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James brown cape
James brown cape

Behind The Cape: The Secret History Of James Brown's Boston Garden Concert, 1968

Behind The Cape: The Secret History Of James Brown's Boston Garden Concert, 1968

Photo by Emilio Grossi, via the HBO documentary Mr. Dynamite

James Brown is undoubtedly a Herculean figure within the mythos of both American Music and the larger struggle for self-determination in Black America. As such his legacy has often inspired narratives as heroic as the cape he famously donned on stage throughout the years. Brown's legendary performance at Boston Garden on April 5th, 1968 is commemorated in a documentary titled The Night James Brown Saved Boston and a book sub-titled How James Brown Saved The Soul Of America. While the drama of Brown's date with destiny are rightly painted in the bold, bright process colors of a 1960s comic, we remember it this way at the risk of obscuring the darkest parts of the story; the great personal danger and the dismissive disrespect Brown faced in taking the stage the night after America lost MLK to an assassin's bullet. Bostonian and regular Okayplayer contributor Dart Adams takes us into the city's collective memory of that mythic night, to make sure we never forget behind the cape was a real man, and the choices he wrestled with before stepping into the spotlight 48 years ago today.

Back in 1981, I traveled with my family to visit our relatives in E. Orange and Newark, NJ. I noticed the many shuttered buildings and the ruins of many an old establishment all throughout our stay in New Jersey (especially passing through Trenton) before I asked my mother, What happened there? She explained to me that there were uprisings in numerous cities all over the country following the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. I asked her if the same thing happened in Boston and she told me it was spared by a James Brown concert that happened at Boston Garden. She might as well told me Boston was saved by Batman…

In 1968, Boston was a veritable powder keg. Most of Boston’s black population was centralized in the neighborhoods of Roxbury and the South End so most of the community leaders and activists of the time were based there. In the Summer of 1967, there was rioting in Roxbury’s Grove Hall following Boston Police beating and jailing several women, members of the Mothers for Adequate Welfare (MAW) who had come to the Welfare Office repeatedly that month only to be rebuffed time and again by the management.

Following the police breaking into the office and manhandling the demonstrators, Roxbury residents lined Blue Hill Avenue and confronted police. The police responded with force and the clash led to the police being pelted with debris, bricks and other objects. Afterwards rioting broke out resulting in some storefronts being broken into, looting and the Fire Department had to put out a couple of burning buildings. The Boston Police had recently shot and killed an unarmed black teenager on Blue Hill Avenue so tensions were already high. The black community was at odds with the Boston Police from that moment on and the Boston Police Commissioner and the Mayor were on thin ice with black Boston as it was.

The indifference of the Director of the Welfare Office and failed repeated attempts to get the Mayor’s Office and the Boston Police Department to hear the concerns of the community by the leadership of the Boston NAACP throughout the Summer of 1967 was only one part of the problem. At the same time, the city was pushing initiatives to build new housing in poor income neighborhoods but this resulted in numerous clashes between Boston’s black and latino community based in the South End and Roxbury with the Boston Redevelopment Authority. Also there were clashes over the failing schools leading to the formation of Roxbury’s New School For Children and the Roxbury Community School. On all fronts the black and latino community of Boston were distrustful of the Mayor and the many programs and initiatives he pushed.

Things were so tense that Stokely Carmichael traveled to Boston on December 28th, 1967 and met with Boston’s black leadership at the Roxbury YMCA. He informed them that they needed to unite and build an infrastructure to stand against all of their adversaries because he feared that within two years the government would eliminate or neutralize the overwhelming majority of Black radicals, activists and social justice leaders. Boston’s black and latino organizers began to work more closely due to the mounting issues they were facing at the time.

