Saving the Godfather’s Soul

Author: Otis R. Taylor Jr.
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After years of estate acrimony, James Brown's image is getting a makeover

When Russell Bauknight took over the James Brown Estate, it had $12,000 in the bank — not even enough to pay for the upkeep at Brown’s Beech Island, Ga., mansion.

For the estate left behind by the Godfather of Soul — who was born in Barnwell, S.C., in 1933, and died in Atlanta in 2006 — it was a paltry remainder of the assets earned over a multi-decade career by the music industry progenitor. Perhaps the most important R&B singer in history, Brown released hit songs in four decades, from “Please, Please, Please” in 1956 to “Living in America” in 1986.

By the time Columbia accountant Bauknight was appointed as the fiduciary in 2009, under a deal negotiated by former S.C. Attorney General Henry McMaster, he was the sixth person put in charge of an estate that’s been hobbled by controversy and lawsuits since Brown’s death on Christmas Day 2006. And the acrimony — as well as debts Brown left behind — has prevented the estate from doing what Brown had wanted: to fund scholarships through the I Feel Good Trust for needy children in South Carolina and Georgia.

Seven years after Brown’s death, however, the estate’s fortunes have changed. Though there is still plenty of acrimony — as well as pending lawsuits — the finances are more secure, and are poised to get better. After years in which the estate was missing out on revenue, it is now collecting licensing fees for the use of Brown’s music. And next fall, a major motion picture about Brown’s life will be released. The film, Get On Up, stars Anderson native Chadwick Boseman — who played Jackie Robinson in 42 — and is being produced by Imagine Entertainment, a production company owned by Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, in conjunction with Mick Jagger.

It’s still possible that Bauknight could be removed from running Brown’s estate: In May, the state Supreme Court overturned the agreement under which he was originally appointed. For now, though, he remains the estate’s trustee and is working to rehabilitate the estate’s image and fortunes. A big part of that is the upcoming motion picture, and it probably wouldn’t have happened if not for a handshake deal struck by the straight-shooting Bauknight.

A Gentleman’s Agreement

At the time of his death, Brown owed millions of dollars on a debt that was to be repaid by future earnings from recordings and performances. But the royalties coming in from Brown’s music were more like a leaky faucet than an income stream.

Bauknight, a founding partner of Bauknight Pietras & Stormer, the Gervais Street accounting firm, had to get the stream flowing.

Bauknight’s world is accounting. Before starting BPS, Bauknight — a graduate of Towson State University in Maryland — was a tax manager for the Columbia office of Ernst & Young. He’s worked with some of the state’s wealthiest individuals on tax and estate planning, as well as for corporate clients. But to manage the Brown estate, Bauknight knew he had to reach out of the accounting world and tap into the music industry.

To generate income and keep the estate from defaulting, Bauknight had to find someone who could navigate publishing channels and track down copyright infringements of Brown’s 900-song catalog.

He needed someone who could cultivate relationships with advertisers, and maybe even convince movie producers to bankroll a film depicting Brown’s rise from poverty to become one of the world’s most iconic performers.

It would be a hard sell because by the time Bauknight took the reins, Brown’s brand was a damaged asset.

“We had a serious problem with how people viewed the estate,” Bauknight says. “People thought it was in total disarray, and I tell you it was. People thought my predecessors knew zero about that business. They assumed that I knew nothing.”

“But I hired somebody good who does know something about music.”

After interviewing almost 30 applicants, including Elvis Presley’s estate managers, Bauknight settled on Peter Afterman, a Grammy-winning film and TV music supervisor. But Bauknight initially didn’t have the money to pay Afterman’s fee.

All Bauknight had in his pockets were his hands, so a handshake — a gentleman’s agreement to pay later — was what he offered the Los Angeles-based Afterman.

The partnership has paid off the estate’s debts and renovated parts of Brown’s mansion. And with production starting this month on Get On Up, the biopic of Brown’s ascension, it’s on the verge of reviving Brown’s brand commercially, too.

Afterman, whose company Inaudible Productions represents The Rolling Stones’ post-1970 music catalog, worked for more than a year without getting paid.

“He basically sort of challenged me,” says Afterman, who was convinced Bauknight wasn’t looking to secure his own star status. “The reason why I did it was because I felt I could trust Russell’s word.”

He pauses and then adds, “I’ve never agreed to work for anybody for free before, by the way.”

