Soul survivors

The Baltimore Sun

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- A simple white trellis made of plastic and metal, with a red bow on top and gold treble clefs at the sides, surrounded James Brown's statue on Broad Street here in his hometown.

Christmas lights were threaded through the frame, which was anchored by steel wires and sandbags.

A cocked Santa hat sat on Brown's head, and a backstage pass from the Imperial Theatre's "12 Bands of Christmas" concert hung around his neck.

It was kind of sad, really, like a front-yard decoration people drive by and never notice.

Brown was an R&B; and soul legend who prided himself on looking good. His outfits were pressed, his shoes were shined and his hair - that perm that never held gray - was always blown out.

But the shabbiness around his statue last month was symbolic of the mess that's developed since the Godfather of Soul died Christmas 2006 at 73.

Wives, children and executors have wrestled for control of Brown's estate. There's been talk of turning his Beech Island, S.C., home into "the Graceland of soul."

His body was kept in a climate-controlled room at his home, and then at a funeral home, for more than two months. Now his body rests - temporarily, until a mausoleum is built, the family has said - in a crypt at the home of his daughter, Deanna Brown Thomas.

Tomi Rae Hynie, who claims to be Brown's wife, has referred to herself in court documents as the "omitted spouse." But she isn't the only woman who has made a marital claim.

In November, two trustees of Brown's estate - including Buddy Dallas, who had worked for Brown for 25 years - quit, later claiming they were forced to resign.

And several people have come forward claiming to be Brown's children. One is LaRhonda Petitt, a 45-year-old retired flight attendant and teacher from Houston. And James Brown Jr., Hynie's son, has yet to learn if Brown is indeed his father.

Just about any news of Brown these days involves squabbling. But his family, led by Thomas, an Augusta radio DJ, has managed to continue two Brown traditions in this city.

On Nov. 19, Brown's annual Dyess Park turkey giveaway was held, with the Rev. Al Sharpton giving away the first turkey. The Brown family also held its annual toy giveaway Dec. 20.

The toy giveaway in 2006 was one of Brown's last public events before his death.

"Daddy told me one time, 'I expect for y'all to continue this,'" Thomas told The Augusta Chronicle. "And he ain't just any daddy.

"He's James Brown."

Latisha Bush, who brought Christopher Mathis and his 9-year-old sister, Tatyannah, to take pictures of the statue recently, wants to remember Brown as a gift-giver.

"I like the fact that he gave back," Bush said. "Most people, when they get famous, forget where they came from."

Driving through Augusta, there are few reminders of Brown's imprint on the city. The Soul Bar, a downtown rock club, has an image of Brown stenciled on its windows and memorial fliers with Brown's image that read "Peace, Love & Respect."

Sulon Allen, who works at the liquor store of Mr. J's Famous Door Supper Club, a place where Brown used to hang out and play numbers, shrugged from inside her hooded sweat shirt when asked about events celebrating Brown about a year after this death.

The city has a deflated vibe compared with when mourners - including Michael Jackson and MC Hammer - overflowed James Brown Arena for Brown's "home-going celebration" Dec. 30, 2006.

Can legend be forgotten so soon?

Augusta band Everything After performed at the Dec. 16 "12 Bands of Christmas" charity event. When asked if Brown was remembered at the event, bassist Mark Cox couldn't recall. "I didn't see any mention of him at all," he said.

But Christopher Mathis said Brown's statue was worth seeing. "I think it was cool," the 10-year-old history buff said.

"He was a great personality."

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