Boston viewed Martin Luther King Jr. as an honorary Bostonian. Both himself and his future wife Coretta Scott lived in the South End/Lower Roxbury neighborhood when she was a student at the New England Conservatory and he was pursuing his Masters degree at nearby Boston University. They met and fell in love in jazz-era Boston. At the same time they were living in Boston, the charismatic young Bostonian Nation Of Islam ministers Malcolm X and Louis X were both active in Roxbury as well. While they all had differing philosophies and belief systems, they were all part of the fabric of the city. Even after Martin and Coretta left Boston, the city was still invested in their individual paths. Numerous Boston-era barbershops featured pictures of Malcolm X & Martin Luther King Jr. shaking hands as if to hammer home the fact that Boston embraced them both.

When the news broke on April 4 th, 1968 that Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed in Memphis, the nation was in mourning...

Behind The Cape: The Secret History Of James Brown's Boston Garden Concert, 1968

James Brown (center) backstage at Boston Garden with Tom Atkins (left) and Mayor Kevin White.

The black community as a whole was heartbroken and despondent. If a living saint like him could be struck down while pursuing change through nonviolent means, then what hope could the average Black citizen have in America? People felt a helplessness which quickly transformed into anger. Anger soon grew to rage and next people flooded the streets and took out their frustrations on their own neighborhoods. James Brown was in New York at the time the news broke that Martin Luther King Jr. died and he went to Harlem to try to quell the bubbling unrest. The NYPD was out in force early and New York Mayor John Lindsay also arrived in Harlem speaking directly to its residents pleading for peace. While there were still incidents happening throughout the five boroughs, disaster was averted for the time being. The next night, James Brown and his entire troupe were scheduled to arrive in Boston and perform at the Boston Garden. Given the atmosphere, however, nothing was certain.

The Mayor’s Office in Boston had already lost the trust of black Boston by April 1968. After years and years of trying to get black representation in any way possible they’d finally succeeded in getting Tom Atkins elected to the Boston City Council. Atkins also served as the Executive Director of the Boston NAACP whose headquarters were located in Boston’s South End/Lower Roxbury neighborhood. He often served as the community’s mouthpiece and advocate when dealing with the Mayor who often displayed that he was out of touch with the immediate or growing concerns of Boston’s Black and Latino population.

Boston’s prevailing urban radio station was WILD 1090 AM featuring renowned DJ Jimmy “Early” Byrd who served as the voice of the community. He made the call to City Hall to inform Tom Atkins that new Mayor Kevin White was panicking in the face of potential riots that could result if crowds traveled from Boston’s black neighborhoods to the North End--where Boston Garden was located--to see James Brown. Mind you, Kevin White hadn’t the foggiest idea who James Brown was and he had NO idea his fanbase extended past just the black denizens of Boston.

Fact of the matter was, James Brown had just been recorded live in concert in New York that previous month in preparation for an hour-long TV special to air early that summer (it was called Man To Man). In actuality, James Brown had fans in Boston spread throughout most of the 21 neighborhoods of various backgrounds and ethnicities. All that was on Mayor White’s mind were the findings from the recently released Kerner Report outlining what led up to the riots that broke out across the country between 1965 and 1967. He was so singleminded and determined to prevent a large-scale riot from happening in Boston he wasn’t thinking clearly.

Atkins and Byrd agreed that canceling the concert would be disastrous and only further strain Black Boston’s relationship with the Mayor’s Office so Atkins agreed to try to convince the Mayor that not allowing James Brown to perform would be a terrible idea. Kevin White and Tom Atkins went back and forth debating the pros and cons of allowing the concert to proceed as scheduled before the Mayor finally relented. Even as the concert was to continue, the Mayor panicked yet again...

In brainstorming sessions to figure out a way to keep the city from going up, the idea was posited that the concert should be broadcast live on local television to keep people off the streets in the South End and Roxbury. The task was placed squarely on the shoulders of the local PBS station WGBH. Just one problem: they had zero experience in broadcasting live a concert of that manner or magnitude--and they were asked to do something they’d never done before on short notice and under considerable pressure.

