Deanna Brown Thomas ’90 honors her father’s legacy through charitable outreach and music education.
Reach the voicemail of Deanna Brown Thomas, and you’re treated to a few bars of the late James Brown’s soulful “Try Me.”
It’s an electrifying taste of the artistry that took Brown from a one-room shack in rural South Carolina to riches and worldwide acclaim. Known to millions as “the Godfather of Soul,” “Mr. Dynamite,” and “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business,” he was one of the most influential entertainers of his—or any—time.
To Deanna, James Brown was simply “Dad.” She was born to Brown and his second wife, Deidre, in New York City. A younger sister, Yamma, was born in Augusta, Georgia.
Thomas spent her early years in the family’s spacious house in Queens. The upscale neighborhood, now designated Addisleigh Park Historic District, was home to many prominent African Americans. In addition to the Browns, residents once included Jackie Robinson, Lena Horne, Count Basie, W.E.B. Dubois and Ella Fitzgerald.
My father knew what it was like to be poor. He wanted to help people, and the foundation enables us to keep doing that.” —Deanna Brown Thomas ’90
“My father was away a lot of the time,” Thomas says of her childhood. “We did go on the road with him, but having him gone was normal for us.”
But whenever he could, James Brown showed off his little girl.
“As soon as I could stand up, I was on stage,” she recalls with a laugh. “He’d lift me up onto the tables at the Cotton Club when he performed there.”
Despite her showbiz roots, Thomas says her father discouraged her from following in his impeccably choreographed footsteps. “Daddy said everybody can’t be a star—that some people are better at handling business.
“I don’t sing and dance,” she adds, “so I keep his legacy going by working with children.”
When her parents separated near the end of the ’70s, Deirdre Brown moved with her daughters to Baltimore, her hometown. Thomas attended Old Court Middle School, later graduating from Archbishop Keough (now Seton Keough) High School.
She spent two years at Wesley College in Delaware before transferring to Towson, where she earned a B.S. degree in business administration (marketing). After graduation she accompanied her father on tour, worked as an account executive at The Washington Times, and enrolled at the Columbia School of Broadcasting. Her training and a Federal Communications Commission broadcaster’s license helped her land a show of her own at WWIN-FM in Baltimore.
That experience launched a career in radio and television that took Thomas to Georgia, then to South Carolina to be a program director and on-air personality at one of Brown’s radio stations. She also worked for Clear Channel, Radio One and CBS affiliate WRDW-TV in Augusta.
Later she worked behind the scenes—and out of the limelight—as executive vice president of James Brown Enterprises.
And along the way she met her future husband, businessman Shawn Thomas. They wed in 1997, with a beaming James Brown escorting his daughter down the aisle.
The Thomases live in Aiken, South Carolina, near the Georgia border and not far from her late father’s sprawling Beech Island mansion. The couple owns several businesses, including T&T Transportation, which serves elderly and special-needs clients in 12 Georgia counties, and DeShawn’s Seafood and Chicken, renowned for its supersized crab legs.
Aside from wife and mother, Deanna Brown Thomas’s most rewarding role is the one she assumed after her father’s death at age 73 in 2006. As director of the nonprofit Brown Family Children’s Foundation, she continues the charitable giving James Brown began in 1991. The organization supports creating music scholarships and programs, provides health awareness to impoverished families and sponsors the annual James Brown Turkey and Toy Giveaways.
“Last year we gave toys to over 800 children and turkeys to over 600 families,” Thomas notes. “My father knew what it was like to be poor. He wanted to help people, and the foundation enables us to keep doing that.”
In 2011 Thomas realized a long-held dream with the founding of the James Brown Academy of Musik Pupils (J.A.M.P!) program at C.H. Terrell Academy, a year-round K-12 fine arts academy in Augusta. Thomas collaborated with educational consultants and music educators throughout the country to create a nonprofit initiative that “motivates, educates and inspires children through the universal language of music.”
J.A.M.P! students learn music theory, stage performance and discipline, she says, adding, “Discipline was my dad’s most important lesson.”
Thomas emphasizes that children from all walks of life are welcome to audition for the program, whose students and alumni have already made a name for themselves locally and beyond.
“I’d love to see J.A.M.P! satellite programs in schools around the country,” Thomas continues. “So many kids are at risk, whether it’s bullies, drugs or just being on the street. We have to nurture them and their talent.
“My father always said it was important to put musical instruments in children’s hands instead of guns. I’m committed to doing what I can to make that happen.”
Last August members of James Brown’s extended family convened at theaters in Augusta and New York City for the premiere of “Get on Up,” a major motion picture based on the entertainer’s extraordinary life. (See sidebar.)
Thomas served as a consultant, while her son Jason worked on set as a production assistant. She’s pleased with the movie’s reception and glad to see James Brown getting the adulation and credit he deserves.
But the message Thomas hopes audiences took away is a simple one: Put in the hard work. “My dad didn’t get beyond seventh grade,” she explains. “He picked cotton and shined shoes during the Depression in the segregated South. But he believed in hard work, and that enabled him to overcome barriers, create great music and perform for queens, presidents and prime ministers.
“If there’s one thing I want people to understand, it’s that James Brown really was the hardest working man in show business.”
Jan Lucas is the associate director of publications in University Marketing and Communications.
The Movie Version
James Brown died in 2006 but a major motion picture based on his life celebrates The Godfather of Soul.
“Get On Up” chronicles the tempestuous life of James Brown, who propelled himself from abject poverty to the top of the charts in a career that spanned six decades.
Richard Corliss, who reviewed “Get On Up” in Time magazine, called it the “finest, most complex” of the rock ‘n’ roll biopic genre—“the story of a difficult man who created the funk sound, endlessly sampled by rock stars and rappers.”
The PG-13 “Get On Up” features Brown’s early Chitlin’ Circuit material as well as the Billboard hits that introduced him to mainstream audiences. The soundtrack includes “Please, Please, Please,” “I Got You (I feel Good),” “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” and many others.
“Get On Up” depicts James Brown’s personal shortcomings—and there were many—but it also shows us a man who threw body and soul into his art.
Directed by Tate Taylor (“The Help”) and produced by Brian Glazer and Mick Jagger, the ensemble cast includes Chadwick Boseman as The Godfather of Soul, Dan Ackroyd as Ben Bart, Viola Davis as Susie Brown and Octavia Spencer as Aunt Honey. Singer/actress Jill Scott is Deidre “Dee-Dee” Jenkins, Brown’s second wife and Deanna Brown Thomas’s mother.
Corliss reserved his highest praise for Boseman, whose performance “lifts ‘Get On Up’ to its most impressive heights. Incarnating Brown in all his ornery uniqueness, he deserves a Pulitzer, a Nobel and instant election to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.” Boseman may be lip-synching Brown’s songs, Corliss adds, but he inhabits them.