James Brown, the self-proclaimed Hardest Working Man in Showbiz, came on stage at Boston Garden Arena and surveyed a desert of unfilled seats.
It was April 5, 1968, and just 1,500 people were gathered at the front of an arena with a capacity of 15,000. One day had passed since the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot and killed in Memphis. Brown’s band feared for his safety and the singer — a self-made man who prided himself on his capitalist instincts — was about to take a financial bath.
No one, least of all Brown, grasped how the show would transform his reputation.
The assassination — a harsh betrayal of King’s belief in nonviolence — devastated the hopes of a generation. Black neighborhoods in Washington, Baltimore and Chicago and Kansas City were erupting in riots, with looting and arson. Now, Boston seemed poised to explode.
In 1967, the state of Massachusetts had ordered the city to desegregate its public schools through forced school busing. That year’s mayoral race pitted liberal reformer Kevin White, against Louise Day Hicks, a former school board head and consistent busing opponent. White won by less than 12,000 votes — not a squeaker but still far from a landslide.
The concert, initially another James Brown Orchestra and Revue tour stop, was now being announced on the radio as a tribute to Dr. King and would be broadcast on television throughout the city.
Brown opened the show seated in a chair, performing pop ballads, and then brought up the Councilman Atkins and Mayor White. However, before Atkins could introduce the Mayor, Brown grabbed the microphone to bestow some additional gravitas on the gravely concerned politician.
“Just let me say, I had the pleasure of meeting him, and I said ‘Honorable Mayor,’ and he said, ‘Look, man, just call me Kevin.’ And look, this is a swinging cat. Okay, yeah, give him a big round of applause, ladies and gentlemen. He’s a swinging cat.”
Before this day, White had never heard of James Brown. Now, the Mayor was sharing the stage with him and making an impassioned plea to his city:
“All I ask you tonight is this — let us look at each other here in the Gardens and back at home and pledge that no matter what any other community might do, we in Boston will honor Dr. King in peace.”
And then, Brown kicked into a gritty shuffle rendition of “That’s Life.”
The concert almost didn’t happen.
In the tense hours after the King assassination, the Boston Garden Arena wanted to cancel the show. Flabbergasted, Tom Atkins, the city’s only black councilman, called the Mayor to tell him emphatically that this was the wrong thing to do. If 15,000 black youth arrived downtown for the concert and found the arena closed, he argued, they would not only riot, they would destroy the venue — and possibly city hall.
Atkins and White, hoping to keep people off the streets and in their homes, decided not only to hold the concert but to televise it citywide. However, this created another problem.
When Brown arrived at the arena, his fans were lining up outside not to buy tickets but to return them. Furthermore, he had just taped another concert in New York to air in the same market and could possibly be sued for breach of contract after they televised the Boston concert. Brown demanded $60,000 for his performance — a fee that some later compared to extortion.
Documentary filmmaker David Leaf, whose 2008 film, “The Night James Brown Saved Boston,” chronicled events that led to the concert, had a different take on Brown’s thinking.
“The city arranged to televise his concert without his consent and he was losing tens of thousands of dollars through people returning tickets so they could watch at home free,” Leaf told the website, Wax Poetics.
He added, “In those days it wasn’t easy for African American headliners to find a place in Boston, and now the mayor of Boston was practically begging a black man for help!”
Brown’s band director, saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis, 76, was driving toward his home in the Bronx when he first heard on the radio that King had been killed. He started crying and pulled his car over to the side of the road. His feelings soon turned to anger. The next day a tour bus would pick the band up In New York for the show in Boston and the star would arrive in his Lear jet.
When the band and entourage arrived at Boston Garden, they did their normal rehearsal and sound check, while the mayor came backstage to talk to Brown — and then waited. The band, all salaried employees, were not privy to the drama.
“It was confusion, delay after delay,” he said. “We were just on standby waiting for the curtain to open, not knowing what was going on.
The band took the stage an hour late but then it was one groove after another with no let up — and barely a hitch.
Then as Brown went into his last song, “I Can’t Stand Myself (When You Touch Me),” a man tried to jump onstage — and a cop very violently pushed him off.
Suddenly a group of teenagers jumped up on stage, one by one.
Sensing the worst, Brown stopped the band. The lights came up. “I’m all right, I’m all right” he said to the police. “I want to shake their hands.”
Then he implored the youth with some choice words:
“We are black! Don’t make us all look bad! Let me finish the show … You’re not being fair to yourself or me or your race. Now I asked the police to step back because I thought I could get some respect from my own people. It don’t make sense. Are we together or are we ain’t?”
The concert aired on WGBH, the local PBS station and preempted Lawrence Olivier in Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya.” A broadcaster, clearly unfamiliar with rhythm-and-blues, introduced it as a performance by “Negro singer Jimmy Brown and his group.”
After the concert ended, the station rebroadcast it again until 2 a.m. And the streets stayed quiet.
Brown received a cash payment of $10,000 — much less than his anticipated fee. However, politicians now sought him out. Mayor Walter Washington, facing a three-day outbreak of violence in the District, flew him in to speak at the D.C. Municipal Center. A month later, he attended a White House dinner for the prime minister of Thailand. He finally made good on a long-standing request that previously been rebuffed — a USO tour of Vietnam.
And in August he cut a record that seemed to echo the words he spoke to those kids who rushed the stage — “Say It Loud! I’m Black and I’m Proud!”
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