The Mayor made another error by requesting those who bought tickets not attend the show and watch from home. To further discourage people from coming to the Boston Garden, refunds were offered at the point of purchase. All of these things happened without informing James Brown’s management and against the advice of both Tom Atkins and WILD’s Byrd. Both men were left with the task of smoothing over things with James Brown to ensure he came to town to honor his commitment in the face of the Mayor’s bungling.

Jimmy “Early” Byrd had a conversation with Atkins then he called James Brown who was understandably upset. Next Tom Atkins had to field a phone call with an angry James Brown who was informed that people were actually getting refunds rather than buying tickets for his show at Boston Garden when he and his management anticipated he was going to fill it up to capacity with approximately 15,000 people. Atkins tried his hardest to assure Brown that everything would be handled once he got to Boston, knowing that the Mayor had put him in quite a terrible position where he’d essentially have to lie to James Brown.

James Brown had recently acquired the nickname “Soul Brother #1”. His popularity grew exponentially with each passing year as he racked up more and more hits. Brown recently acquired a couple of radio stations and had proved to be a shrewd businessman himself so there was no way they’d be able to pull one over on him. Tom Atkins went to pick up James Brown from Logan Airport expecting the worst. Once he met a livid James Brown, he got exactly what he had anticipated. Tickets from the concert that night ranged from $3.50 to $4.50 (that’s $24 to $30 in 2016 money) so Brown had expected his takeaway from that night to be at least $60,000 (equivalent to over $400,000 today). As it stood, he was only going to receive a tiny fraction of that sum. Tom Atkins tried his best to smooth things over with Brown knowing in the back of his mind there was no way the Mayor would compensate him.

Once Tom Atkins met with the Mayor his suspicions were clinched, Kevin White had no intentions of shelling out that kind of money for James Brown. Keep in mind that in the aforementioned two days in rioting in Roxbury back in the Summer of 1967 resulted in $500,000 worth of property damage. Kevin White wasn’t Mayor back then but Tom Atkins had to serve as the community liaison to the Boston Police Department and Mayor’s Office as both head of the Boston NAACP and a newly elected City Council member so he knew that fee would be a drop in the bucket compared to what would happen if Boston erupted that night if the concert failed to go on as planned.

At one point in time backstage, Kevin White made the mistake of yelling at James Brown and telling him “You’ll get your damn money!” when he brought up the subject of payment, shortly after discovering the show would be televised live from a WGBH employee who had no idea James hadn’t given his blessing for them to do so beforehand. Tom Atkins once again had to step in and persuade James that he would be taken care of and the city of Boston would forever be in his debt.

Not only did James Brown and his 18-piece orchestra complete with backup dancers and the Famous Flames travel all the way to Boston into a volatile situation but they were going to do it for short money, having been lied to and manipulated at every turn. As the audience that did opt to arrive at Boston Garden for the concert entered the venue they experienced extended delays due to the fact that WGBH’s television broadcast crew were having repeated problems trying to get the audio right and figuring out the logistics of how to shoot the performance. The audience began to get testy as people dug into their bag of tricks for stall tactics. It took an extra hour for the WGBH crew to get the audio feed working and find suitable angles for coverage to record the performance.

It was finally Star Time and James Brown was about to take the stage.

Behind The Cape: The Secret History Of James Brown's Boston Garden Concert, 1968

Boston DJ Jimmy "Early" Byrd

After a brief intro from Mayor Kevin White pleading for peace and for the people of the city to honor the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. through nonviolent means he turned over the mic to Mr. Please Please Please, The Hardest Working Man In Show Business, Mr. Dynamite and Soul Brother #1 himself, James Brown. He began at about 9 PM and performed for close to two hours, running through his hits “It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World”; “Get It Together”; “There Was A Time”; “I Got The Feelin’”; “Cold Sweat”; “I Got You (I Feel Good)”; “Please Please Please” and “I Can't Stand Myself (When You Touch Me)” in addition to some covers they typically incorporated into their energetic live shows.

