Today, nearly 11 years after his death, the fight over the estate of the “Godfather of Soul” continues in Aiken County.
The case has taken many twists and turns over the years but a central issue — the value of the estate, is still unresolved.
Estimates have ranged from about $5 million to $100 million. Thousands of pages in the court record fill three digital CDs available for $100 each.
Brown died on Christmas Day in 2006. He described his wishes for his estate in a recording provided by Sue Summer, a reporter for the Newberry Observer who has covered the case for years.
He wanted to provide scholarships for needy students in Georgia and South Carolina.
“My intention is not just for black children, but for poor children,” he said. “I made it with God’s blessing in spite of all the obstacles. He’s taken me to a point that I can give back.”
So far, though, no funds from the estate have been available for student financial aid.
Summer became interested in the Brown estate case because of her longtime work as a member of the state Foster Care Review Board. Brown’s desire for college scholarships funded from his estate registered with her in part because it took 12 years to pay off her students loans.
“Every month I read stories about kids whose lives could be turned around if they had access to this kind of a gift,” she said.
The case has drawn national attention in the media. And it has been a subject of best-selling author James McBride’s 2016 book, “Kill ‘Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul.”
Brown was born into poverty in Barnwell and rose to stardom. He called Beech Island home.
“A product of the complicated history of the American South, James Brown was a cultural shape-shifter who arguably had the greatest influence on American popular music of any artist,” McBride says at his website for the book.
Legal squabbles over Brown’s estate have involved more than 90 lawyers and several lawsuits consisting of more than 4,000 pages. Millions of dollars have been spent on legal and fiduciary fees, according to the October issue of the wealth management journal Trust & Estates. The journal article delves into charitable bequests of Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles and Brown.
Circuit Judge Doyet Early has been presiding over the Brown estate proceedings in Aiken County, which will resume in December, a court spokeswoman said. Payment of trustees and how the estate will be divided among Brown’s family and the “I Feel Good” scholarship fund for needy youth are among the issues.
One expert testified recently that the value of the Brown copyrights would be 15-20 times annual royalties, which were $3 million, for a total of $45-60 million. That figure would not include the rights to Brown’s image. His estate includes copyrights to more than 800 songs and about 100 albums.
In 2013, the state Supreme Court voided a settlement reached by then-state Attorney General Henry McMaster, who is now South Carolina’s governor, that gave half of Brown’s estate to the “I Feel Good” trust. The case was sent to Aiken County for further proceedings.
During a 40-plus year career, Brown sold more than 200 million records, recorded 321 albums — 16 of them hits, wrote 832 songs and made 45 gold records, McBride says in an excerpt from his book.
“He revolutionized American music: he was the very first to fuse jazz into popular funk; the very first to record a ‘live’ album that became a number one record.”
The Godfather of Soul was real and he was funny, McBride says.
“He was the uncle from down South who shows up at your house, gets drunk, takes out his teeth, embarrasses you in front of your friends, and grunts, ‘Stay in school!’ But you love him. And you know he loves you.”