Five years ago, a circus singer called to say that James Brown had been killed


On a Tuesday evening in 2017, the phone rang at my desk in the CNN Center. There was a woman on the line who told me, “James Brown didn’t die the way they said he did. And I have proof of that.” The caller’s name was Jacque Hollander. He was the lead singer of Carson & Barnes Circus.

The circus singer made one wild claim after another. I took a few notes and politely ended the call. Even if he was telling the truth, I couldn’t imagine how he would prove it. James Brown, one of the greatest entertainers in American history, died in an Atlanta hospital in 2006, officially of natural causes. I had no reason to suspect foul play.

But the circus singer kept calling. He continued to say that Brown was killed. He kept telling me he had evidence to back up all his claims. Finally, my editor said I would 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 was even deeper and stranger than it seemed. Five years later, I’m still unraveling all the strings. Even after publishing my research series in 2019, I knew there was more work to be done. I discovered that James Brown’s life was more mysterious than his death: layered with deception and intrigue, haunted by government agents he thought were after him. After avoiding a riot in Boston in 1968, Brown was believed to have attracted the attention of the FBI and 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 said he took a vial of Brown’s blood, hoping it would prove Brown was dead. I have collected records from at least 14 courts. I downloaded the text messages from the circus singer’s iPhone. I have sent a black shoe to a laboratory for forensic analysis.

I’ve been rummaging through the pages of a long-lost informant’s notebook, wondering if James Brown’s third wife, Adrienne, was killed, and if so, by whom.

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 neither confirm nor deny the existence of these documents.

What happened after the circus singer’s phone call is a story that unfolds over eight episodes on CNN’s new investigative podcast, “The James Brown Mystery.” It’s a story about secrets, surveillance and suspicious deaths. It’s about the fear Brown lived with until the day he died.

And it’s about a woman’s quest to unravel the mystery of the man who ruined her life.

That search continues, nearly 16 years after Brown’s death. Jacque Hollander is now 67, recovering from heart surgery and living with a pacemaker. But the other day on the phone, he told me that he has not given up. He is still convinced that someone killed James Brown, and that someone killed Adrienne Brown, and that the killers should be brought to justice.

“Am I going to leave? No,” he said. “I can’t walk away from what I know to be true.”