Godfather's Widow Bares Her Soul
After James Brown's sudden death on Christmas Day 2006, images were beamed around the world of his crying widow slumped on the pavement outside their shared home, locked out by the trustees of his Estate. In the ensuing legal battleTomi Rae Brown was accused of everything from infidelity to bigamy. Now, in the most in-depth interview she's ever given, she speaks exclusively to Charles Thomson about her life with the Godfather of Soul and the four nightmarish years spent trying to clear her name.
December 2010, Sawf News
Tomi Rae Brown is a divisive figure. Little known before James Brown died, she was thrust into the limelight on Christmas Day 2006 when she was photographed slumped on the pavement outside the home she shared with the singer, weeping after being locked out of the property.
After a very public spat with the trustees of her husband's Estate and a series of hysterical interviews in the days following his death, she’s become a lot of things to a lot of people. To some she is the beleaguered wife of a superstar; the unfortunate victim of showbiz vultures who controlled her husband in life with a view to controlling his fortune in death. To others she is a gold digger; that white woman trying to get her hands on James Brown’s money.
Aside from a series of ill-advised interviews in the immediate aftermath of Brown’s death, Tomi Rae has rarely spoken to the press. Hurt by the way she was portrayed in the wake of her husband’s passing, she is distrusting of reporters - and who could blame her? Since Brown made his final curtain call, his wife has been called, variously, a bigamist, an adulterer, a gold digger, a lesbian and a drug addict.
It is clear when talking to Tomi Rae that she still finds it difficult to comprehend what has happened to her during the last four years. She seems occasionally overwhelmed by the colossal heartbreak she’s endured. It’s easy to see why.
As Brown’s partner since 1998, she lived with him for almost a decade. In 2001 they had a son and the three of them lived as a family for five years until Brown’s death. When Brown went on tour, Tomi Rae went with him. He had her sit in on his interviews and boasted about the beautiful child they'd had together.
But despite all of this, in the wake of Brown’s death she was frozen out of his Estate. Rather than being treated as the woman with whom Brown shared his home – who nursed him through cancer and gave him his youngest son – she was portrayed by the star’s associates as a deranged clinger-on. She and her son were kicked out of the family home within hours of her husband's death.
Mocked by the press and shunned by many of the star’s relatives, Tomi Rae was made to feel like an outsider. It was ‘torturous’, she says, but after a few years of therapy she’s now able to take a philosophical stance.
“We’ve moved on,” she says. “We pray for those who have hurt us. That’s all we can do.”
She first encountered James Brown in Las Vegas in the mid-1990s, where she was performing as a Janis Joplin impersonator in a Legends in Concert show. In the mid-1980s she had run away to Las Vegas, aged 14, with nothing but $200 and a dream of becoming a rock star. When she arrived she bought a bass guitar and taught herself to play, then formed an all-girl rock group called Hardly Dangerous.
The group was picked up by Madonna’s label Maverick Records, where they recorded an album but were ditched before they could release it when the label switched focus to Alanis Morissette. The band eventually split and Tomi Rae got the Janis Joplin gig. The rest, she says, is history.
“He saw me singing and he asked me if my band would be his opening act for a European tour," she recalls. "Of course, I said yes right away. He said, ‘How soon can you be ready? We’re going to San Francisco tomorrow’. I said, ‘Give us an hour to pack and we’re ready’. We did our first show the next evening.
“After a year of touring together he said he couldn’t afford to keep the whole band anymore but he wanted me to stay on. He gave them all a couple of thousand dollars apiece and let them go. I became the lead soloist in the James Brown show.”
Tomi Rae can’t remember exactly when their relationship took a romantic turn but says it was after roughly two years. She says she fell in love with him after witnessing his dynamism and charisma onstage. After that, the relationship moved quickly.
“We just had a connection from the very beginning," she says. " don’t think that I spent more than two weeks away from the man since the day I met him.”
By late 2000 Tomi Rae was pregnant with Brown’s son, born in June 2001. Brown named the boy after himself – James Brown II – the only child he ever gave his own name to.
“James thought his son might be president one day,” says Tomi Rae. “When he named him he said, ‘I gave him my name because I knew that having my name and being half white, he might actually have a shot in this world. He could become the president of the United States one day’. He said that this boy was going to do more than he ever did. I felt those shoes were too big to fill.”
