James Brown’s Estate Has Sold After 15-Year Dispute

The estimated $90 million deal will go mostly toward a scholarship fund for children from South Carolina and Georgia

James Brown performs in 1979
Brown was known as the Godfather of Soul and the Hardest Working Man in Show Business. David Redfern / Getty Images

When James Brown died 15 years ago, he left behind a plan for most of his estate to pay for scholarships for children in need. Now, after years of legal disputes, the iconic soul singer’s dream is coming to fruition with the sale of his assets to music publisher Primary Wave Music for an estimated $90 million, report Ben Sisario and Steve Knopper for the New York Times.

Primary Wave, which specializes in managing estates and song catalogs, bought half of Whitney Houston’s estate back in May 2019, and the largest share of Prince’s this past June. 

“James Brown was one of the greatest musical entertainers of all time, and one of the greatest legends of the music business,” Larry Mestel, the company’s founder, tells the Times. “That fits what we do like a glove.”

Money from the deal will endow a scholarship trust for children in South Carolina, where Brown was born, and Georgia, where he grew up, says Russell L. Bauknight, executor of the estate. Bauknight will continue to assist in the estate’s management, serving on a board handling portions of it.

Since Brown’s death at age 73 in 2006, various parties have been battling over his estate, filing more than a dozen lawsuits, Meg Kinnard reports for the Associated Press (AP). Part of the dispute involved Brown’s former partner, singer Tomi Rae Hynie, who claimed to have been married to him.

James Brown - I Got You (I Feel Good) - Live At The L'Olympia, Paris (1966)

A 2009 settlement plan would have split the estate among the charitable trust, Hynie and Brown’s adult children, but South Carolina’s Supreme Court overturned that deal in 2013, citing the star’s expressed wishes for most of his money to go to charity. Last year, the court ruled that, because Hynie had not dissolved a previous marriage, she and Brown were never legally married and she had no right to his estate. 

Another part of the protracted dispute involved different estimates of the estate’s value, reports Maiysha Kai for The Root. Bouknight estimated it at only around $5 million, while previous executor Adele Pope placed it at $84 million. Bauknight told the Times his figure was consistent with the value of the estate at the time of Brown’s death as estimated by expert advisors, although Pope’s ultimately proved closer to the actual sale price. 

Known as the “Godfather of Soul,” the “Hardest Working Man in Show Business” and the inventor of funk, Brown was born in South Carolina in 1933 and moved to Georgia as a young child, per Megan Doherty for WERS. He learned gospel music in church and took lessons in the drums, guitar and piano from his neighbors. He also endured physical abuse from his father, was forced into petty crime as a child and ended up in jail at age 15. 

black and white 1964 photo of James Brown
Brown became famous for his voice and his energetic performances. Michael Ochs Archives / Stringer via Getty Images

In 1953, he helped form the gospel group The Famous Flames, where he quickly drew attention for his voice and his energetic performances. His music mixed blues, gospel, country and other musical styles and pioneered the rhythm-heavy funk genre. Among his hit songs were “I Got You (I Feel Good),” “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” and “Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud.” 

Brown was, by many accounts, a difficult person to work with, wrote John Doran for the Guardian in 2015. Biographer Geoff Brown wrote that he was an “ill-tempered, inveterate, emotional and physical scrapper,” and that “a list of people physically assaulted by him would not be a short one, nor would it be restricted to the male of the species.”

Terms of the estate’s deal with Primary Wave are confidential, but Bauknight told the Times that the vast majority of the estate is included in the sale, with no more than $2 million going to a trust for Brown’s grandchildren.

Primary Wave’s ownership of the estate opens up new possibilities for the use of Brown’s music and image. The company’s involvement with Houston’s estate has led to a line of cosmetics, a biopic, a Broadway show and even a hologram tour.

Even with the new deal, complications remain for Brown’s estate. Two lawsuits involving Pope, the former executor, are under appeal and must be resolved before the money can be distributed, Bauknight says. He adds that he hopes the trust can begin awarding scholarships by the end of next year.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.