The night James Brown saved Boston

Soul Brother #1 fostered peace in Beantown's time of need

by Charles Thomson


James Brown


On April 5, 1968, James Brown walked onstage at the Boston Garden Arena, shielded his eyes from the glaring lights, and peered out over a sea of empty seats. Around 1,500 people stood, gathered at the front of the 15,000-capacity arena. With tension in the air and such a poor turnout, this looked like a disastrous night for Brown—a write off—and several of his entourage feared for his safety. Little did anybody know that the night of April 5, 1968, would become the defining night of James Brown’s career.

The Night James Brown Saved Boston is the latest offering from David Leaf, the acclaimed filmmaker behind The U.S. vs. John Lennon. The Emmy-nominated director leapt at the chance to direct the film when it was suggested in 2006 by long-time friend and collaborator, Shout! Factory founder Richard Foos.

“Richard told me he was in the early stages of putting together a DVD of the Boston Garden concert and asked me if I wanted to make a documentary to go alongside it. I was so excited I almost jumped through the telephone!”

However, production was blighted by a series of potentially disastrous setbacks, which began on Christmas Day 2006 when James Brown died of congestive heart failure.

“Under ideal circumstances, James Brown would have been the focal point of the storytelling—we would have seen it all through his eyes. I wanted him to tell the story like I had John and Yoko tell the story in The U.S. vs. John Lennon, through contemporary and archive interview footage.”

After Brown passed away, Leaf had to wait a long time before the James Brown estate granted him permission to make the documentary. Without their permission, the film couldn’t move forward.

“When you approach a star’s family or estate, you are essentially saying to them, ‘I am going to document one of the most significant periods of your loved one’s life, and I want you to trust me to make a good job of it.’ That’s a huge thing to ask, so it is understandable that they would take some time to think it over.”

Once he had been given the go ahead, Leaf faced yet another long wait as he tried to gain the rights to the footage of the Boston Gardens concert. It was frustrating, he says, because he felt the story was so important.

“There were times when I thought it would never get made,” he sighs. “But in life, I have found that it is the things you are most passionate about that end up coming together.” While he struggled for the rights to the footage, Leaf began structuring the story. His task, he says, was to make a complicated story accessible to all audiences.

“We had to construct the film in such a way that if you didn’t already know the story then you could understand it, but also so that if you did know the story, you still learned something new. The most complicated part was trying to bring together lots of disparate contextual elements.”

For the audience to truly appreciate the significance of the concert, says Leaf, they had to first understand the context in which the concert took place. This meant defining, first of all, what kind of place America was in the 1960s.

“There is this feeling that the ’60s was all about hippies and peace and love. Really, it was perhaps the most contentious period in American history. There was a lot of turmoil, Vietnam was going on, and we were in the middle of the civil rights movement.” The concert took place just over twenty-four hours after Dr. Martin Luther King was pronounced dead at St. Joseph’s Hospital after being gunned down on his hotel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee. As news of King’s assassination swept across the country, riots engulfed over 150 cities. One of those cities was Boston, where the Roxbury area was ablaze.

The staff at Boston Garden Arena feared a riot inside their venue and cancelled James Brown’s concert. When news reached Tom Atkins, Boston’s only Black councilman, he predicted that the cancellation would result in an even more chaos. If 15,000 Black kids showed up at the Boston Garden and found the gates locked, he told the mayor, not only would there be a riot, but this time it would affect the city center and not just the inner city.

“The next strands to weave into the film were James Brown and Martin Luther King,” says Leaf. “It was important for the audience to understand who they were in the eyes of the American public. It was vital for the audience to understand not only how King’s murder affected people, but also where James Brown was at that stage in his career and why he was important to the Black community.

“Finally,” adds Leaf, “we had to understand that Boston was not historically a city that was welcoming to minorities.

“In the film, all of these seemingly disparate strands collide into one another without any planning. It’s just one of those accidents of history. April 5, 1968, is a big dot on a map and all of these lines are hurtling towards it. Then in the middle of it all we look at James Brown, faced with this crucible moment, trying to figure out what to do.”

In Brown’s absence, it was decided that not only would the concert go ahead, it would be televised citywide in an attempt to keep rioters off of the street. When Brown touched down in Boston, he was shocked and angered to discover a long line of fans queuing outside the Boston Garden, not to buy tickets, but to return them. One controversial portion of the film details Brown’s demand that the city pay him $60,000 dollars for his performance, prompting some viewers to accuse him of holding the city to ransom. Leaf disagrees.

“I can understand why people might see it like that, but at that stage, Brown was promoting his own concerts—he had a band, entourage, and crew, all flying around the world at his personal expense. The city arranged to televise his concert without his consent and he was losing tens of thousands of dollars through people returning tickets so they could watch at home for free.

“If anything, it was the other way around—the mayor’s office had taken James Brown’s concert hostage. Why should James Brown lose money to help the mayor of Boston? What has Boston ever done to deserve James Brown’s help? The answer is not a lot. In those days it wasn’t easy for African American headliners to find a place in Boston, and now the mayor of Boston was practically begging a Black man for help!”

