One Tuesday afternoon in 2017, the phone rang at my desk in CNN Center. On the line was a woman who told me, “James Brown did not die the way they said he died. And I have proof of it.” The caller’s name was Jacque Hollander. She was a singer for the Carson & Barnes Circus.
The circus singer made one wild claim after another. I took a few notes and politely ended the call. Even if she was telling the truth, I couldn’t imagine how she would prove it. James Brown, one of the greatest entertainers in American history, died at a hospital in Atlanta in 2006, officially of natural causes. I had no reason to suspect foul play.
But the circus singer kept calling. She kept saying Brown had been murdered. She kept telling me she had evidence to back up all her claims. Finally, my editor said I might as well go see what this woman was talking about.
And so, on a hot day in late spring, I took a trip to the circus.
The story turned out to be even deeper and stranger than it seemed. Five years later, I am still untangling all the threads. Even after my investigative series was published in 2019, I knew there was more work to do. I discovered that James Brown’s life was more mysterious than his death: layered with deception and intrigue, haunted by the government agents he believed were following him. After he prevented a riot in Boston in 1968, Brown was convinced he’d drawn the attention of the FBI and the CIA.
Since taking that strange phone call in 2017, I’ve interviewed more than 200 people—including the doctor who signed Brown’s death certificate and a friend who claimed to have taken a vial of Brown’s blood in the hope it would prove Brown was murdered. I’ve gathered records from at least 14 courthouses. I’ve downloaded text messages from the circus singer’s iPhone. I’ve sent a black stiletto shoe to a lab for forensic analysis.
I’ve puzzled over the long-lost pages of a deceased informant’s notebook that might reveal whether James Brown’s third wife, Adrienne, was murdered — and, if so, who killed her.
In 2021, CNN sued the CIA under the Freedom of Information Act to demand the release of confidential documents that could rewrite the history of the Godfather of Soul. The case is pending. To this day, the CIA will not confirm or deny these documents exist.
What happened after the circus singer’s phone call is a story that unfolds over eight episodes in “The James Brown Mystery,” a new investigative podcast from CNN. It’s a story about secrets, surveillance, and suspicious deaths. It’s about the fear that Brown lived with until the day he died.
And it’s about one woman’s quest to solve the mystery of the man who ruined her life.
That quest continues, nearly 16 years after Brown’s death. Jacque Hollander is 67 now, recovering from heart surgery and living with a pacemaker. But the other day on the phone, she told me she hasn’t given up. She’s still convinced that someone murdered James Brown, and that someone murdered Adrienne Brown, and that the killers should be prosecuted.
“Am I gonna quit? No,” she said. “I can’t just walk away from something I know is the truth.”