The body of James Brown has suffered a superbad fate — dismembered as part of a paternity dispute and relocated 14 times because of family in-fighting.
Brown’s widow, Tomi Rae, described the tragic turn of events in an interview with London’s The Mail on Sunday.
The body of the legendary singer was cut up after a judge ordered a DNA test to determine whether Brown was the father of Rae’s son, James Jr.
“They couldn’t do the normal DNA test because of all the embalming fluid in his body,” Rae said. “So they had to cut off his legs to get to his bone marrow. I wept uncontrollably when I found out. My husband, the greatest dancer in the world, had his legs hacked off in death.”
A family feud caused the Godfather of Soul’s body to be moved again and again in the six months after his death, finally ending up in the garden of his eldest daughter Deanna’s home in Georgia.
“That is the final insult to James,” Rae said.
Jemal Countess/Getty Images
NEW YORK, NY - JULY 21: Tomi Rae Brown attends the “Get On Up” premiere at The Apollo Theater on July 21, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images)
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AUGUSTA, GA - JULY 24: Tomi Rae Brown and James Brown II attends the Get On Up premiere at Regal 20 Cinemas on July 24, 2014 in Augusta, Georgia. (Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images)
Brown’s current resting place is nothing like what he envisioned, Rae said.
She said Brown wanted a memorial on par with Graceland, Elvis’ estate in Memphis, Tenn.
“He and I would often talk about his legacy,” Rae said.
“He wanted our home – a 230-acre estate on Beech Island in South Carolina – to be turned into a living memorial, like Graceland. That’s where he wanted a proper mausoleum.”
Brown died of congestive heart failure in December 2006. His body remained on ice for more than two months before he was finally laid to rest.
James Brown didn”t get the burial and memorial he would have wanted, according to his widow.
His death set off a frantic fight for his estate. His will was signed Aug. 1, 2000, 10 months before James Jr. was born and more than a year before he married Tomi Rae.
She claims a more recent will that left half of his fortune to her and the rest to a charity for underprivileged kids “mysteriously disappeared.”
Now, she’s penniless. “James would be spinning in his grave if he knew the hell I’d gone through over the past eight years,” Rae said.
Rae says she’s bracing herself for the legal wrangling to go on for years. “He thought he had provided for me and Little Man, as he called our son,” Rae said. “But every piece of scum and slime came crawling out of the woodwork the day he died.”
“I know I will prevail eventually, but I’m in a living hell.”
Jazz is boring.
Jazz is overrated.
Jazz is washed up.
Unlike a poorly received New Yorker piece purportedly written by jazz great Sonny Rollins, this is not satire.
“Jazz might be the stupidest thing anyone ever came up with,” read “Sonny Rollins: In His Own Words” — actually written by Django Gold of the Onion. “The band starts a song, but then everything falls apart and the musicians just play whatever they want for as long they can stand it. People take turns noodling around, and once they run out of ideas and have to stop, the audience claps. I’m getting angry just thinking about it.”
Though Gold’s piece elicited an angry response from Rollins and outrage under the Twitter hashtag #rollinstruth, it was, as they say, funny because it was true. Jazz has run out of ideas, and yet it’s still getting applause.
I studied jazz while an undergraduate at Wesleyan University and had the privilege of learning from, at varying distances, some of the genre’s great performers and teachers, including Anthony Braxton, Pheeroan akLaff and Jay Hoggard. I appreciated that these generous African American men deigned to share their art at a quite white New England liberal-arts school. But I just didn’t get their aesthetic. Like cirrus clouds or cotton candy, I found jazz generically pleasing, but insubstantial and hard to grasp. Some of my problems:
1. Jazz takes great songs — and abandons the lyrics that help make them great.
Music minus words is one of jazz’s favorite tropes. Many versions of jazz standards — including “I Cover the Waterfront,” “How High the Moon” and “My Funny Valentine” — jettison poetry to showcase virtuosity. The result is a net loss.
