James Brown fans seek memory in Augusta

  • Blake Guthrie
  • For the AJC
9:46 a.m. Sunday, Dec. 18, 2011 Atlanta Music

After touring the James Brown exhibit at the Augusta Museum of History, I ask my guide where the music legend is buried, because I’m interested in visiting the site. The guide pauses and gives a slight smile. “He is buried,” she nods in response. I ask again, believing she misheard my question. She nods and smiles again, and repeats her answer. Turns out, she knows where Brown is buried, but can’t reveal that information because the singer’s final resting place isn’t open to the public, at least not yet.

It was five years ago this Christmas that the world learned the sad and shocking news of James Brown’s death in Atlanta due to congestive heart failure stemming from complications with pneumonia. The Augusta-area native and resident was mourned by music fans worldwide. There were public memorials at the Apollo Theater in New York, and in Augusta, where Brown was a beloved figure who gave generously to his community, especially to underprivileged families with young children. His turkey and toy giveaways during the holiday season continue, an annual tradition carried on by Brown’s children, who operate the nonprofit James Brown Family Foundation charity (this year’s James Brown Toy Giveaway takes place at 9 a.m. on Monday at the James Brown Arena). While you may not be able to visit the grave site of the “Godfather of Soul,” Augusta is still worth a James Brown pilgrimage. Visitors can see many sites associated with the iconic singer who is widely regarded as a founding father of funk.

The first stop should be the Augusta Museum of History. Here, you’ll get a good overview of the singer’s life and legacy at the James Brown exhibit. Interactive kiosks, cases full of memorabilia and personal artifacts cover the 50-year career of the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award recipient and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee. Video screens play Brown’s performances, offer oral histories from his many famous friends and help give an understanding of why he was called “The Hardest-Working Man in Show Business.” A James Brown jukebox plays many of the 116 hits in his song catalog. Beyond the James Brown galleries inside the museum, you’ll wind through an impressive collection of exhibits that run the gamut of Augusta’s long and fascinating history, including its most celebrated connection to the sport of golf.

A few blocks from the museum, in a tree-lined plaza in the middle of Broad Street, sits Augusta’s most-visited Brown-related attraction, the James Brown statue. Dedicated in 2005, before his death, this life-sized bronze statue serves as a testament to how important Brown was to the city. Since his death, the statue has become a place fans visit to pay their respects, often leaving flowers, notes and other mementos, which are then collected for the family. Many of these items are on display in the exhibit at the Museum of History. It’s also common for fans to have their picture taken at the statue, which sits at street level, per Brown’s wishes. If you forget your camera — or your cellphone doesn’t have one — no worries: the Greater Augusta Arts Council has installed the “James Brown Cam.” Dial a special number posted on the sign next to the statue, strike your pose, and you’ll soon be able to download a photo of yourself with the statue.

The Imperial Theatre is also on Broad Street, a block away from the statue. This still-active classic showplace is where Brown would rehearse with his band before embarking on world tours. Music concerts, movie screenings and theatrical productions still take place at the Imperial. Check the website www.imperialtheatre.com for info on upcoming shows. A block in the other direction, Broad Street intersects with James Brown Boulevard. This renamed portion of Ninth Street is where, as a child, James Brown would shine shoes, sing and dance for change, essentially making it the first stage for the enterprising and aspiring youngster.

As far as that still-unvisitable final resting spot goes, a public mausoleum and Graceland-style tourism site is said to be in the works at Brown’s estate, but still in the early stages of development.