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The long-running battle for James Brown’s estate has finally been resolved—kind of—with a very lucrative deal. As previously reported by The Root, the late soul icon’s heirs and estate administrator Russell Bauknight teased a resolution to the approximately 15-year war in July, issuing a statement that “The matter has been settled,” but disclosing no further details. On Tuesday, the New York Times confirmed a settlement nearly four years in the making had at last been finalized, reporting that New York-based estate and song catalog marketing company Primary Wave will be acquiring the estate’s assets— “including music rights, real estate and the control over Brown’s name and likeness”—in a deal estimated to be worth $90 million.
Most importantly, it honors the singer’s wishes for the bulk of his estate to benefit children in need through a scholarship program. More from the Times:
Larry Mestel, the founder of Primary Wave — which did a similar deal for half of Whitney Houston’s estate, and owns the largest interest in Prince’s — envisions an array of new projects to honor Brown’s legacy and promote his music to new generations of fans. Those may include a Broadway musical, television shows and the creation of a Graceland-like museum attraction at Brown’s mansion in South Carolina, he said...
The price of the deal was not disclosed, but is estimated at about $90 million. The money from the transaction will be used to endow the Brown scholarship trust “in perpetuity,” said Russell L. Bauknight, a public accountant who has served as the estate’s personal representative, or executor, since 2009. He said that once the estate is closed, he will continue to work with Primary Wave as a member of a board handling some of Brown’s assets.
Primary Wave has further committed to allocating a “small percentage” of potential future deals to the scholarship program, which will benefit underserved children in Brown’s birth state of South Carolina and childhood home of Georgia. As noted by the Times, the settlement “is a major move toward realizing Mr. Brown’s dream of financing the scholarships, a dream delayed by one of the longest and most contentious estate conflicts in entertainment.”
Specifically, the resolution marks the end of over a decade of disputes between Bauknight, former executor Adele Pope, and Brown’s heirs—including five of his children and presumed wife Tommie Rae Hynie (ruled last year not be married to Brown, as she had not dissolved a prior marriage). One of the major issues? Conflicting estimates of the worth of Brown’s estate, which Bauknight placed at approximately $5 million at the time of the singer’s death, disputing Pope’s valuation of $84 million prior to being “removed from her position in 2009.
Each has reportedly accused the other of attempting to profit from their roles in the estate; suits which remain under appeal. In reference to Primary Wave’s purported purchase of the estate, Bauknight defended himself against Pope’s ultimately more accurate valuation, telling the Times his initial estimate was consistent with the worth of Brown’s estate at the time and gleaned from expert advisors on the matter.
Additionally, Brown’s heirs had hoped to forego his will in favor of negotiating a settlement which would allocate them “significant shares of the estate,” a wish initially granted in 2009 by a South Carolina state judge and former Attorney General (now Governor) Henry McMaster. However, the dispute raged on as the South Carolina Supreme Court overturned the settlement in 2013, on the grounds that it was a “dismemberment of Brown’s carefully crafted estate plan.” In 2014, McMaster told the Times the conflict was “as big a tangle as you’ve ever seen.”
The terms of Primary Wave’s deal with the estate are confidential, but Bauknight confirmed its sole beneficiaries as the aforementioned scholarships and two educational trusts for Brown’s grandchildren limited at about $2 million. While Bauknight estimated the granting of the scholarships should begin by late 2022, none of those funds will be dispersed until his own suits with Pope are settled, as the ongoing legal fight effectively freezes any assets.
As for Primary Wave, the company may currently be best known for its recent involvement in Houston’s estate, including a controversial hologram tour of the late songstress, as well as another biopic of the star and proposed Broadway show. The Times reports the company, which Mestel claims holds “about $1.8 billion in assets,” has also inked deals with the estates of Luther Vandross and Teddy Pendergrass.
“It’s time to bring in someone of Larry’s expertise to take [Brown’s estate] to the next level,” said Bauknight. “We’re looking at this as more of a partnership moving forward.”
“James Brown was one of the greatest musical entertainers of all time, and one of the greatest legends of the music business,” Mestel told the Times. “That fits what we do like a glove.”