Compare two renditions of “Take the ‘A’ Train.” Though Duke Ellington often played the song without words, his version in the 1943 film “Reveille With Beverly ” features this charming lyric: “Hurry — take the ‘A’ train to get to Sugar Hill, way up in Harlem.” Sugar Hill, of course, had been home to prominent figures of the Harlem Renaissance. So those 14 words establish the song as an African American anthem. Just three minutes long, Ellington’s version is a joy to listen to.
About 20 years later, jazz legends Charlie Mingus and Eric Dolphy played an overlong version of “ ‘A’ Train” on tour in Europe. It clocks in at more than 13 minutes, and the lyrics are replaced by an atonal bass-clarinet solo. I play the bass clarinet, and I like atonal bass-clarinet solos. But I’d trade one for a legendary American lyric any day.
2. Improvisation isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
The knowledge that great music is improvised makes it more remarkable. But the fact that music is improvised doesn’t make it great. If it did, Phish and the Grateful Dead would be better than they are.
“Even when they are not soloing, members of a jazz band have to be intimately attuned to the music at all times because they never know what direction it might take,” according to Loren Schoenberg, a conductor and saxophonist writing in conjunction with the Ken Burns documentary “Jazz.” “If you don’t, you may, as John Coltrane once put it, feel as though you stepped into an empty elevator shaft.”
Unfortunately, rather than providing the thrill of standing at a precipice, improvisation by the likes of serviceable, forgettable, uncontroversial players such as guitarist Wes Montgomery is perfect for browsing at Barnes and Noble — or piping into elevators.
3. Jazz stopped evolving.
Ornette Coleman released “The Shape of Jazz to Come” in 1959. Coleman’s singular vision — which included atonality, a lack of traditional time signatures and uninhibited solo improvisation — anticipated free jazz and what’s called “new music.” A lot of new music sounds like an uncoordinated mess. In some ways, that’s the point. To borrow Gold’s phrase: It’s “noodling” in the value-free sense.
And by now, that sound has gotten pretty old. There’s not much difference between a screechy performance by avant-garde saxophonist Peter Brötzmann from 1974 and one from 2014. It’s as if jazz, music premised on aesthetic liberation, no longer has anything to push against.
For the most part, jazz is being kept alive by nostalgic Americans, such as Coltrane associate Bill Cosby, unwilling to embrace the music of a more alien, more controversial 21st-century African American underground — music like Big Freedia’s sissy bounce. Younger artists such as pianist Vijay Iyer — a MacArthur fellow and Harvard professor — may write their own music, but they garner more attention for covering M.I.A. Jazz needs a reset that doesn’t involve Us3 or Digable Planets, tame crossbreeds of jazz and hip-hop that briefly captured the popular imagination more than 20 years ago.
What does this reset look like? I have no idea. My flirtation with jazz was inglorious and short. But I know this once-vital genre will disappear if it continues to coast on its history.
4. Jazz is mushy.
“To many people, any kind of popular music now can be lumped with jazz,” jazz giant Wynton Marsalis complained in 1988. “As a result, audiences too often come to jazz with generalized misconceptions about what it is and what it is supposed to be. Too often, what is represented as jazz isn’t jazz at all.”
Though he’s known for his musical conservatism, the problem Marsalis identified is real. Louis Armstrong is nothing like Kenny G. Charlie Parker and John Zorn do not seem to occupy the same sonic universe, let alone belong in the same record bin or iTunes menu.
And this lumping together happens beyond the music. President Obama once said his speaking style is sometimes “like jazz.” Apparently, so is Jackson Pollock’s painting and Ralph Ellison’s prose. I find such blithe comparisons of jazz to nonmusical art forms infuriating, particularly when nouns and verbs are involved. Jack Kerouac — progenitor of “spontaneous bop prosody” who, as the legend goes, gobbled speed and vomited up “On the Road” in a three-week fit of improvisational typing — may be the closest thing we have to a “jazz writer,” whatever that means. But Kerouac’s unparalleled accomplishment has nothing to do with the pentatonic scale, the Mixolydian mode or tritone substitution.
