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James Brown Estate: 10 Lawsuits, 30 Lawyers; Papa Left ‘Em All Holding the Bag

Fort Wayne Indiana- LaRhonda Petitt was a 4-year-old making mud cakes in the back yard the day her mother beckoned her inside. “That’s your daddy,” her mother said, pointing at the television screen. There was James Brown singing “Please, Please, Please.”

It took a few months for La- Rhonda to realize her mother wasn’t kidding. Ten years later, after her mother’s death – during surgery, in 1975 – LaRhonda worked up the nerve to call Brown, tracking him down on tour in Birmingham, Ala.

“I wanted you to know that my mom passed away,” she told Brown, perhaps the greatest R&B performer of all time.

“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 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 mother of two in Houston, LaRhonda, 46, learned about the tests through a friend. She and her lawyer visited a LabCorp office where a technician took a saliva sample. It was 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 her mother’s story: that in 1961, when Ruby Shannon was 27, she had visited relatives in Los Angeles who took her to a Brown concert, where she was approached by a man who asked whether she’d like to meet Mr. Dynamite himself. Back in Houston, she started telling friends she was pregnant with Brown’s baby. Most of them laughed.

By the time LaRhonda was a teenager, 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 Brown and tried to stop looking like him, too. She dyed her hair bright silver, she wore blue contact lenses.

But she never stopped craving his affection. Plus, she was divorced by then and could have used some financial help – which she thought she was owed, because 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 pass the same test. The three have since spent time 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.”

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 that spanned dozens of hits and 50 years. He was ever the tireless, hyper-competitive titan of funk, a 5-foot-6, 135-pound tornado who never stopped spinning until he died of congestive heart failure caused by pneumonia, even as he talked about an upcoming New Year’s Eve concert in New York City.

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 2001 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 these people were treated equally in Brown’s five-page will, which is to say that they were equally shafted. Well, not totally. Six of his children were given the “personal household effects” in his mansion. His grandchildren’s education was taken care of through a trust. (Yes, the “new” grandchildren, too.) But the pot o’ gold – his home, music catalog 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 just might get under South Carolina’s “omitted spouse” rule – if she can prove they were actually married. 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 the judge bullied them into leaving. (The third original trustee is otherwise occupied; he has 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.

The case 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. How could the coffers of the man who wrote “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,” 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. The trustees have broad discretion to keep the estate solvent, so 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 Kennedy Center Honors medal, his jumpsuits with “SEX” stitched across the waist and much more. The money will be used to pay tax bills and overhead, including legal costs.

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 any time soon.

‘He was a puzzle’

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 and posted: “Warning: Anyone entering or leaving the premises will be searched.”

One recent afternoon, Deanna Brown Thomas stared through them at the half-mile of road that leads to the house where she lived for four years in the late ’70s with her sister and her mother, Brown’s second wife. “I learned to drive on that road,” she said. “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.

The worst 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 public disputes. 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 afterward, “she ain’t getting any more money from me.”) Six years ago, she and her sister, Yamma, sued him for back payments for royalties on 23 songs for which he 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 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 in the ’80s 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.”


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