By David Segal
Friday, August 8, 2008
LaRhonda Petitt was a 4-year-old making mud cakes in the back yard the day her mother beckoned her inside to look at the television. "That's your daddy," her mother said, pointing at the screen. There was James Brown singing "Please, Please, Please."
It took a few months for LaRhonda to realize that her mother wasn't kidding and that her uncle was not, as she initially assumed, her biological father. Ten years later, after her mother's death -- during surgery, in 1975 -- LaRhonda worked up the nerve to call James Brown, tracking him down in a hotel room in Birmingham, Ala., in the middle of a tour.
"I wanted you to know that my mom passed away," she told Brown, once he was summoned to the phone by an assistant.
"What you want from me?" he snapped. "I'm not your daddy."
For a moment, LaRhonda had the sensation of falling through midair.
"My mama told me this," she choked out, "and I'll believe it till the day I die."
Last year, LaRhonda's belief was put to a test. As part of the bitter, grabby melee over James Brown's estate -- a fight that now encompasses 10 lawsuits, 30 lawyers and enough theatrical hostility and cheap shots for a night of professional wrestling -- the court set up a procedure to test unacknowledged potential heirs of the Godfather of Soul.
Now a 46-year-old mother of two in Houston, LaRhonda learned about the tests through a friend. She and her lawyer visited a LabCorp office, where a technician took a swab of saliva from her and dropped it into a sealed container. Her DNA profile was then compared to Brown's, from a sample of bone marrow extracted from his leg shortly after his death on Christmas Day 2006.
LaRhonda never had doubts about the results. She believed the story her mother had always told her: that in 1961, when Ruby Shannon was 27, she had visited relatives in Los Angeles who took her to a James Brown concert, where she was approached by a man who asked if she'd like to meet Mr. Dynamite himself. A few weeks later, back in Houston, she started telling friends she was pregnant with James Brown's baby. Most of them laughed.
By the time LaRhonda was a teenager, she could see the truth of her mother's story whenever she looked in a mirror. She so uncannily resembled James Brown that when she went to his concerts in Texas, her face was her backstage pass. Guys at the door would take one look and wave her through.
Over the years, she would push gifts into his hand, usually photos of her own children -- his grandchildren. But he never warmed to the paternal role, so in her 30s LaRhonda tried to quit caring about James Brown and tried to stop looking like him, too. She dyed her hair bright silver, she wore blue contact lenses.
It didn't work. She never stop craving the affection of the national idol who she believed was her biological father. Plus, she was divorced by then and could have used some financial help -- which she thought she was owed, because James Brown was rich and he'd never given her anything other than a face that she didn't really like and that reminded her, every day, of a great void in her life.
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.
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.
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.
"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."