James Brown
James Brown

Grandfather of Hip Hop

Bauknight was originally brought in as a consultant asked to analyze the settlement negotiated by McMaster that reorganized assets of the estate. Through public records research, Free Times learned that Bauknight is a trustee of numerous trusts established by Evan W. Nord, a co-founder of Nordson Corp. — an Ohio-based producer of industrial coating equipment. So, Bauknight knows plenty about estate management.

Bauknight admits, though, that he didn’t know much about Brown before he became the estate’s fiduciary. What he did know was that Brown’s music remained popular — and how to ask the right questions.

Brown, as he proudly proclaimed, is the Godfather of Soul. He could also be considered the Grandfather of Hip-Hop, as his songs have long been — and continue to be — mined by the genre’s top producers. But, Bauknight soon realized, just because artists were using Brown’s music doesn’t mean Brown’s estate was being paid for it.

“I said, ‘Where’s the money?’ Guess what, it wasn’t there because they were unauthorized samples,” Bauknight says.

With Afterman’s help, Bauknight changed that.

Before Kanye West and Jay Z could release their joint album Watch the Throne, Bauknight had to clear samples of Brown’s music heard in songs “No Church in the Wild” and “Gotta Have It.” Gatorade had to get Bauknight’s approval to use “Super Bad” in a commercial. The same went for Volkswagen’s spot during the 2012 Super Bowl.

Same for the use of “The Payback,” which was mashed with 2Pac’s (featuring Krayzie Bone) “Untouchable” for a climactic scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained.

Since 2009, anytime Brown’s music has been heard, Bauknight has approved its use. And it’s Afterman, who oversees the licensing of Brown’s music publishing catalog, who has generated the revenue stream for the estate.

“I can come in and run a business,” Bauknight says. “I know if I don’t understand something, I know I go get someone who does and that’s what we did. And we found, literally, millions of dollars that nobody had even thought to look for.”

Bauknight is referring to the audits of publishing companies and music labels initiated by he and Afterman. Universal Music Group wrote the estate a $2 million check.

“Nobody else is looking at that,” Bauknight says. “We started that from day one.”

In less than three years, Bauknight paid off $14 million of Brown’s debt he inherited when he took over the estate.

“I think we’ve built up enough respect in the industry to where we’ve pushed up our fees for uses that are at least double than when I took over.”

Following the Footsteps

It was more than an utterance. Brown’s guttural vocal quake — ungh, if one should dare try to spell it — was animated by desire, restlessness and conviction. Brown, a studio tactician who demanded excellence from his band, used the ad-lib as a rhythmic accent to his funky soul music.

His nimble dancing — the shuffling legs and gliding feet — elevated his show-stopping performances.

Chadwick Boseman is familiar with articulating the persona of a luminary in a biographical film. In 42, released in April, he had the role of Jackie Robinson, the base-stealing Brooklyn Dodger who broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier. More recently, he’s been taking dance classes so he can move with majestic ease like Brown.

Learning to slide into second base is one thing. Mastering Brown’s signature moves — such as a split while kicking the microphone stand and pulling the cord so the stand returns upright at the same time he does — requires solid footwork and timing.

“Those are some shoes to fill,” Bauknight says. “I can’t imagine anybody having the moves [Brown’s] got. Hopefully he can put it together and the magic of the camera can do the rest.”

Get On Up will also star Viola Davis, a South Carolina native who had an Oscar-nominated leading role in The Help, a 2011 film about black maids working for white families in the South. She’ll play Brown’s mother, Susie. Tate Taylor, who directed The Help, is directing Get on Up.

The film is slated for an October 2014 release.

According to Bauknight’s understanding of the script, the movie storyline will stop in the early ‘90s. Born in Barnwell, Brown grew up in Augusta, Ga. After he served a prison sentence for armed robbery as a teenager, Brown turned to music, joining Bobby Byrd’s The Famous Flames in 1952.

“Please Please Please,” released under the name James Brown and The Famous Flames in 1956, was Brown’s first Top 10 hit. In 1958 he went solo, releasing “Try Me,” his first No. 1 R&B song. In the early ‘60s, Brown’s King Records recordings, including songs such as “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” “I Got You (I Feel Good)” and “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” dominated charts. His success continued into the ‘70s with hits “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine” and “Papa Don’t Take No Mess,” among many others.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, Bauknight met actors Boseman and Taylor at the gates of Brown’s mansion.

“It was almost like I knew him at that point,” Bauknight says of meeting Boseman. “I guess the familiarity of seeing him on screen.”

