How James Brown Saved Boston

James Brown Boston again

In segregated Boston in 1968, James Brown was scheduled to perform the night after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination.  City leaders were nervous about the potential for civil disturbance from the throngs of black folks swarming the Boston Garden.  After negotiating with Brown’s camp, the mayor’s office announced that the concert would go on as scheduled and that it would be broadcast live on WGBH, and then repeated throughout the evening to keep people—black people, that is—at home.[1]    It worked.  Brown’s two-hour performance proved to be just what mournful and angry fans needed to soothe their souls after the loss of King, and after the years of indignities and prejudice they had faced.  Though the police stood onstage with Brown and his band as they performed a ninety-minute concert, there seemed to be an understanding between Brown and his audience that prevented any disturbances from occurring at the Garden that April night.  When some fans began to crowd the stage and attract police attention, Brown quickly put everyone in their place.  He pushed the officers back and instructed the audience to act like ladies and gentlemen, “because we’re black.  Don’t make us all look bad,” he admonished them.[2]  Though Brown was hardly a subscriber to King’s pacifist philosophies, he respected King and understood how much pain black America was experiencing.  

Shortly after the Boston gig the mayor of Washington, D.C., desperate to end the riots, called James Brown for help.  Brown went on live local television and radio to calm the situation.  “I know how everybody feels,” he sympathized.  “I feel the same way.  But you can’t accomplish anything by blowing up, burning up, stealing and looting….The real answer to race problems in this country is education.  Be ready.  Be qualified.  Own something.  Be somebody.  That’s black power.”[3]  Lynn Tolliver believes that Brown’s actions in the days after the assassination speak to his ability to make an impact.  “Music more or less [brings a lot of] joy to you,” Tolliver explains.  “I could imagine how the impact of that concert could have calmed a lot of people down.”[4]   James Brown’s attitude, appearance, and musical style were a far cry from the black culture Motown promoted.  He did not try to fit in or please white audiences.  Brown was, according to reporter Thulani Davis, “proof that black people were different.  Rhythmically and tonally blacks had to be from somewhere else.  Proof that Africa was really over there for those of us who had never seen it—it was in that voice….”[5]  LeRoi Jones called him “our number one black poet.”  Many of his lyrics were militant and unapologetic, something many black Americans needed to hear in 1968. 

After performing in Boston James Brown wrote what was to become the anthem for the black power movement: “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud).”  Messages of pride and strength could be found in many of Brown’s songs, but “Say It Loud” said it best.  Chuck D of the influential rap group Public Enemy credits the song as having prepared him 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.”[6]  Cleveland performer John Wilson calls “Say It Loud” the “black national anthem” and notes the song’s “profound effect” on him.[7]  Jamilah Zand reports a similar experience with the song.  “Wow!  This song was the anthem of any Black person that could talk, walk or dance,” she says.  “Black folks were sick and tired of being sick and tired, and voices from everywhere were rising up in protest….Singing and dancing, still professing in song that we are who we are, and we are not ashamed.”[8] 

…Look here, some people say we got a lot of malice some say it’s a lotta nerve I say we won’t quit moving ‘til we get what we deserve…


I’ve worked on jobs with my feet and my hands but all the work I did was for the other man and now we demand a chance to do things for ourselves we tired of beating our heads against the wall and working for someone else…

…One thing more I got to say right here Now, we’re people like the birds and the bees We’d rather die on our feet than keep living on our knees

Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud

  After Brown sang “We’d rather die on our feet than keep living on our knees,” it was no longer possible to separate his music from his ideology.  Many parents, black and white, felt that Brown’s newly-politicized lyrics would create trouble, Mike Olszewski remembers.[9]  Prior to “Say It Loud” Brown faced criticism from some black activists for not using his music to “reflect the Black Revolution,” as black power activist Maulana Karenga believed all black artists should.  Some in Brown’s inner circle, and at times Brown himself, implied that Black Panthers had confronted him with machine guns over his refusal to radicalize his lyrics.  The Nation of Islam had also been critical of Brown, accusing him of catering to whites with his musical “propaganda.”  Brown later placed an ad in the Nation’s weekly publication, Muhammad Speaks, featuring the lyrics to “Say It Loud” and a photo of himself with David McCarthy, his general manager.  McCarthy, and Brown’s accountant, Greg Moses, were members of the Nation.  Brown admitted to Al Sharpton that he admired the Nation’s emphasis on self-discipline and self-help, though he was a practicing Christian.[10]            


Brown continued to speak his mind through his music.  “I Don’t Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing (Open Up the Door I’ll Get It Myself)” spoke directly to the idea of self-help.  “Soul Power” was about black pride and spirit.  “Talkin’ Loud & Sayin’ Nothing” was a call for direct action.  “Like a dull knife, just ain’t cuttin’/We’re just talkin’ a lot and sayin’ nothing” reflects criticism of those who believed in passive resistance over confrontation.  Brown’s lyrical content throughout the rest of the sixties and into the seventies shows that he knew he could have an impact with his music, and he was going to do what he could to inspire and create change.[11]

 James Brown Boston

  [1] David Leaf, The Night James Brown Saved Boston, DVD (Los Angeles: Shout! Factory LLC, 2009). [2] James Brown, Live at the Boston Garden April 5, 1968, DVD (Los Angeles: Shout! Factory LLC, 2009). [3] James Sullivan, The Hardest Working Man: How James Brown Saved the Soul of America (New York: Gotham Books, 2008), 148. [4] Lynn Tolliver, Jr., telephone interview by author, October 25, 2009. [5] Peter Guralnick, Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley (Boston: Back Bay Books, 1994), 243. [6] Chuck D, “1968, January…,” in The James Brown Reader: 50 Years of Writing About the Godfather of Soul, eds. Nelson George and Alan Leeds (New York: Plume, 2008), 44. [7] John Wilson, email to author, February 6, 2010; John Wilson, telephone interview by author, November 8, 2009. [8] Jamilah Zand, email to author, February 10, 2010. [9] Mike Olszewski, interview by author, Cleveland, Ohio, October 29, 2009. [10] Sullivan, 170-172. [11] James Brown, Star Time, 4 CD set, discs 2 and 3, associate producer Alan M. Leeds (New York: PolyGram Records Inc., 1991).

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