Marsalis implied that jazz’s ubiquity is a result of money men taking advantage. That’s certainly the case when jazz is used to sell Grey Goose. But we should also scrutinize the amorphous nature of the music itself. Unlike, say, rockabilly or Arnold Schoenberg’s 12-tone music, jazz is plastic. It’s a genre loosely defined by little more than improvisation, sunglasses and berets.
5. Jazz let itself be co-opted.
Marsalis’s critics say that he gives “too little attention to innovations in the form since the 1960s,” as the New York Times put it. But the main innovation since that era has been jazz’s business plan.
Jazz has staked out a comfortable niche as America’s music, fetishized by the select few who actually listen to it — and many who don’t. Ellington is a postage stamp. Ella Fitzgerald is a Google Doodle. Burns’s jazz documentary is almost twice as long as his documentary about the Civil War.
This music has retreated from the nightclub to the academy. It is shielded from commercial failure by the American cultural-institutional complex, which hands out grants and degrees to people like me. Want to have a heated discussion about “Bitches Brew” or the upper partials ? White guys wielding brass in Manhattan and New England are ready to do battle.
I’m getting angry just thinking about it.
Of all the lies told to musicians, here’s the biggest lie of them all: you have to give your talent away for free.
Creative people in a wide range of fields keep hearing the ridiculous mantra that “content wants to be free.” The music industry is the worst offender. Many label execs tell artists—maybe the execs even believe it themselves—that musicians shouldn’t expect to generate income from their recordings. But no worries, mate, you will make it all up by selling T-shirts at your gigs.
The experts who offer this bad advice need to watch some more TV. While record labels have been shrinking, TV networks have reinvented themselves by selling content via a profitable subscription model. TV has reversed the trend: households once got it for free, but now they are willing to pay for it. Yes, you can still get broadcast TV channels without paying a monthly fee, but only seven percent of American households go that route.
Not only has TV switched successfully from “giving it away” to a subscription model, but the shift has also spurred a new golden age of television. The same economic pressures that are killing the music business have led to the highest quality shows in the history of the medium.
Film director Bernardo Bertolucci recently declared that TV series are now better than Hollywood movies. I am forced to agree, and much to my own surprise. After graduating from college, I lived for 15 years without even owning a television set. I never missed it, except when breaking news stories or a major sporting event made me wish I had a “boob tube.” I certainly had no interest in the formulaic, brain-dead content on most TV dramas and sitcoms.
I never expected a TV renaissance. But when I finally stumbled on The Sopranos, I was awestruck. Something had changed in the world of TV, and I needed to check it out. A host of outstanding shows followed in the Sopranos’s wake, and for the first time since I was in fourth grade, TV became a key part of my life. From The Wire to Breaking Bad to True Detective, the new golden age of television came to life under my shocked and delighted eyes.
Music is the only branch of the entertainment world to embrace progressively inferior technologies.
What happened? Well, the same thing that is happening in the music business right now, namely the need to convince people to pay for what they previously got for free. HBO and its peers have proven that consumers will embrace a subscription-based model for content, but you need to give them a reason to do so.
Let me spell out how it’s done. Here are the five lessons the music business needs to learn from TV.
1. Target adults, not kids.
This should be obvious to the music execs, but somehow they haven’t figured it out yet. Fourteen-year-olds will not support a subscription-based model for music. HBO realized that the dumbing down of network TV left a large group of consumers under-served, namely sophisticated grown-ups—and these were the same people with the most disposable income to spend on entertainment.
In contrast, the major record labels are still stuck in kiddie land. No wonder they’re convinced they have to give away their product for free: their core target market is the poorest demographic group in the country—and also the group with the time and know-how to use complicated pirating tools.
Put simply, the recording industry needs to grow up, because the high-potential consumers they need to survive have already done so.
Have you noticed how complex the hot new TV shows are nowadays? A few days ago, Malcolm Gladwell pointed to TV as proof that attention spans aren’t getting shorter. “Thirty years ago,” he explains, “you could go and get a sandwich in the middle of a Kojak episode, come back and still follow it. Today, if you get a glass of water in the middle of Homeland you have to pause and go back.”
