Page 5 of 5   <      

Soul Survivors

"Because he was still wondering, 'Is he in love with my daughter or is he in love with my pocket?' " Shawn says. Brown did agree to sing a few songs at the reception, reminding Deanna: "This is a $50,000 show I'm giving you!"

"But then after the wedding, he gave me a check that more than paid for the wedding," says Shawn, shaking his head and grinning in a way that says, you just never knew with this guy.

'Where He Came From'

Any discussion about the puzzle of James Brown must start, as such discussions always do, with his childhood. He spent much of it in a penniless part of Augusta, a few miles from nearby Barnwell, S.C., where he was born. His mother left him when he was 4 -- she would resurface years later, when Brown became famous -- and his father, who tapped pine trees for sap to sell to turpentine mills, handed 6-year-old James to an aunt who ran a whorehouse. Neglected and often alone, he shined shoes, danced for spare change and ate what he called "salad in the woods" when there wasn't any food. He dedicated his 1986 autobiography to "the child deprived of being able to grow up and say 'Momma' and 'Daddy' and have both of them come put their arms around him."

Abandoned at a young age, Brown became a serial abandoner, a hustler certain that everyone was trying to hustle him. Bootsy Collins, the bass player and one of many musicians whom Brown fired from his band over a minor disagreement, describes his onetime boss as a musical genius he can't help but pity.

"I had this puppy I had when I was a kid in Cincinnati," Collins says in a recent phone interview. "And this puppy was really sick, and I took it to the vet, but they wouldn't admit him because, you know, I was a kid and I had no money. And this puppy died right there in the lobby. And I always felt that something like that happened to James Brown. That loss is unspeakable, and he just didn't want to be attached to anyone."

Much has been made, said Collins, of the ways that Brown went berserk late in life -- there were violent outbursts, reports of PCP use, a high-speed chase through Augusta that earned him three years in prison for aggravated assault.

"But to me, the amazing thing is that James Brown stayed sane for as long as he did," Collins says. ". . . Think about where he came from and what he accomplished, think about what it was like to be James Brown. It took a supernatural man to keep his sanity for as long as he did. Only James Brown could have done that."

And only James Brown could yield this singular morass. Other than accusations and billable hours, it has produced little more than the most un-Hallmark of family reunions.

In September, LaRhonda flew to South Carolina for one of the hearings in the various cases, mostly to assert her presence and to get a good look at her half siblings, none of whom she'd met. LaRhonda was ready to embrace them, but only Terry -- the son who wants the will executed as is -- would hug back. The rest of them, she recalls, were icy and wary, which in turn made LaRhonda icy and wary. The family values of James Brown live on -- arguably the one bequeathal that all his offspring inherited, without lawyers and without delay.

"They looked ugly," LaRhonda says of her siblings. "I didn't like the way they acted. They should be glad that we're together."

Deanna shrugs at the memory of meeting LaRhonda in court.

"It was 'Hi' and 'How are you,' 'Nice to meet you,' " she recalls. "She's a stranger. We share blood and some features, but that's pretty much it."

<                5

© 2008 The Washington Post Company