Unreleased James Brown Master Tapes Destroyed In Fire

Georgia investigators looking into whether arson was cause of blaze that burned soul singer's memorabilia.

While investigators try to determine whether the fire at an Augusta, Ga., office building owned by James Brown was set intentionally, the singer is trying to come to terms with the loss of irreplaceable memorabilia and unreleased master tapes.

"He's just awfully depressed from having suffered a loss of this kind," Buddy Dallas, Brown's Augusta lawyer, said. Dallas informed Brown of the fire at midnight Friday, as the singer came offstage from a concert in Norfolk, Va.

Dallas said Brown's first response, after a pause, was to ask if anyone was hurt. "Then he said, 'God will get us through the rest of it, don't worry,' " Dallas said.

Dallas said he was not sure how old the unreleased master tapes were, or whether they were recorded for a particular release. "Mr. Brown records when he feels like it, whenever he's feeling creative," Dallas said.

Howard Kramer, associate curator of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, said the value of the lost master tapes would depend on which era of Brown's career they came from. If they were recorded during the past five years, they wouldn't be so valuable as those recorded during the singer's creative heyday, from the time of the 1965 releases "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" (RealAudio excerpt) and "I Got You (I Feel Good)" (RealAudio excerpt) through 1974's "The Payback," Kramer said.

Irreplaceable Items

While no official list enumerating lost items has been compiled, the lawyer said the unofficial list of lost items includes capes the singer wore onstage in the 1960s and '70s and gold and platinum records, some of which are irreplaceable, as they were issued by now-defunct record labels.

Also lost was a set of boxing gloves signed by actor Sylvester Stallone from the 1986 movie "Rocky IV," in which Brown performed his hit "Living in America," and a robe he wore when he played a preacher in the 1980 movie "The Blues Brothers."

Dallas said it would be difficult to put a dollar amount on what was lost. "What is a lifetime of James Brown memorabilia worth?" he said. "You can't put a price on that."

Record and memorabilia collectors pay thousands of dollars for gold records and stage clothes, according to Mark Allen Baker, author of "Goldmine's Price Guide to Rock and Roll Memorabilia." While "presentation discs" — gold and platinum records — were given frequently to white artists in the late-'50s and early-'60s, fewer were given to black artists, increasing the value of Brown's collection, Baker said.

A gold record from Brown's 1956–64 tenure at King Records might be worth $10,000, Baker speculated. "This is an absolute devastation to the market and to rock 'n' roll history," Baker said.

Brown has donated or lent several artifacts to the Rock Hall's museum collection, including several sets of stage clothes currently on display, Kramer said. "I hope he didn't lose the bulk of his collection," Kramer said. According to Dallas, Brown also houses some of his collection at his Beech Island, S.C., home.

Blaze Called Suspicious

The office building was home to James Brown Enterprises, which handles the singer's concert and tour bookings in addition to programming for WAAW-FM, an Augusta radio station Brown owns. The operation relocated to the radio station's offices Monday. Officials from James Brown Enterprises did not return phone calls.

Until insurance investigators are finished assessing the scene, Dallas said, no decision would be made about whether to relocate James Brown Enterprises or to rebuild it on the current site on Augusta's western outskirts.

"This is not a mortal wound, but it's a serious wound," Dallas said. "I guess papa's got to find a brand new office."

Officials have not yet declared the fire arson, but a fire department official called the blaze suspicious.

"There appeared to be multiple fires that originated in several different places in the building," said Katrice Bryant, public information officer for the Augusta-Richmond County Fire Department. Firefighters noticed a strong odor of a "petroleum-based accelerant" as they battled the blaze, Bryant said.

The fire department sent samples from the ashes to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation in Atlanta for analysis. Bryant said results were expected Wednesday (May 3) or Thursday. Jim Vause, whose Liberty Security firm handles protection for the singer's home and concert appearances, said he was told results might be in as early as late Tuesday.

The fire department is working closely with the Augusta-Richmond County Sheriff's Department, Bryant said. No one has been questioned in the incident, and no one will be until a determination of cause has been made. Until then, there are no suspects in the case, he said.

The state's Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner has opened an arson hot line that offers a reward of up to $10,000 for information that leads to an arsonist's arrest and conviction. Anyone who has information about the fire should call the Georgia Arson Hotline at (800) 282-5804.