Remembering James Brown: 10 years later

Published: Dec. 23, 2016 at 8:38 PM EST
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News 12 NBC 26 / Friday, December 23, 2016

AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) -- Ten years ago the world lost some funk.

On Christmas Day 2006 the Godfather of Soul James Brown died. For his family and friends, it's hard to believe it's been that long. While his music still makes people all over the world happy, Christmastime is bittersweet for the people who knew him best.

So, to mark the anniversary of one of the world's most recognized voices, we took a look back at his journey through Augusta through the eyes of his daughter, Deanna.

On the James Brown Family Historical Tour, it's like taking a trip back in time.

"My dad was born and raised in this area. He was born in South Carolina May 3rd, 1933," Deanna Brown-Thomas said as she stood at the front of the tour bus.

Brown grew up in downtown Augusta in an area called "the terry."

"Basically black people territory, because it's where all the poor black people lived," Deanna explained.

Little did he know those dirt roads would pave the way to a world-wide career, one that would land right back here at the historic Imperial Theater.

"This is where he would start the James Brown Toy Giveaway," Deanna said as the bus rolled in front of the theater's marquis sign.

We asked why she thought the toy drive was so special to her father. Deanna said, "Because he never forgot where he came from. He never forgot that he was once a young kid who didn't have toys."

After a life of giving back, it seems only fitting that just down the street people now lay gifts at his feet.

"I call them trinkets of love," Deanna said.

The iconic statue in downtown Augusta is all dressed up for the holidays.

"This year being the 10 year anniversary of his death, a lot of people are sending a lot of love," Deanna said.

This day Deanna sends the love right back, surprising some kids who came all the way from New York to take a picture with their unofficial godfather.

"Where y'all from?" Deanna shouted out to them as we approached the statue.

"New York," the girl, Jackie, replies.

"What?! That's my hometown! I was born in Queens, lived in St. Albans, Linden Boulevard where James Brown lived, my daddy," Deanna exclaimed.

"I was fixin' to say that look like Deanna Brown," the boy, Thomas, said.

Thomas remembered going to the funeral when he was only 10 years old.

"You went to the funeral?" Deanna asked him.

"Yeah, I went to the funeral. That thing was 12 hours long. I remember that," Thomas said.

The girls from New York, Jackie and Savannah, were visiting Augusta for the first time.

"It's your first time meeting James Brown's daughter too!" Deanna said as she shook their hands then went in for a hug.

It was an unforgettable moment next to an unforgettable man.

"That was so dope. That was definitely an experience," Jackie said as the daughter of Mr. Dynamite walked away.

Back on the bus we get ready for the next stop. One thing you notice -- it doesn't take long to move between memories. Just around the corner Deanna points out the building where Brown's radio station WAAW The Boss used to be.

"He would come down a lot to the radio station because he wanted to be on air and talk to the people," she said.

It's the Board of Education now, perhaps a perfect transition for the man who told kids through song, "without an education you might as well be dead."

In fact, the arena where every public school student graduates is named after him.

"I remember calling him and saying Dad, they want to put your name on the Augusta Richmond County Civic Center. They want to call it now the James Brown Arena. 'Whaaat??'" Deanna says, impersonating her dad. "'My, my, my.' He was so humbled."

James Brown lived to see the unveiling just months before the city would gather here for his funeral.

"How many people do you think were here?" I asked as we stood outside the Augusta landmark.

"Well, it was definitely over capacity, but we were given a pass that day because the firemen were here, the policemen were here, the Mayor was here," Deanna remembered.

"You must just walk around this city with a memory on every corner," I said.

"Yeah, it's a lot of memories, man. It's a lot of memories," Deanna said reflectively.

I asked when she felt closest to her father. Deanna paused before answering, "Ohh goodness. When I get the opportunity to visit the home, probably. Cause it's so peaceful over there. You know, just to sit in the room, because we still have the Christmas tree up that he had up."

"Really?" I said.

"Yeah. Thank God he didn't do a live Christmas tree that year," Deanna joked.

"Yeah, that would be looking like Charlie Brown's tree by now," I said.

"It would be down by now. It's ten years later, Christie," Deanna laughed.

We also passed his church, the old brothel, and the school from his childhood years, and that's when Deanna began to reflect on her own.

"It was amazing because he would call me. He called me a lot when he was traveling, when he was working. He'd be in Prague, Japan, anywhere, and he'd call, 'Hey babygirl. How's the family doin'? Hey suga," she said in her best James Brown voice. "And I mean, it'd be 2, 3, 6 in the morning. 'What you doing?' Sleep. But I'd give almost anything to get those calls now," she said.

Those calls were filled with words of wisdom and precious secrets she's just now beginning to unveil.

"The wisdom and the knowledge he was giving me, I just didn't realize it then. I realize it now," she said.

But, a person is never all good or all bad. Deanna remembers both sides.

"There was years of abuse, but my father did ask for forgiveness from my mother a few years before he passed," she said. "He did that, but it was still a part of his life, and it was a part of her life, and it was a part of my life to witness that growing up."

As the bus chugged up the hill, we only get closer to the era those memories are from, stopping across the street from Deanna's childhood home.

"When we moved into this house in 1970, we were the first African American family to live on the Hill," Deanna said.

The guard house and gate still stand 46 years later, reminding her of a more fond Christmas memory.

"Spectacular lights! Christmas decorations all lined up here and the cars would be lined up. People from everywhere, all races, creeds, colors, everywhere would come," Deanna said. "One white woman was like it's the first time I'd ever seen a black Santa Claus. It was so cool!"

It became a cool memory for a lot of people who would drive by to see the display, including the woman who lives there now.

"It was so beautiful! Your dad did such a good job. We always drove by to see it!" current owner Shelby Spurr said during our impromptu meet in the driveway. "Oh, he had removable Santas and reindeer and all kinds of objects out in the front yard. And people were blocked, I mean, it was just blocked all down the road."

"She's right!" Deanna confirmed.

"And you were just a little kid," Shelby said, turning to Deanna.

"I was, I was. I was just a little girl," Deanna replied.

After we said goodbye, we traveled to his old office where we interviewed Brown back in 1995 before suspected arson burned the building down.

"It wasn't a big bay window there. It was a sign that said the New James Brown Enterprises," Deanna said.

Archive video shows Brown sitting at a grand desk framed by a large, framed picture of himself in the front right corner as a young Keith Jenkins auditioned on the guitar before him.

"That's it! That's it!" Brown says in the old video.

The bus circles the building as Deanna points out, "These two windows right here, that was his corner office."

But, some of her favorite memories are a few minutes down the road tucked away in Eisenhower Park. That's where you'll find another radio station Brown owned at the time. It's also our namesake.

"WRDW, where radio does wonders," Deanna said. "I can stand here and remember just coming up here with my mom and dad."

It's where the love for her father grew to respect for the musician.

"I think at that point is when it truly hit me who my dad really was because he was just dad, you know. I knew he was a popular person. I knew the work he did called for him to travel and be away a lot, but to know the magnitude, I didn't," Deanna said. "He was just Daddy, get up, get the rollers in the hair, you know, eat some cornflakes, talk a bit and go off to work."

It's work she grew to call her own, jockeying at radio stations across the country. That all started here.

"I'm just running around out here having fun. I just remember being out here having fun, you know, just being a kid," she said.

A little kid now all grown up, Deanna is sharing the legacy with her dad to, in his words, "make Christmas mean something a little more this year."

The tour I took, you can take, too. The James Brown Family Historical Tour is usually given by Deanna's cousin, so you'll get her memories when you go.

The bus carries up to 25 people.