Bauknight wanted Boseman and Taylor to meet David Washington, Brown’s personal valet, groundskeeper and friend. Washington was in the Atlanta hospital room when Brown died of heart failure brought on by pneumonia.

“I thought that kind of insight would help him in the role,” Bauknight says.

The mansion has its own hair salon. The shelves are still stocked with dyes, shampoos and conditioners, but some items, like Brown’s hair dryer, were removed and auctioned in 2008. Bauknight has spent more than $300,000 repairing the house by replacing a leaking roof and installing a drainage system to alleviate flooding.

Two of Brown’s children, Yamma Brown and Deanna Brown Thomas, also met Boseman and Taylor that day.

“I think he has done a good job cleaning up the stuff,” Thomas says of Bauknight. “It has been a strain on what he needed to do.”

Thomas and other family members still host an annual James Brown Turkey Give, something for which his will did not provide. This year’s event is Nov. 25 at Dyess Park on James Brown Boulevard in Augusta.

“We are the children of James Brown. You have to pass it on,” says Thomas, president of the James Brown Family Children Foundation. “He never forgot where he came from.”

An Unexploited Asset

Afterman was in his 20s when he booked Brown to play several concerts in California, including one at San Quentin State Prison in 1980. He was Brown’s chauffer for the short tour, he recalls.

“I was always a huge fan of James Brown,” he says. “It was crazy, fun.”

In the ensuing years, Afterman followed news of Brown’s reported drug abuse, the erratic behavior that led to arrests, including the 1988 high-speed chase that led to Brown serving three years in prison. A 2004 mugshot of Brown, his hair disheveled and his bathrobe hanging off one shoulder, is an image that’s hard to forget.

Still, Afterman became an advocate for Brown on the faith that he would be paid once Bauknight had something else in his pockets beside his hands.

“I just knew that James Brown was a guy who everyone admired,” Afterman says, pointing out Brown’s half-century of musical influence. “There just isn’t a musician who is that vital over the generations. He completely hasn’t gotten his due because the people around him weren’t efficient when he was around.”

Brown wasn’t an easy sell beyond music placement, says Afterman, who met with Cirque Du Soleil producers about a show on Brown.

“‘Do you think anybody can get over the images of James Brown drunk and on drugs?’” he recalls being asked.

Maybe not then, but the tide is turning.

Imagine Entertainment, run by Howard and Grazer, two of Hollywood’s elite movie makers, has produced a variety of successful films, including A Beautiful Mind, American Gangster, 8 Mile, Apollo 13 and The Nutty Professor.

Mick Jagger, a Get on Up co-producer, has also invested in a documentary film on Brown.

Afterman, who is an executive producer of Get on Up, won Grammy Awards for his work putting together the soundtrack for Juno and The Apostle. He was the music supervisor for 42.

The expectation is that Get on Up will do for Brown what Ray did for Ray Charles and Walk the Line for Johnny Cash: inject renewed interest that can be capitalized.

But unlike Charles and Cash, Brown has a reservoir of unreleased material. There are unheard recordings that have been stored for decades in a vault in Nashville that are currently being digitized.

“This was a completely unexploited asset, to put it in brutal terms,” Afterman says.

Trust and Faith

For the four years Bauknight’s been on the job, the estate has been engulfed in legal proceedings. Bauknight has wrangled with former trustees, members of Brown’s extended family and the South Carolina Supreme Court, which in May stripped him of his fiduciary role but retained him as the estate’s special administrator.

The ruling kicked the case back to the Second Judicial Circuit to be handled by Doyet “Jack” Early, a circuit court judge. On Oct. 4, Early reinstated Bauknight as the estate’s personal representative.

The appearance of the estate’s instability has been cause for concern.

“I put time into reassuring people that it won’t fall into disrepair again.” Afterman says. “That’s what people think out here.”

Bauknight says it took 15 months to pay Afterman, though he declined to reveal the terms of their deal. The initial handshake has forged an inseparable bond, and Afterman says the estate would grind to a halt if Bauknight were to be removed from running operations.

“There’s a deep repository of knowledge from years of studying on our part,” Afterman says. “I’m committed to Russell and I’m committed to the estate as we’ve set it up. I’ve put my trust and faith in this guy, and he’s rewarded me every time.”

“Russell has been completely consistent,” he continues. “And he’s tough. And he’s reliable and straight shooting. That’s something you don’t see around very much.”

