News 12 at 6 o'clock / Thursday, Nov. 15, 2012
AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Christmas Day marks six years since James Brown died. And ever since, his estate has been tied up in the court system. His will challenged, trustees removed, some of his prize possessions sold at auction.
But through it all, one thing remains: his 80-acre estate at Beech Island. Now, for the first time since his death, we can take you inside during a News 12 exclusive.
Our story begins in May 1995 in a building that's long gone -- James Brown Enterprises just off Wheeler Road. It was the first time I met the Godfather of Soul face to face.
His wife Adrienne was there, too, checking our camera shot to make sure we put her husband in the best possible light.
James gave us total access. We got to see him in his office with one of his band members. And we were able to shoot some memorabilia, lit in a green glow from the neon light on the wall.
What we saw was a collection ranging from hit records to a stick of cotton to a shot of the Godfather and the Pope at the Vatican.
All of that is just a memory now. Adrienne would die after cosmetic surgery less than a year later, the building and all of its memorabilia destroyed by fire.
But what they said that day about their home behind the iron gates at Beech Island is worth hearing again.
Here's a transcript of that interview back in 1995 with James:
Richard: "You're a man who could live anywhere in the world. Why did you come home to Augusta?"
James: "Actually, my dad had a lot to do with that. I was raised in Georgia and born in Carolina -- the reason I recorded the song "Georgialina." And I'm the only entertainer who has a home office in the part of the state where he was born and raised, you know."
Richard: "That means something to you."
James: "That means a lot to me."
Richard: "What do you like best, life on the road or life over there at Beech Island?"
James: "I love ... it takes both of 'em to make me really happy. When I'm home, after two or three weeks, I want the road. When I'm on the road three or four weeks, I want to come home. So, you know."
Adrienne had been married to James for about 15 years when we met. She was even more specific about life at home.
"I mean ... that is our retreat," Adrienne said.
"And I go fishing. That's Adrienne's Lake. He [James] sits shotgun. Those are the things we do at home. We take the makeup off. Pull our hair back in a ponytail and put on a pair of blue jeans and try to be norm," she said.
It was a place the couple protected fiercely, but one they hoped to share one day.
"When I guess when my husband and myself do leave this Earth to go wherever God graces us, we are going to leave it for the state for the people to see. And then you can see all the memorabilia and everything. But right now, it's ours," Adrienne told News 12.
That was the plan all along, for Beech Island to become James' own version of Graceland. And that's exactly why the workers are here today -- to preserve the James Brown Estate for everyone to see.
The massive iron gates offer the first sign that this is more than just another driveway. It's the street name that gives it away. The other James Brown Boulevard the one that leads to the Godfather's House. And we have exclusive access.
The long sloping driveway takes you directly to the home itself, a single story ranch sitting on about 80 acres. Over here, a six-car garage. Over there, tour buses remind you of James Brown's life on the road.
A mirror-lined walkway hides an outdoor pool. The letter "B" lets you know this is the house Brown built.
"People would try to get him to move to Hollywood. But he said no thank you.This is what I call home sweet home," Deanna Brown told us.
Our tour guide was the soul singer's daughter.
"As you know, Dad wanted his home to be a museum," she said, leading us in the front door.
The first thing you'll notice in the foyer is the Christmas tree, still standing nearly six years after he died on Christmas Day. His family hasn't touched it.
"Well, we wanted to be able to walk through those doors and still feel the spirit that he left," she said.
Deanna pointed out the magazines in the foyer.
"As you can see, these magazines are still here. They were here when he passed, and he wanted them placed here."
She's talking about his last Jett Magazine Cover from May 2006. A program from the MLK Humanitarian Award he won that same year. And a book on Greek Art.
But there's something else we spotted on a piece of furniture behind the tree. It's another stick of cotton like the one in his office all those years ago.
"That cotton was important to Dad, because he never forgot where he came from, Richard. He remembered those days picking cotton," Deanna said.
The room with its wood carved walls, black and white tiled floors and overstuffed leather chair was a favorite spot. A roll of stickers in a display case say it all: "It's Too Funky In Here."
Even the light switch, with its picture of James holding his famous street sign, was a daily reminder of the street in Augusta that bears his name.
And there's even a story about the intercom on the wall.
"Dad hardly ever used it to call someone in another room because he'd be like, 'Hey Deanna, come down here girl!' So I would hear him. He didn't need a PA system basically."
There's a bar, too, with some glasses etched with a "B" and others from some of his favorite places, including the MGM Grand.
Our tour continues as Deanna leads us down some steps just off the family room.
"And this is where he kept a lot of his hair products in these closets," she pointed out.
Yes, it's the Holy Grail of this tour. Monogrammed towels are still folded neatly next to a massage table. Talk about feelin' good!
"Excuse the storage boxes," she said, "but we had to move them around ... And it goes to show you we are working. But this is where he would sit to get his hair done."
Hair products fill the shelves. We found box after box.
"And those things were important to him. That was important to him. His hair and his teeth and his feet," Deanna said.
"What about wigs?" I asked.
"Noooooo. Never. At 73 years when my father passed, he had a head full of hair," Deanna replied.
"No wig," I said.
"Never," she replied.
"All right, there's one rumor ... busted!" I said.
"Never a wig," Deanna replied.
There's even a sauna here, too.
"The hardest working man in show business needs a room like that, don't you think?" I asked.
"He needs a room like that so he can relax. Yeah," she replied.
One of her father's favorite spots was sitting at a table in the salon, overlooking the front of the house. Deanna says it was both a beautiful view and a strategic one.
"He could see you when you were comin' up the driveway," she laughed.
Back outside, there's something else we noticed. Workers seem to be everywhere. They've already put on a new roof and a drainage system. All signs of progress here.
Later, sitting outside the estate her father use to call home, Deanna was more reflective about what the preserving place really means to her family.
"I would love to see his home to be just what he wanted it to be. A museum for the world, his fans, to come and see just how James Brown lived, how peaceful it is," Deanna said.
"He's here," she continued. "His spirit is so here."
"Are you willing to share that with the public?" I asked.
"Yes, because we had to share Dad with the public," she replied.
It was just a glimpse of things to come at the James Brown Estate, a beautiful -- and for now -- private piece of property with rolling hills and a lake. There's no time frame on when the house might be finished and open to public tours. Deanna says she wishes it was already open, but they are determined to spend as much time as they need to do things right as a lasting tribute to James Brown and a place he loved.