April 5th, 1968, was the day after the murder of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. Most major cities in the U.S. were whirling with chaos. Looting, rioting, assault… A surprising reaction to the death of a man whose life was dedicated to non-violence.
In Boston, a James Brown concert was scheduled for that night. And the city was going to cancel it, but one councilman suggested to the mayor that shutting down James Brown would cause even more trouble. He convinced the mayor to go the opposite direction and televise the James Brown show. That way people in Boston would stay home. The city fathers ruled to give this a try, and a local TV station was asked to film and record it. But no one told James Brown the concert would be televised.
So a very angry James Brown showed up on his Learjet with his entourage and demanded a large sum of money to do the performance. His band needed to be paid and now that the concert was to be broadcast, no one was buying tickets to the show. The mayor asked the city council and they tapped the emergency fund to pay the band.
James Brown performed what was arguably one of the greatest shows of all time that night. He dedicated the show to Martin Luther King, Jr. And although the microphones and camera angles were far from professional, the high quality of his band, songwriting and dancing is unparalleled. That night he screamed, shook, danced (doing moves like a forward moonwalk, and a “Frankenstein” that later would be credited to Michael Jackson) and pleaded for understanding.
Boston was the only major city that did not have major riots that weekend. And you can check out the whole incredible story on the DVD The Night James Brown Saved Boston. (Seriously, don’t miss this documentary.)
This show spiked Brown’s popularity and he began to be known as the most powerful African-American man in the country. And it was just after this that James wrote an anthem for his people “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud”. He wanted children to grow up with a sense of pride in themselves as strong Black people.
KEXP Documentaries are produced and written by Michele Myers. Research by John Felthous and Jentery Sayers. Interview with civil rights expert Luther Adams from UW Tacoma. Starting on February 25, we have a new series starting called Alt-Rock Heroes. You can find all our KEXP Documentary series, including Portraits of Post-Punk, The New World, American Sabor and Death Drugs and Rock n Roll in the On Demand section of KEXP.ORG.