In January 2004 the pair hit the headlines after Brown was arrested for domestic assault. It was a cold winter and the power had gone out at the house, says Tomi Rae. She wanted to check into a hotel until the heating came back on but Brown wanted to stay. The argument escalated and Tomi Rae called 911, claiming Brown had attacked her. Today she says she regrets calling the police and that it saddens her to see Brown tarred as a ‘wife beater’.
“He was a kind, sweet man,” she says. “He was not any more abusive than any other husband is. There are two sides to any story and I’ll tell you that the man did not intentionally do anything to hurt anyone. Anything he did was out of the pain that he felt himself. Because I understood that, I could handle him. In terms of physical altercations, we only had one in all ten years of the relationship. We had many arguments but so does everybody else. That’s what married couples do.
“He was a great guy. He did so many great things for people that are not recognized. He wasn’t abusive. He loved me very much and he treated me very good. It’s just that the arguments were so public and were so talked about in the press.
“There was that one time where we had an altercation. I called 911 and he went to jail. I wish that I hadn’t called them now but I did and I’ll tell you, after that point and before that point he never laid his hands on me. That was a sad time in our marriage but I forgave him and he forgave me and we moved on.”
Later that year Brown was left reeling when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. The star opted to treat the disease with radioactive seeds, which were placed in his prostate. It was Tomi Rae who nursed him through the illness.
“I remember at one point he had to wear this lead belt around him because he decided to go with those seeds. For six months my son and I were not supposed to be within six feet of him.
“James and I got my mother a house around the corner from us and she became our nanny. She would watch little James while my husband would take off his belt and I would lay with him, beside him, and I told him ‘If you have cancer, so do I. We don’t worry about this and you don’t have to wear that belt.’”
The cancer was gone by Spring 2005 but Brown still wasn’t in great health.
“We got rid of the cancer but he was still battling with diabetes and with his heart. He had lived a very long life and coming from where he came from, there weren’t many medications during his childhood. He was very sickly as a young boy and then he worked very hard for his entire life. He lived a full life and I think that took its toll.”
Brown’s health wasn’t the only thing getting him down. Tomi Rae claims that during the last year of his life her husband began to suspect that some of his associates weren’t working in his best interests. A bank account that had contained millions of dollars was allegedly drained and he couldn’t get a straight answer out of anybody as to where the cash had gone.
“We started to realize what was happening within the last few months of his life,” she says, “but he felt like he couldn’t do anything about it. I tried to convince him otherwise but I couldn’t. He really felt like his back was against the wall.
“He used to sit at the end of the bed doing nothing but thinking so hard and stressing and worrying. He would weep on my shoulders and let me tell you, it was quite a strange phenomenon to have somebody that I have so much respect for weeping on my shoulder about being a slave his entire life and how they’ve still got him and they’re never gonna let him go. It was very sad to hear that.”
In October 2006 Brown gave a press conference in London before performing at a BBC concert. During the press conference he made several cryptic comments about an upcoming album. “Somebody’s gonna have to die before we get that out,” he told the press. “We need help.” It was a rare public display of fragility from a proud man. When they returned from that particular tour, Tomi Rae felt uneasy.
“It’s a very spooky thing,” she says. “We got off of that six week tour. It was a very long, hard tour for him –especially with the diabetes – but he did the tour and he killed it. It was an excellent tour.
“We came home and we had thirty days off. Something wasn’t right when we got back. I hadn’t even unpacked my bag yet and I said, ‘Baby, death is at our door. Something bad is going to happen here. I can feel it. Something doesn’t feel right. I can feel them looking at me; looking at us. I can see that something is going to happen and I just don’t feel good about this. I’m going to get out of here.’”
Tomi Rae’s father had passed away several months previously and she’d been prescribed some pills to help her cope with the loss. She felt she was becoming too dependent and decided that if she was going to deal with her husband’s situation once and for all, she had to first make sure she was fighting fit. Telling Brown that she’d be back for Christmas, she decided to go away and ‘physically release’ herself from the grip of the medication.
“I said to him, ‘If you don’t start dealing with everything that’s going on, something bad is going to happen.’ He didn’t want me to go but I felt a desperate need that I had to. I felt something bad coming, some impending doom. So I called my mother and said, ‘Mom, come get me’, and I went to a place in Malibu.”
