Soul Survivors

James Brown's Children Are in Court. They Might Have Settled for Love.

By David Segal
Friday, August 8, 2008; Page C01

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.

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