According to manager Charles Bobbit, Brown received only $10,000. What exactly happened to the rest, nobody knows, but Leaf says it seemed to go missing sometime between the mayor releasing it and Brown receiving it.

When the MC announced Brown’s entrance at the Boston Garden Arena that night, Mayor White walked on in his place. The audience, already disgruntled that Brown’s appearance had been delayed by over an hour, was unimpressed by the mayor’s appearance. Sensing hostility from the crowd, Brown swiped the microphone, briefly introduced the mayor as a “swinging cat” and took control of the stage. His back arched, his eyes closed, he began to sing a cappella. “Baby, baby, baby!” he yelped and the audience shrieked with delight as the band hit the opening refrains of “I Got the Feelin’.”

The beleaguered mayor was overheard before the concert to comment that for $60,000, he expected more than a mere pop concert; he expected a performance for the ages and he expected results. That night, he got both. As Brown crooned and glided across the stage, the streets of Boston remained empty whilst other cities all over the United States continued to burn.

“At that time, TV cameras at a concert were unheard of,” says Leaf. “Aside from a couple of rock documentaries that had been made, if you wanted to see your favourite act on TV, then you had to wait until they appeared maybe once a year on the Ed Sullivan show. There was probably more James Brown on TV that night than there had been in the rest of his career so far combined.

“When the concert finished, they repeated it immediately and then they repeated it again straight after that—and people just kept watching. He didn’t just reduce the rioting; they had less reports of criminal behaviour than on a regular night! That night, James Brown became an American hero.”

The concert itself was mesmerising, and the original footage—seen in the documentary in pristine condition for the first time since it aired in ’68—is one of the film’s greatest attractions. Leaf says that the story focuses on his career between ’64 and ’69 and that night in Boston is when everything falls into place for him.

“You see him as he is harnessing this extraordinary energy and excitement. You see the music evolving into this extremely original form of expression and then you see him figuring out how to take what he’s got and give it a broad appeal.”

In the wake of the Boston Garden concert, Brown found himself a man in demand. The mayor of Washington DC, having heard of Brown’s success, sent the order—“Get me James Brown!”

Brown flew directly from Boston to Washington, where several people had been killed in the riots. Appearing on television, the singer empathized with the Black community’s hurt and anger, but implored them to consider their actions. He told them, “Don’t terrorize, organize. Don’t burn; give the kids a chance to learn. Go home. Be ready. Be qualified. Be somebody—that is Black power.”

Fast becoming a key political figure and trusted spokesman for the African American community, Brown would make several more impassioned television and radio appearances around the country, urging his brothers and sisters to honor and to emulate King’s non-violent beliefs.

A month after the Boston Garden concert, Brown found himself invited for dinner at the White House where he was thanked for his help in the wake of King’s assassination. It was here that, according to Reverend Al Sharpton, Brown had a revelatory exchange with Vice President Hubert Humphrey.

“You know, you have to be careful now,” Humphrey told him.

“Why?” asked Brown. “I did the right thing, didn’t I?”

“Oh yes,” came Humphrey’s reply, “But now that the government knows that you have the power to stop a riot, they know that you also have the power to start a riot.”

“It gave us all great pause to hear that,” says Leaf, “It was a fantastic insight into the way power works. Of course, it’s very poignant because the audience knows that after the film ends, Brown’s problems with the government begin.”

In August of 1968, Brown caused the establishment further concern when he recorded the legendary “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.” Although it cost him a lot of White support, the single shot to the top of the Black music chart. In 1969, Look Magazine featured James Brown on its front cover and asked, “Is James Brown the most important Black man in America?”

It is on this image that the film ends, where Brown is seen as arguably the country’s leading exponent of Black power and the message is a positive and inspiring one. “When you take up a project like this, it becomes a year of your life. So it’s important to me that the result of that commitment is worthwhile—that it can speak to generations. We want to go beyond just nostalgia. We wanted to make the film as though it was 1969 so everything was as urgent as possible.”

The film was released in August as part of an exciting three-disc DVD boxset, I Got The Feelin’—James Brown in the ’60s. The collection features the documentary, the full Boston Garden concert, and a Live at the Apollo concert, filmed in early 1968. The set also contains a host of special features including over an hour of additional interview material and selected performances, including excerpts of Brown’s legendary performance on the TAMI show.

“All of the performances we reference in the film are included in the set in full,” says Leaf. “We wanted to make the DVD as definitive a package as possible—a definitive portrait of James Brown’s music and his heroics in that period.” Leaf says that his aim now is that the film be used to educate and to inspire young people and to keep Brown’s memory alive.

“I hope that the film can be used as a teaching tool and to bring history alive for younger people. I think that it’s poignant that Reverend Sharpton says in the film that James Brown was more than a singer to Black people; he represented hope. I think that resonates today with Obama. The past has so much to teach us if we pay attention. There’s the old saying, ‘Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it’. I started out as a journalist who wanted to make a difference with my work, and I think that my films go some way to helping me achieve that.”

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