James Brown in Boston

James Brown played the Boston Garden on April 5th, 1968, and you can hear the whole show right here…

In our past, a lot of racists ran around with boogie-men in their shadows, imagined fifth-columns of communist-controlled African-American revolutionaries that would slowly infiltrate the cities and then the suburbs, that would kindly rise-up, riot and slaughter white society in its sleep. These level-headed racists, decent Americans that they were, even got to romp about in our highest playgrounds of power: places like the FBI. Any skeptic will tell you that a true-believer scorns any contradiction and builds his ramshackle arguments out of the scraps of a thousand worthless petty truths and trashed lies. Can you really expect that these racists, who made the rules of the world, wouldn’t use the full force of their power to try and bring their paranoid delusions into existence by pure force of will? After the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr, on April 4th, cities across the United States got their riots. The assassination, a violent retaliation against a just movement and its messenger who spoke for fairness, liberty and peace, caused an upheaval of the spirit.

Because of a little open-mindedness and creativity, Boston wasn’t one of those cities. On April 5th, 24 hours after King’s death, James Brown took the stage at the Boston Garden and sang “If I Ruled the World” to an audience of less than 3,000 people, one-fifth the Garden’s capacity. Brown could’ve sold the show out, but in a compromise between that and canceling it completely, mayor Kevin White, at the urging of city councilor Tom Atkins, had the show broadcast live to tvs across the city. People were encouraged to stay and watch at home. They largely complied and the city saw very little violence. (EDIT—I’d be remiss to neglect mentioning the influence of black community organizers who worked diligently to maintain peace during these tense days)

The performance, featuring one of Brown’s best bands, probably had something to do with that. When some kids started climbing on stage during “I can’t stand it,” Brown called off the cops and talked to them directly. When the kids won’t clear the stage, he kind of lectures them. It could be a lecture for the nation. “We gotta show them that we’re young men and young ladies… This is no way. We are black, we’re black… don’t make us all look bad… Let’s represent our ownselves.” Maybe patronizing, and the frustration is palpable, but who can fault him that. More important, he’s telling his black audience that it’s time for them to take control of their own self-definition. Instead of forfeiting that power to the white hegemony—letting J Edgar Hoover and George Wallace define the African-American community with hate and paranoia—Brown tells those kids that it’s time for blacks to “represent our ownselves,” to take control of that power.

By the end of the summer, Brown would put his own guidance into action. On August 7th, he recorded “Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud.” The phrase “black” signifies a lot. Bootsy Collins: “[before ‘Say It Loud’] being called black was just like the ‘N’ word, and people don’t know that now. ‘Say It Loud’ empowered you.” Or take what Chuck D, who was seven in ’68, said: “James Brown singlehandedly took a lost and confused nation of people and bonded them with a fix of words, music and attitude. After a hot summer of baseball camp, summer lunches and barbecues, ‘Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud’ was the phrase that prepared me for the third grade, 1969, and the rest of my life. Black now signified where we was at, a new discovery of our bad self.”

A lot of people argue about Bob Dylan and the ’60s and the power of the music of a bunch of Greenwich Village folkies and Haight-Ashbury acid-heads. Well, while an oddly-married crowd of entitled college kids, coddled drop-outs, self-interested hedonists and generally disaffected adolescents were pretending that they were helping the world by listening to music, doing drugs and fucking, James Brown was actually writing the most powerful song of the decade. Think about it! The man had the power to change the linguistics of identity for an entire group of oppressed people in a few minutes on wax. Out here all alone on the long tail, we can’t see that sort of influence with a telescope.

WGBH, the TV station that broadcast that April concert, two-score years ago, has a streaming audio file of the entire show (including the Bobby Bird and Marva Whitney side-acts, and some pretty warmed-over jokes from a comedian I haven’t identified), plus a documentary film about that night called “Politics of Soul.” Look for it all on this page. I’m no James Brown scholar, but based on other concerts in ’68, I think this might be his band from that night: Waymon Reed (trumpet), Raymond “Kush” Griffith (trumpet), Fred Wesley (trombone), Levi Ashbury (valve trumbone), Maceo Parker (tenor saxophone), Alfred “Pee Wee” Ellis (bandleader, alto sax, organ), St. Clair Pinckney (bari and tenor saxophone), Jimmy Nolan (guitar), Alf Kellum (guitar, bass), Charles Sherrell (bass), Clyde Stubblefield (drums), Nate Jones (drums).

2 Comments

  1. Patrick
    Posted April 9, 2008 at 6:31 am | Permalink

    I think the “comedian” is Maceo Parker. When James introduces Maceo’s solo, he refers to him as the MC, among other roles.

  2. obadiahstarbuck
    Posted April 9, 2008 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

    Yeah, I read that too, on a setlist at the WGBH website: comedian Maceo Parker. Thing is, I’ve heard Maceo MCing other stuff, other James Brown concerts and some P-Funk stuff, and it didn’t sound like the same voice. Although it probably is, but deep down I just don’t wanna believe that Maceo would tell such a shitty penis joke. I’m gonna listen again, with an open-mind…


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