James Brown told his children he wanted his Beech Island home to one day become a museum.
“He wanted kids that came up dirt poor like he did to know that you can, at some point, achieve so much, if you keep on trying and trusting in God and believing in yourself,” said his daughter Dr. Yamma Brown. “You can one day obtain great things.”
It has been five years since the Godfather of Soul died on Christmas Day, and his dream has been delayed because of legal battles over his assets. However, his children haven’t given up hope of honoring their father’s wishes, said daughter Deanna Brown-Thomas.
“Dad worked hard to have what he had. He was proud of his home. This is the home that dad always talked about being like a Graceland,” Brown-Thomas said.
Graceland is the Memphis, Tenn., mansion of Elvis Presley that was converted into a world-renowned museum that draws millions of fans annually.
Brown’s Beech Island home contains items such as furniture and clothing, but many sentimental items were lost in an auction in 2008 to repay debts, such as a 1962 red Thunderbird; Bibles; photos of Brown with celebrities, politicians and family members; childhood photos; and furniture from New York that was moved to Beech Island, including a stereo with a record player.
The Brown children spent a day selecting items to auction, but trustees ignored their wishes and put everything on the auction block. The items might never be recovered, unless the people who bought them donate or loan items to the museum.
“There’s still some memorabilia in the home, and we have some things at the different museums,” Brown-Thomas said. “We’ll have enough stuff to do a museum with, but there were some very, very sentimental pieces that went on that auction block that we were not happy about. We were not against an auction, but we were against a lot of the pieces that got away because they were very, very sentimental.”
She was able to recover some clothing, including a cape her father had hired his longtime tailor to make but never got a chance to try on before his death. She had to take the tailor to court to recover it.
“I can’t wait. People all over the world are going to come. I look forward to the day when we can open up the gates and say welcome,” she said.
Work to be done
Born in a Barnwell County shack, Brown wanted his fans to know he came from humble beginnings, Yamma Brown said.
“He didn’t want us to stage anything,” said Venisha Brown, Brown’s oldest daughter. “He wanted it to be exactly how it was when he lived in it. It’s like going in there and being caught in a moment of time.”
Her father lived as if his home were a museum, Brown-Thomas said.
“If you walked through his house, even when he was alive, it would look like you could just rope off certain areas and then just let people walk through,” she said. “He had awards and that kind of stuff up on the walls and around the house.”
Brown’s favorite room was his bedroom because he usually was exhausted after traveling, Venisha Brown said. The hardest-working man in show business would relax for about 48 hours before getting back to work.
At one time Brown lived with his family in Queens, N.Y. In February, the New York home was named a historical landmark, and Brown-Thomas would like his Beech Island home to also receive that designation.
To prepare the home to become a museum, family members are completing repairs. They’re still deciding on major details, such as where to place Brown’s remains, which are now at an above-ground, two-tiered mausoleum in the yard of Brown-Thomas’ home. She said she would like to have an interactive and educational station for visitors, perhaps a studio where they can record their own songs, and the family will form a committee to assist with other ideas.
“When we get ready to open it to the public, I don’t know exactly how we will set it up. We don’t have a name for it yet,” Brown-Thomas said. “We’d love to hear some great ideas from people. We’d like to hear what some of his fans would like to see.”
At the entrance of the grounds is a sign for the first James Brown Boulevard. The black iron gates with gold trim open into a quarter-mile-long driveway that winds through 100 acres that include a pond, rolling hills and endless trees. To the right of the home, Brown’s tour buses sit in a field, and further up the hill are stables that once housed horses and show dogs.
Deanna and Yamma grew up in the home with Brown and their mother. The family moved to Beech Island from their Walton Way home in the mid-1970s, and Brown stayed there when he and his wife separated in 1979.
Brown designed changes to the home and started an expansion in 2000.
“He bought this house because my mom saw it and liked it. He pretty much kept the shell of the original home and built around it,” Brown-Thomas said.
Today, the four-bedroom, 10,000-square-foot home has several “Bs” to denote Brown’s last name. Brown and Tomi Rae Hynie were married in the newly added theater room.
The home’s original garage was converted into a hair salon. It had a large window so Brown could always see who was coming up the driveway. Even if someone called first and made it past the gate, it wasn’t guaranteed that Brown would let them enter his home, Brown-Thomas said.
“That was anybody. We all had to follow those rules. You had to call first, unless he called first for you to come over,” she said.
Beyond a museum
In addition to the museum, the Brown children want to continue their father’s legacy with a feature film, tribute album and projects that were important to him, such as keeping music in schools and teaching children about the importance of playing instruments. They also plan to continue his philanthropy with the James Brown Turkey and Toy giveaways and are encouraging their children to continue the traditions, Yamma said.
Venisha plans to keep her father’s legacy alive by performing his music, especially for younger generations. On Saturday, she performed at Tony Howard’s Motown Elvis Christmas Show at the Imperial Theatre. She also performs with the James Brown Academy of Musik Pupils and hopes to one day have a tribute show in her father’s honor.
Daryl Brown, Brown’s son and lead guitarist for eight years, said he believes his father is misunderstood.
“It was so much good that he did, and I’d like to see that brought forth,” he said. “He gave away a lot of money people don’t even know about. He took care of a lot of families. The civil rights movement. I’d like to see his legacy based on just being a great humanitarian and loving his country.”
He also wants people to know how driven his father was. Once in South America on tour, Brown had a catheter in him the night before, but he removed it to perform the show.
“I hope people just take a good look at James Brown,” Daryl said. “You’ll see yourself in there. We’ve all got a little James Brown in us. Despite everything else, he was an amazing man.”