“The day that I was packing to return I spoke to James. He was on his way to the dentist to get some teeth fixed. We’d been working for years to get them right. He’d finally got this perfect pair and he was going to get them put on ready for the tour. I asked our butler Mr Washington to put out all the Christmas presents, make sure the tree was up and have everything ready and out. I had it all in place.”
Unbeknownst to Tomi Rae, when Brown arrived at the dentist’s office he was told that he was too sick for surgery and sent to the hospital with a suspected case of pneumonia. According to Tomi Rae, nobody saw fit to inform her of this development.
“That night James’s personal manager Mr Bobbit called me and he told me, ‘They’re working very hard on him’. I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ He said, ‘Well, he’s in the hospital’. I immediately freaked out. I didn’t know what to do and I started crying, ‘What’s wrong with my husband? Tell me what is wrong with my husband!’
“Then he called me about an hour later and he said, ‘Mrs Brown’, and I said ‘I’m on my way home. Tell him to just hold on, I’m on my way, it’s going to be fine’. He said, ‘Mrs Brown, he’s gone’.
“I screamed so loud that I woke up everybody in the Malibu facility. I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t get an earlier flight out because my flight had been arranged since I’d left, to get me back out there for about 8 o’clock on Christmas morning. There was nothing I could do.”
When Tomi Rae arrived back in Georgia, she found herself locked out of her home by the trustees of her husband’s estate.
“There were eight padlocks on my gate,” she says. “Our own guards, who I hired with my husband, told me that I wasn’t allowed on the property unless I had a marriage license with me.
“I said, ‘Why would I carry my marriage license with me? You know I’m his wife. You were at the wedding!’ They told me, ‘The trustees say you’re only an on-off girlfriend who stays here periodically, and you are not his wife’. I said, ‘Excuse me?’
"Meanwhile, everything I own, everything my son owns, our home, is behind those gates. We had nothing but the clothes on our backs and the bag I packed to go to the Malibu treatment centre.”
The Trustees claimed Tomi Rae had been married to another man, Javed Ahmed, when she wed James Brown, rendering her marriage to the singer null and void. She in turn contended that her marriage to Ahmed was never consummated and that after marrying him, she discovered that he was a bigamist with three other wives – thus it was her first marriage which was illegitimate, not her subsequent marriage to Brown.
After suffering the humiliation of being photographed on her knees outside the home and having the legitimacy of her marriage called into question, Tomi Rae gave a series of interviews in an attempt to put her side of the story across - but her hysterical demeanor only led to further tabloid mockery.
“I didn’t know what to do,” she says of those few days. “I was so completely in shock and out of my mind and upset and angry at him for allowing that to happen. I was in such shock that I did some things that I’m not proud of. I spoke about things in our personal life that I shouldn’t have mentioned. I was so angry - it was not a time that I should have been speaking to the press. In retrospect, I know that he didn’t plan this.”
After being locked out of her home, Tomi Rae alleges that certain figures in the Brown camp also conspired to exclude her from the public viewing of her husband’s body at New York’s Apollo Theater.
“Some of us were staying in the same hotel in Georgia and they gave me a time to meet them and leave for New York. Then they left three hours early. I got a call from a friend in the lobby who said that they were all in a big hurry because they didn’t want me to find out they were leaving without me.
“Luckily, I knew a gentleman named Peter Newman in New York and he said, ‘You don’t show up there in a cab. You’re Mrs James Brown. You get here, I’ll send you in a limousine’. I had to book a plane right away and get there. They were very shocked to see me, to say the least. Once I got there, they said ‘You can ride back with us to the airport in a limousine’. I remember walking outside the Apollo afterwards and seeing them speeding away.”
During the televised funeral, held at Augusta’s James Brown Arena, cameras caught Tomi Rae arguing with Reverend Al Sharpton after he called her ‘Tammy’ and refused to acknowledge her marriage to the soul legend. She says she was then forcibly removed from the building.
The bullying continued at the private funeral, she says, when she and her son were approached by one of Brown’s associates and instructed to move back several pews because the front row was for ‘family only’.
“It was torturous,” she says. “However crazy they made me look at that time – well, I was that crazy. I was torn and I was hurt. They were so horrible to me.”
The will that the Estate claimed was Brown’s most recent had been written in 2000, before he married Tomi Rae and before James II was born. As she fought not only for her son’s share of the Estate but also for her husband’s wish that 50% of his estate go to a charitable trust, she became the focus of what she believes was a concerted smear campaign.