Complexity appeals to the sophisticated grown-ups mentioned above. But also, more complex content inspires repeated listenings and greater long-term loyalty. The subscription TV networks have figured this out. Meanwhile the music industry is hoping that simple songs, without harmonic modulations and built on repeated-note melodies, will solve their problems. They won’t.
3. Improve the technology.
Fifty years ago, most households still owned clunky black-and-white TV sets. The picture quality was lousy, and the set was always breaking down. How times have changed! Television has gone high tech with big screens, crystal-clear pictures, and concert-hall audio.
Meanwhile, the music business has moved in the opposite direction. In a telling repudiation of its corporate priorities, serious music fans increasingly want to own vinyl from 50 years ago. It’s a hassle tracking down those old albums, but who can blame these audio junkies? They are tired of the flattened, compressed sound from today’s digital devices, and want something better.
Think about this: music is the only branch of the entertainment world to embrace progressively inferior technologies. Movie theaters have upgraded their experience. Video games have achieved unprecedented standards of visual quality, far beyond what the inventors of Pong and Pac-Man ever dreamed of. No one wants to watch TV shows on a 1964 console. But music devices sound worse than they did a half-century ago.
4. Resist tired formulas.
My big gripe with the old TV shows was their reliance on predictable formulas. How many times can you watch a sitcom featuring a family sitting in the living room insulting each other? How many times can you sit through the predictable cowboy shoot-out, medical cure by the star doctor, or even arrest by the good-looking crime scene investigator?
Every one of the old shows suffered from the same obvious problem: you could predict how the story would end even before it started, so why watch at all? But the beauty of the smart new TV shows is that you still aren’t sure how it ended, even after you’ve seen it—hence the endless debates about the conclusion of The Sopranos or Breaking Bad. At every step in the process, the masterminds behind the award-winning new TV show are resisting the formulas of the genre, and striving for fresh, unpredictable narratives.
The music industry should learn from this. Every album and song nowadays is marketed as part of a genre—rock, hip-hop, country, jazz, etc. But the very decision to sell songs to targeted genre fans has turned into an aesthetic straitjacket. The labels rely on formulas and rules because their genre categories are defined by them. Yet much of the best new music defies genre classification; great artists take chances and cross boundaries. Record labels struggle to promote and sell this music because they have created an entire downstream system defined by the old formulas. They need to emulate the boldness with which the leading pay TV networks have sabotaged genre recipes.
5. Invest in talent and quality.
An amazing battle between two different philosophies has taken place on our TV screens during the last 15 years. The reality TV model, embraced by broadcast networks, is built on the radical view that you don’t need trained actors or high-priced talent. You can take Snooki off the streets of New Jersey and turn her into a celebrity star.
HBO and its peers have adopted the opposite approach. They believe in traditional metrics of talent, and are willing to pay for those who measure up. HBO spent $18 million to get Martin Scorsese behind the pilot of Boardwalk Empire. In recent years, they’ve hired Jonathan Franzen, Michael Chabon and other leading literary authors to work on pilots and series. When Netflix decided to back House of Cards, they were willing to pay top dollar for Kevin Spacey—Snooki wasn’t good enough. These were both daring and expensive moves, and not all of them worked, but the overall impact of investing in highly-trained talent has been decisive. The new renaissance in television would never have happened without this commitment to excellence.
The music industry is still stuck in the old model. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been told that traditional standards of musicianship don’t matter any more. Singers don’t really need to know how to sing, because Auto-Tune will fix it all. You don’t need a real drummer, because a cheap machine can do the same thing. We can argue about each of these statements, but you can’t debate what’s actually happening at the major labels. Do you see them hiring the best graduates from Juilliard or Berklee? They would laugh at you if you even suggested it. They know that the Snooki path to celebrity is the model to follow, because the public doesn’t really care about musicianship and those tired traditional metrics of talent.
Maybe they are right. But, then again, maybe the music execs ought to turn on their TV set, and pay close attention. Some folks are backing old-school talent. And guess what? They don’t have to give their content away for free.