual.

"If it was during the day and he called and said, 'I want to see you,' you'd go home and put on a nice shirt and tie," Shawn Thomas recalls. "I'd have to drive home and put on a suit. It got to the point where I just kept a nice pair of slacks and a shirt in my car, because otherwise you couldn't go there."

The worst that Deanna will say about her father is that he was one heck of a disciplinarian. But the more you know about her, the greater the sense that being part of James Brown's life was not much easier than being excluded from it.

The two had some very public disputes over the years. In 1998 she had him committed to a psychiatric hospital because she thought drug use was wrecking his health. ("One thing Deanna knows," Brown told the Augusta Chronicle as he returned home, "she's not getting any more money out of me.") Then there was the lawsuit she and her sister Yamma filed against their father six years ago, seeking back payments for royalties on 23 songs for which their father had given them co-writing credits, back in the '70s, when they were kids. (It's assumed that Brown did this for tax-avoidance purposes, not because Deanna truly had a hand in composing "Get Up Offa That Thing.") The case was settled out of court.

"My dad asked me to file that lawsuit," she now insists. "He said: 'I don't think you're getting the money you're owed. You need to get a lawyer.' "

Could this be true? Even if Brown were around to tell us, his answer could change each time we asked. Those who knew him best describe the man as fundamentally unknowable.

"I spent a year living with him, and I can tell you that even at home, with his head in his hands, he never relaxed," says the Rev. Al Sharpton, a longtime protege who moved to Beech Island for a period to help run Brown's business affairs.

"You can study him starting now and into the next century and still not come up with more than what you started with, other than his greatness," Sharpton adds. "He was a puzzle, and nobody was ever shown all the pieces. Because he believed that if someone figures you out, they can duplicate you, or they can stop you."

Brown never stopped mystifying his loved ones, and he never stopped testing them, either. When Shawn Thomas asked for Deanna's hand in marriage, he didn't ask his future father-in-law for money for the wedding. He knew better than that.


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