How James Brown Saved a City

It's been almost 40 years since James Brown gave the most overwhelming concert I've ever attended, or ever will. On April 5, 1968, he played the Boston Garden—less than 24 hours after the assassination of Martin Luther King. Other cities were already aflame, and only 2,000 of us showed up in an arena that held 14,000. The mayor came out and urged us to "honor Dr. King in peace," but it was Brown who prevented a riot: when fans rushed the stage, he called off the uniformed police and talked everybody back to their seats. What was truly scary, though, was how he made a crucial moment in American history vanish for two hours by pulling us into private worlds of passion, pleasure, pain and joy. Brown was 34 then: his voice at its richest and most agile, his dance moves at their most dazzling and electric, his screams at their most piercing. He could have torn the city apart. All he did was tear me apart, along with everybody else.

Perhaps sheer megalomania led Brown to style himself the Godfather of Soul, but he had a case. His first hit, the 1956 "Please, Please, Please," fused gospel with R&B as Ray Charles and Sam Cooke had done. By 1967, the one-hit wonder Arthur Conley's tribute to singers of "Sweet Soul Music" was calling Brown "the king of them all, y'all"—and surprising no one. But that was the year the Godfather tossed soul into the oldies bin. Brown's lean, slinky, trance-y "Cold Sweat" turned soul's backbeat rhythm around (stressing the first and third beats rather than the second and fourth), superimposed Bernard Odum's loud, hyperkinetic bass over Clyde Stubblefield's rolling, hypnotic drum figure, and used horns and guitar as punctuation. The new groove was the template for what came to be called funk—and it went on to godfather both disco and hip-hop. Without James Brown, there would be no Michael Jackson, no late Miles Davis, no Prince, no Public Enemy.

Many white listeners lost track of Brown after such '60s crossover hits as "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" and "I Got You (I Feel Good)"—maybe they were put off by the 1968 "I'm Black and I'm Proud"—and missed his boldest, most creative period. His voice coarsened, his moves began to slow, but as a bandleader and conceptualist, he was Duke Ellington in polyester. Songs became ingenious one-chord riffs, varied with an equally ingenious "bridge" section. Brown's voice became one more instrument in his ever-innovative textures—like the free-jazz saxophone in "Super Bad" (1970) or the scratchy guitar that functions as a snare drum in "Hot Pants" (1971)—supplying interjections, exhortations and running commentary. It was body music executed with obsessive precision: every track could have been called "Sex Machine." And hip-hop producers appropriated it for the next two decades. One Web site lists nearly 200 songs that sample just the 1970 "Funky Drummer": by NWA and Queen, Dr. Dre and the Beastie Boys, Tupac Shakur and Vanilla Ice, Nine Inch Nails and Sinead O'Connor. But no rapper's boast about AK-47s topped the old-school menace of Brown's line in "The Payback" (1974): "I don't know karate, but I know ka-razor." (Many fans hear this as "I know k-razy." Tell us what you hear in the comments section below.)

Forget James Brown's prison terms (armed robbery, PCP), his busts for domestic violence (one wife had him arrested four times) and his Kim Jong Il leadership style (once his whole band quit). The only drama that matters now took place in the studio and on the stage. At the end of that shamanistic performance in Boston, the Hardest-Working Man in Show Business, drenched in sweat, writhing and screaming as he sang "Please, Please, Please," had to be wrapped in a satin cape and hustled offstage by worried-looking attendants—only to break away as they got him to the wings and dash back to the microphone to scream some more. Repeat with another cape. Repeat again. I knew this was the famous "cape act"—but maybe this time he was possessed and did need keepers to protect him from himself. Who doesn't, at some point? They got the last cape around him, the lights went up, and still I couldn't believe he wasn't coming back.