An Unlikely Estate Keeper: Meet the Man in Charge of the Late James Brown’s Mansion
A display case containing the original master pressing of James Brown's "Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine," along with other keepsake items of Brown's, sits in his Beech Island, S.C., mansion. The house was plundered for a Christie's auction, but these items were not auctioned off. (Kim Kim Foster-Tobin/The State/MCT)
The path through the entryway room in James Brown's Beech Island, S.C., mansion leads to this sitting room decorated with couches, a fireplace and a checkered floor. The house was plundered for a Christie's auction, but several items still remain. Russell Bauknight, the estate's fiduciary, and David Washington, the mansion's groundskeeper, work to keep the house and its contents secure. (Kim Kim Foster-Tobin/The State/MCT)
Fiduciary Russell Bauknight stands in the foyer of James Brown's Beech Island, S.C., mansion, which is still decorated for the holidays. Bauknight and David Washington, the mansion's groundskeeper, work to keep the house and its contents secure. (Kim Kim Foster-Tobin/The State/MCT)
When the James Brown movie Get On Up is released nationally on Aug. 1, a lot of its South Carolina connections will be in the mix — from the Godfather of Soul’s birth in Elko to his longtime home on Beech Island to the Anderson-area roots of the movie’s star, Chad Boseman.
The most unlikely James Brown-South Carolina connection might be Russell Bauknight, a 56-year-old Columbia-based accountant.
He isn’t a music buff. He might listen to Sirius XM’s The ’70s channel from time to time in his car, but Bauknight didn’t own more than a couple of music CDs when he took over management of Brown’s estate five years ago. And those weren’t James Brown CDs.
“I’m not into music, but what I am is a fiduciary expert,” Bauknight said in an interview in early July at his Columbia office. “I run a lot of estates. I run a lot of trusts. And when the courts asked if I would be willing to take this on, they were not asking because of my music expertise.”
Today he’s a caretaker to Brown’s wide-ranging legacy — from the massive music catalogue of the self-described Hardest-Working Man in Show Business to the mansion left in a time warp on Dec. 25, 2006, the day of Brown’s death from congestive heart failure and pneumonia-related issues.
Bauknight ended up handling the Brown estate after a series of legal challenges and court rulings on Brown’s will.
There are contentions over how much of the money will go to scholarships for low-income children, and how much, if any, goes to family members. Much of the fight revolves around whether Brown was officially married to Tomi Rae Hynie.
The legal battle continues, and Bauknight acknowledged he could be removed by the courts from this unusual job at any time. In the meantime, he’s doing his best to keep the estate on solid financial ground.
Bauknight said when he took over management of the estate in 2009, it had $12,000 in the bank and owed $14 million on a loan Brown had taken out to cover expenses on an earlier tour.
Add in insurance, maintenance and taxes, some long overdue, on Brown’s Beech Island mansion, and it was obvious that though the funk still was flowing on the airwaves, the cash wasn’t flowing into the estate.
Bauknight recruited Hollywood music expert Peter Afterman to help him root out the many unlicensed uses of Brown’s hundreds of songs and to find new revenue sources.
Afterman’s career began with concert promotion as a college student in the 1970s. He graduated to supervising music in movies, winning Grammys for his song compilations for Juno and The Apostle. His Inaudible Productions also manages the business side of music created by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones.
“That’s my exposure to the music business,” Bauknight said. “I hired my expertise.”
Within a year, most of the bills had been paid. The estate has maintained a $2 million cushion in recent years, Bauknight said. The national release of Get On Up on Aug. 1 and the release of its soundtrack album promises to be a major boost.
Universal Pictures didn’t just buy the rights; it got squarely behind a movie that producer Brian Grazer has been trying to put together for more than a decade. Boseman comes to the role still hot from his starring role as Jackie Robinson in 42.
It’s directed by Tate Taylor, who gained fame in the same role with The Help. The studio also has thrown money at publicity, buying extended commercials on the finales of TV’s So You Think You Can Dance and The Voice.
Just as important for the estate, Bauknight said, is that Brown’s original master recordings are being used in the movie. That means the estate gets performing and songwriting royalties.
“It’s in the estate’s interest to see that this is a success,” Bauknight said. “The Johnny Cash biopic or the Ray Charles biopic, those jacked up the interest in their music tremendously, and I think you’ll see the same thing happen with James Brown.”
Taylor and Boseman traveled to Columbia to meet with Bauknight, then went with him to Georgia to meet with Brown family members before work began on the movie. They also took a side trip to the Beech Island mansion, where longtime caretaker David Washington gave them a rare tour.
That mansion is part of the full story of Brown’s life, which include his share of problems. He spent time in a juvenile detention center as a teen for robbery. He later faced accusations of gun and drug violations, and he spent time in prison for driving violations and assault on a police officer after a bizarre two-state chase in 1988.
Along with his often rocky marriages (three or four; that’s related to the challenges of his will), those incidents would be the major points in the story of most lives.
But they are mere footnotes in the tale of a man whose career defined a variety of music genres, from rhythm & blues to soul to funk.
Samples from his songs show up in many rap and hip-hop recordings these days. Bauknight and Afterman work together to make sure Brown’s estate gets credit for those songs, negotiating rights deals with artists such as Jay-Z and Public Enemy.
The estate also benefits from Brown songs used in ads for products from Gatorade to Volkswagen to Chanel perfumes.
“Every single day I have to analyze and approve or not approve commercial use,” Bauknight said. “Every single use of Brown’s music comes through here.”
Bauknight might be the last guy you’d expect to have such a strong connection to a performer who had many run-ins with the law. Bauknight spends nearly as much time in his volunteer role as a reserve deputy with the Lexington County, S.C., Sheriff’s Department as he does at his business, Bauknight, Pietras & Stormer.
Lt. Jeff Palkowski, Bauknight’s supervisor in his law enforcement role, laughed at the incongruity. “Mr. Brown wasn’t always a rule-follower, was he?” he said.
And Bauknight isn’t the kind of self-promoter Brown was. “He’s very nonchalant,” Palkowski said. “You’d have no idea he has the resources and connections he has just by talking with him.”