Music: James Brown and the Concerts of '68

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, and on the weekend that followed riots and civil unrest ripped through more than 100 American cities and towns. Washington, D.C., Chicago, Louisville, Baltimore and Detroit all burned. But Boston, itself a racial powder keg waiting for the right match, remained comparatively quiet. For that the city can thank Mr. Dynamite himself, the Godfather of Soul. James Brown's Boston Garden concert, which he reluctantly agreed to have broadcast live—worried he'd take a financial bath—channeled people's rage and sadness into a transcendent celebration of black pride, resilience and the power of soul. As other cities descended into bedlam, Boston walked up to the edge of the abyss, jumped back and kissed itself. During the concert's feverish climax, young fans began leaping onto the stage. A white cop pushed a young black man back into the audience. More kids rushed up and engulfed Brown; more cops edged onto the stage. Brown stopped the music, ordered the police to back off and pleaded with the crowd: "We are black! Don't make us all look bad! Let me finish the show … Come off the stage … You're not being fair to yourself, me neither, or your race."

The concert was the musical embodiment of the first two laws of thermodynamics—that energy can neither be created nor destroyed and that all things tend toward chaos. Now, 40 years later, you can see the concert in its blistering entirety. "I Got the Feelin': James Brown in the '60s," a three-DVD set being released this week by Shout Factory, includes the April 5 Boston show, a VH1 documentary about that night and a March 1968 concert at Harlem's Apollo Theater. The documentary is padded with banal interviews with talking heads—Cornel West, the Rev. Al Sharpton—who provide little insight into the inscrutable Brown. (The Apollo DVD feels like an afterthought—footage of a solid performance, annoyingly edited.) But the Boston concert, despite its abysmal audio mix, is an astonishing document. Unlike Martin Scorsese's Rolling Stones tribute film "Shine a Light," this footage captures an artist at his most brilliant. The Stones, of course, are also the subject of an earlier documentary, "Gimme Shelter," about their disastrous 1969 concert at Altamont Speedway, which ended in the murder of a black concertgoer. Brown's Boston concert is the anti-Altamont.

By almost any measure 1968 was America's annus horribilis, beginning with the Viet Cong's Tet Offensive and dragging on through the assassinations of both King and Robert F. Kennedy. But at 34, James Brown was at his creative peak. Brown, who had been raised by two aunts in an Augusta, Ga., brothel, purchased his first radio station, in Knoxville, Tenn., and in early '68 changed the call letters from WGYW to WJBE. Between his Apollo and Boston dates, the Funky President made his first trip to the Ivory Coast and dined with its head of state, Félix Houphouët-Boigny. In May, President Lyndon B. Johnson invited him to the White House; in August he recorded the anthemic "Say It Loud—I'm Black and I'm Proud." Look magazine put him on the cover under the nervous headline IS THIS THE MOST IMPORTANT BLACK MAN IN AMERICA?

A silly question, perhaps. But there was nothing silly about that night in Boston. Brown is introduced by Mayor Kevin White, who implores, "All I ask you tonight is this: let us look at each other here in the Gardens and back at home and pledge that no matter what any other community might do, we in Boston will honor Dr. King in peace." What he doesn't say is that he had wanted to cancel the concert, which had been scheduled far in advance. White was afraid that Boston's black population, centered about five miles southwest of the city hall in Roxbury, would riot in the North End. In "The Night James Brown Saved Boston," the documentary that accompanies the concert DVD, we learn that it was Thomas Atkins, the first black man elected to Boston's city council, who insisted the show go on—and that it even be broadcast on live television. Ever the businessman, Brown became furious at Atkins for, as he saw it, giving the concert away free of charge on TV. So he demanded $60,000 from the city, nearly holding it hostage in the tense hours before the show. Accounts from both camps differ on whether Brown's demands were met. Nonetheless, Brahmins tuning in to WGBH expecting to see Laurence Olivier's production of "Uncle Vanya" were probably disappointed to learn it had been bumped for, as the station announcer called it, "Negro singer Jimmy Brown and his group." But they'd be the only ones.

The Godfather begins his set with, of all things, Frank Sinatra's "That's Life" (he works in the lyrics "Martin Luther King was a friend of mine"). If he's concerned for his safety, he doesn't show it—before long he is dazzling you with physics-defying dance moves, flinging sweat from his pompadour. His band—the best and tightest in the business, probably because he'd fine them for missing notes—churns through all the hits: "Cold Sweat," "There Was a Time," "Try Me." Then, of course, there is the cape routine: overcome by the funk, Brown is draped and ushered offstage by concerned bandmates, only to break loose from their arms to rush the mike again—rinse, lather, repeat. When the concert ended, WGBH immediately played the whole thing over again to encourage people to stay indoors. You'll probably do the same.

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