Reporters were fed information that she’d been out partying after she heard of her husband’s death when she’d actually been at the Malibu treatment center. Other stories suggested that she was secretly a lesbian.
Worst, though, were allegations made by the Estate that her son was not Brown’s biological child. But, says Tomi Rae, she was so confident of little James’ paternity that she consented immediately to a DNA test.
“The test was a very gruesome thing,” she laments. “In order to do the test, the trustees allowed for James’ legs to be cut off.
“They kept him above ground for so long that they couldn’t do a proper DNA test. They had to cut off his legs in order to do it. It made me furious. I said, ‘I can’t believe that this is what you want. This, all to prove that this little boy – the only child he named after himself, that looks exactly like him, that he loved with all of his heart – is his son? Is this worth it?’ His daughter Deanna tried to stop it but the trustees said ‘No, it’s too late’.”
Repulsed by the decision to saw through Brown’s legs, Tomi Rae says she elected to sit with him while it was done.
“I held his hand while they cut his legs to get bone marrow to prove that my son was his,” she says. “At that point I literally thought that I was going to lose my mind. I was horrified.”
A DNA test on James Brown II came back positive. The lab found that the probability of Brown being the boy’s father was 99.999975%.
“When it was proven, I said to his other children, ‘Now you all have to take one’,” she says. “And of course at that point everyone settled.”
Around the same time, family members began unraveling what they believed to be a catalogue of fraudulent activity conducted by those in charge of handling Brown’s estate both before and after he died. The family realized that Tomi Rae might have been right after all and soon began involving her in their discussions. In 2008, the Estate filed a lawsuit against several former trustees, as well as Brown’s former lawyer.
“At first nobody wanted to believe me,” she says. “I think it was just fear – they thought that I was going to take everything from them. In reality, my main thing was that 50% of James Brown’s Estate goes to poor children to go to college for free in his name on a James Brown Scholarship Fund. He was very strong on education because he came from no education. He really felt that all children needed one and deserved one and he wanted to do everything he could to help them get one.”
Tomi Rae reached a settlement with Brown’s children whereby 50% of his estate would go towards the James Brown Scholarship Fund, 25% would go to Tomi Rae and her son and 25% would go to the singer’s other children. (The settlement was approved in May 2009 but court appointed trustees are appealing the decision, claiming they should receive a share of the Estate as well. A Supreme Court ruling is expected in early 2011.)
The lawsuit against her husband’s former associates could drag on for years but, hopeful for a positive ruling on the settlement, Tomi Rae says she has several plans for the continuation of her late husband’s legacy. A James Brown Museum in Augusta, Georgia, is on the cards if the family can reach an agreement on how it should be managed and by whom. Additionally, Tomi Rae recorded several albums’ worth of unreleased material with Brown, which she hopes to put out at some point in the future.
During Brown’s final years, Tomi Rae also commissioned a documentary called On The Road with Mr and Mrs Brown. After Brown died the project was abandoned but Tomi Rae now hopes to turn the footage into a feature-length documentary for US television.
Her son James, now nine, seems to have inherited some of his father’s musical talent. He plays bass and guitar and in October he wrote and recorded his first song, with help from Tomi Rae’s boyfriend of two years, Doobie Brothers bassist Skylark.
“We met in December 2008 at a concert,” she says. “Skylark is a wonderful parental figure for James. It’s worked out really wonderfully and I’m quite happy that my life is the way it is now, although I do miss my husband very much and there’s still a long way to go in the fight to make sure that the people who hurt our family so badly are paid back.
“There’s a big payback coming,” she laughs, referencing her husband's hit song, “but it’s going to take a lot of strength and courage to win that fight. But I’m prepared. I’m focused on getting my son through these times and trying to live a happy life and representing my husband in a positive manner.”
To date, none of Brown’s associates have been convicted of any wrongdoing.
In February 2009 David Cannon, former trustee of the James Brown estate, was ordered to spend six months in jail for contempt of court after he refused to return $400,000 to the James Brown estate. In March 2009 a grand jury indicted Cannon on further charges including breach of trust with fraudulent intent and stealing money from Brown both before and after his death. All of the charges relate to his actions as trustee of James Brown’s estate. Cannon denies all of the charges.
Back to Interviews
Back to Portfolio