In February 1969, James Brown appeared on the cover of Look, then one of the country’s biggest magazines. The headline posed a question: “Is he the most important black man in America?”
A year earlier, the same question might have been accompanied by a picture of Martin Luther King, Jr., the great civil rights leader and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. But Dr. King was, of course, killed on April 4, 1968, fifty years ago this week, leaving cultural figures like James Brown and Muhammad Ali to fill the shocking sudden void in the voice of black America.
Long Island native Carlton Ridenhour was eight years old in early 1969. He remembers being enthralled by Brown’s image on the cover of the magazine on his grandparents’ coffee table. Here was the dazzling entertainer behind some of his favorite songs – “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” “Cold Sweat” and, most importantly, “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud” – being touted not just for his ability to transform a concert hall, but an entire nation.
Forty years later, Ridenhour – better known as Chuck D, the authoritative voice of the rap group Public Enemy – recalled the origins of his lifelong obsession with James Brown in the foreword he wrote for my 2008 book, The Hardest Working Man: How James Brown Saved the Soul of America.
“This was smack-dab in the middle of Vietnam, on the edges of the murders of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.,” Chuck wrote. “It was an eerie echo of just a few years back, when President John F. Kennedy and Malcolm X were murdered.”
Being a kid in New York at the time of King’s death, it wasn’t until years later that Chuck heard about the live performance James Brown carried out in Boston, on the day after the murder. The first instinct of the city’s leaders had been to cancel the show, given the unrest that was unfolding across the country, as Americans tried to process the awful news of King’s assassination. But then a local DJ caught the ear of city councilor Tom Atkins, the first African-American elected to citywide office in Boston. If the James Brown show were to be canceled, they reasoned, the city could forget about keeping its streets calm.
With little time to plan, the mayor’s administration cut a deal with WGBH, the nationally recognized local PBS affiliate, to preempt its scheduled programming and broadcast Brown’s concert live from the Boston Garden. Over the years, the legend has grown: While other cities across the country convulsed in looting and arson (a riot, King once said, is “the language of the unheard”), the city of Boston stayed at home to watch the singer known as Soul Brother Number One. Summoning the otherworldly energy that made him a mythic figure, he honored Dr. King’s legacy and showed that there was, in fact, a path forward, out of the desolation.
By the time of King’s death, Brown was already asserting his unique powers of persuasion on a national scale. He’d been meeting for several years with civil rights leaders, endorsing political candidates, and making appearances on pioneering local TV shows such as Oakland’s “Black Dignity.” The broadcast of his Boston Garden concert led directly to WGBH developing its own new show about black issues, “Say Brother,” which still runs today as “Basic Black.” Shortly after King’s death, Brown wrote and recorded his best-known “message” song, “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud.” That song, part of a set list very similar to the Boston Garden show, can be heard on Say It Live and Loud: Live in Dallas 8.26.68, one of the best live albums of Brown’s long, prolific career on the road.
“The James Brown Show was and is, to me, the incredible effect of music and willpower to freeze all else, for the joy of being entertained as one, by one, on the One,” Chuck D wrote. The footage from the Garden concert – uncovered some years ago from the WGBH archives and included in the DVD box set “I Got the Feelin’: James Brown in the ‘60s” – makes it clear the show did not go off without a hitch. In fact, at one point the on-duty police officers began to threaten fans who clambered onstage to vent their frustration by dancing. Incredibly, James Brown defused the situation, calling for cooler heads on both sides to prevail.
The footage, Chuck wrote, “carries the tension of a 1960s Hurricane Katrina. Hypnotizing. Paralyzing. Tantalizing. And yet he stopped and got everyone to ‘Think,’ as yet another of JB’s many hits preached.” Fifty years later, the Hardest Working Man in Show Business is still making us move, and think.
James Sullivan is the author of five books, including the forthcoming Which Side Are You On, and a feature writer for The Boston Globe.