Halfway through the show, Tom Atkins announced that the streets of Boston were silent and people were at home watching the show. It was working. James Brown had the entire city under his spell. He further proved it by diffusing a potentially volatile situation near the end of the show when excited fans began to rush the stage and the Boston Police, who’d been on high alert since yesterday, began shoving them off using their batons. Martha High, on of Brown's back-up singers was present that night and shared with OKP her firsthand recollection of the very real anger which was being directed him:

“I was with Mr. Brown then, but I was doing a lot of singing offstage or behind the curtain. I remember looking from the side of the stage, being scared it was going to be a riot if the people didn't stop jumping on the stage. I'd seen crowds of people around Mr.Brown and he normally would let them be wild for a while...but this time, we knew the situation and he really was concerned how unruly they were. When he calmed the crowd it was amazing...he spoke to the crowd in a way as if he was like a big brother. No fancy words, no demands. Just like he knew the right words to say at the moment. My feelings were mixed because after all that had happened, there was no compromising. People were angry for the loss of our great leader MLK. When Mr. Brown spoke, the people actually sat down. They listened ,young and old. I knew Mr. Brown, knew the struggle but he let them know it was a better way to handle this, instead of tearing down everything. He told them, This is senseless, be proud and stand tall. I knew right then, he was a strong-minded person, that's gonna look out for me. Just like he stepped up and quieted the storm. I was amazed."

Once James calmed the crowd down, he continued with the performance--which went off without a hitch. When the show was finished, WGBH immediately rebroadcast the entire concert on their regular channel 2 and the affiliate station channel 44 in addition to playing the audio on their FM radio station. This second airing took Boston over the threshold and well into April 6th. The crowd dispersed and went home without incident. The city had indeed been saved.

Whereas James Brown prevented Boston from burning, very few cities with sizable black populations avoided incident. In total over 110 American cities experienced riots and uprisings of various sizes. The largest riots raged for days in Trenton, NJ, Baltimore, MD, Washington, DC, Pittsburgh, PA, Chicago, IL, Detroit, MI, Cincinnati, OH, Kansas City, MO and Louisville, KY--resulting in over 20 confirmed deaths and thousands of injuries. Boston was spared a similar or worse fate thanks to Soul Brother #1. The byproducts of James Brown’s performance had far reaching effects on the city beyond that one night.

WGBH realized that it would be in their best interest to keep an open dialogue with Boston’s black and latino communities. This led to a series of meetings over the following months where a show that catered specifically to Boston’s Black & Latino population was developed. On July 15th, 1968 WGBH aired the first episode of Say Brother, one of the first television shows of its kind to air in America. It featured live performances from many prominent black performers, years before Soul Train was even in existence. It still exists today as Basic Black, one of the longest continuous running black shows in television history.

Shortly after James Brown left Boston, community organizers in the South End/Lower Roxbury neighborhood called CAUSE (Community Assembly for a United South End) under the leadership of Mel King protested and took over an empty lot demanding that the city use that space to build affordable housing. These protests and that sit in which occurred in April, 1968 eventually resulted in the construction of the Tent City Apartments. The housing development was named after the makeshift “tent city” built by protesters who occupied that unused space. Following James Brown’s visit, the community snapped into action and began to push for progress to happen.

Immediately after saving Boston, James Brown was contacted by officials in Washington, DC in hopes of calming down the populace. He soon arrived there and successfully pleaded for peace. James Brown then went around the country in the role of peacemaker. He spoke to people all across the United States and saw how down the community was. James Brown took all of these experiences and the strife Black America felt following the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy during Spring and Summer of 1968, then teamed with his bandleader and musical director Pee Wee Ellis to craft his opus “Say It Loud – I’m Black And I’m Proud.” That June, the hour-long network TV special James Brown: Man To Man aired, further thrusting him into the national spotlight.

I walk around my neighborhood and wonder how different the Boston I grew up in would have been without the aid of James Brown, His Orchestra And His Famous Flames. It’s amazing to think that they only received $10,000 of their promised $60,000 from the City Of Boston for his efforts that night. What a bargain.