In his still-contested will, Brown established the estate to fund the I Feel Good Trust through royalty streams. The trust’s goal is to provide college money to Brown’s selected grandchildren as well as underprivileged students in South Carolina and Georgia.

Bauknight has $2 million on hand ready to pay for scholarships. But the money can’t be released until the estate is no longer engaged in litigation, and there are still a handful of outstanding claims.

For all the hours he’s spent working for the estate and rehabilitating Brown’s image, Bauknight doesn’t have anything in his pockets to show for it because he’s paid everyone but himself.
He has faith, though.

“I certainly hope to be paid,” he says. “I feel like I earned it.”

Litigation Has Prevented Award of Scholarships Brown Wanted

By Otis R. Taylor Jr.

Since his death on Christmas Day in 2006, the estate of James Brown has been shrouded in acrimony and lawsuits.

There have been six caretakers of the estate, which was established to fund educational trusts for several of Brown’s grandchildren and the I Feel Good Trust, whose goal is to provide scholarships to needy children in South Carolina and Georgia.

At Brown’s death, David Cannon, Al Bradley and Buddy Dallas were trustees of Brown’s estate. In 2011, Cannon, Brown’s former manager, was sentenced to three years of home confinement for two counts of breach of trust for allegedly bilking Brown in his final years. Bradley is deceased and the estate is suing Dallas, Brown’s longtime attorney.

The legal entanglement between the estate and its second set of trustees — Robert Buchanan and Adele Pope, appointed in 2007 — is murkier. Buchanan and Pope shepherded the 2008 Christie’s auction of many items from Brown’s Beech Island, Ga., mansion. They also opposed a 2009 deal negotiated by former S.C. Attorney General Henry McMaster that reorganized assets of the estate in an effort to settle various claims, arguing it went against the wishes expressed in Brown’s will. The deal — overturned in February by the state Supreme Court — divided current and future use of Brown’s revenue stream between the estate; Brown’s former companion, Tomi Rae Hynie; and several of his children.

Later, a lower court removed Buchanan and Pope from their role as trustees. Buchanan has since settled with the estate, while Pope continues her fight.

At the heart of Pope’s dispute is the valuation of the estate. Russell Bauknight, who replaced Buchanan and Pope, hired a Boston-based investment firm to estimate the estate’s worth. At Brown’s death, it was valued at $7 million. Bauknight declined to reveal the firm’s identity because of ongoing litigation, but he did say an independent audit by Internal Revenue Service royalty experts returned a similar figure. Pope has contended that Brown’s “music empire” is closer to 15 times the amount. She refers to Bauknight’s valuation as “the ultimate disrespect to James Brown’s estate.”

Pope has also filed numerous FOIA requests with the estate. The Newberry Observer, which has closely followed the case, says Bauknight “has fought for four years against releasing public documents under the Freedom of Information Act.”

The estate now receives 100 percent of the revenue stream from copyrighted music. But when the copyrights expire, the family can and almost certainly will file for sole ownership of future royalties. For example, the first song the estate won’t be able to benefit from is the still popular “Please, Please, Please,” the signature hit James Brown and The Famous Flames released in 1956.

McMaster and current S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson have both been involved in trying to settle the mess, only to eventually have their plans overturned by the South Carolina Supreme Court. The court also stripped Bauknight of his role as the estate’s personal representative in the spring, sending the case back to the courtroom of Doyet “Jack” Early, a circuit court judge in the Second Judicial Circuit.

But as Get On Up, a biopic on Brown’s life starring Anderson native Chadwick Boseman as the soul singer begins production, there could be an end to the estate’s litigative history in sight.

On Oct. 4, Judge Early, who originally appointed Bauknight in May 2009, praised Bauknight’s service and reinstated him in his role as fiduciary; he is also the estate’s special administrator.

Bauknight says he doesn’t believe it’s “an appealable order” and that it’s “finally settled as to who is running the estate.”

Given the estate’s history thus far, however, it would be hard to rule out continued legal wrangling.

Meanwhile, what definitely aren’t settled are the remaining lawsuits, and until they are resolved the estate can’t turn over money — about $2 million — already marked for scholarships. Bauknight says there are seven claims remaining. Four involve Pope and one Dallas.

“I really don’t see the litigation going out too far,” says Bauknight, who hopes to have it all completed in 12 to 14 months.

That might be too much to hope for. But if Bauknight is right, the legal issues could be settled by around the time of Get On Up’s October 2014 release.

“Wouldn’t it be cool if we paid the first scholarship at about the time the movie is released,” Bauknight says.

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