DVD Review: James Brown in the ’60s

To a casual fan, “I Got The Feelin’ – James Brown in The ‘60s” might appear to be just another DVD box set of greatest hits and rarities.  But the innocuous cover art (the “Godfather of Soul” singing in a three piece checked suit) masks a stunning historical document contained inside.

The centerpiece of the 3-disc set is “The Night James Brown Saved Boston,” a documentary that premiered last spring at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.  The film chronicles the city’s response to the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King on April 4, 1968.

Music fans have long heard of how, on a terrible night, during one of the worst years of the 20th century, a televised James Brown concert kept the flames raging across the country from reaching Boston.

Over 100 American cities burned.  40 people died, and scores more were injured. Yet Boston emerged for the most part unscathed.  While James Brown may not have accomplished that feat alone, it would not have happened without him.

The box set gives context to those events, with David Leaf’s excellent documentary, extended interviews of key figures, and most importantly, the elusive black and white tape of the concert, as raw as the night itself must have been.  The set inexplicably includes a third disc containing a 1968 television special filmed at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre a few weeks before King’s murder.

Leaf tells two stories in his documentary – one of how the concert happened, and another of the role the event played in Brown’s emergence as an important leader in the black community.

The concert, says Leaf, was “a crucible moment in James Brown’s life.”

Brown, a close friend of Dr. King, was scheduled to perform at Boston Garden on April 5, one day after King was shot by a sniper in Memphis.  When the mostly-black enclave of Roxbury erupted in rioting on the night of the civil rights leader’s death, city officials at first considered canceling the event.  City councilor Thomas Adkins, Boston’s first elected black official, persuaded new mayor Kevin White to use the concert as a way to calm the city.

White then convinced WGBH, the local PBS station, to televise the show as a memorial to Dr. King.  Adkins tackled the task of calming Brown, who stood to lose a lot of money from refunded tickets. Eventually, the city agreed to pay him $60,000, though Brown’s long time manager says in the film that the singer never saw the cash.

“We got ten thousand dollars,” says Charles Bobbitt, ”but Mr. Brown shrugged it off, and said ‘we’re doing a good thing.’”

The live broadcast was a formidable challenge.  “When they said ‘a James Brown concert at the ‘Gah-den’, they might well have told us to take ice samples of the moon,” says show director Russ Morash of staid WGBH. Using equipment better suited to symphony broadcasts, technical difficulties delayed the program’s start by an hour.

Tension was palpable when Brown walked onstage to greet the few thousand fans who were brave enough to attend the show. Writer David Gates observed, “this was the days before metal detectors … that was heroic for him to do that.”

“If he was afraid, you did not know it,” band member Marva Whitney says emphatically.  “He wasn’t gonna let you see that.”

Brown cooled the mood considerably when he grabbed the microphone from Adkins, who’d begun to introduce White, to greet the Mayor himself. “He told me not to call him your honor, he said ‘I’m all together’ – he’s a swingin’ cat,” says Brown.

White later said, “I never met anything like James Brown; I never saw anything like James Brown. Man, he was a piece of work.”

Brown gave a masterful performance, something the full-length DVD of the concert bears out.  Though the sound is a bit dodgy, recorded long before high fidelity television was commonplace, it’s clear that James Brown was at the peak of his talent that night.

As the show neared the end, excited fans began to climb on stage, and it looked like a riot might begin.  “We were afraid for him,” says Marva Whitney, “because he wasn’t afraid of anything.”

Brown waved away the cops on the stage, and calmed the crowd himself. “We’re black,” he told them.  “You’re not being fair to yourself or your race.  I asked the police to step back because I think I can get some respect from my own people.”

David Gates calls it “the crucial moment,” which could have erupted into something much worse. “It would have gone up like a torch,” he said.

“Here you get James Brown in Boston, who is not a pacifist, calling for peace,” says Dr. Cornel West.  “Among a people whose hearts have been shattered.”

The day after the show, Brown was in Washington, D.C. urging black citizens of the riot-torn city to “please go off the streets.”  He repeated the effort in a series of “Learn, Don’t Burn” appearances across the country during the ensuing days and weeks.  Later that summer, he flew to Vietnam, literally dodging bullets to perform for the troops – the first black headliner to do so.

In August, he wrote a song, “(Say It Loud) I’m Black and I’m Proud,” that was a statement against black-on-black violence.  It was also a response to militant groups like the Black Panthers, who’d taken to calling Brown  “Sold (not Soul) Brother Number One.”

On April 5, 1968 at the Boston Garden, says Rev. Al Sharpton, James Brown admittedly channeled black America’s rage “into a show business performance.  But he also made the choice that it was the only thing he could do to show respect to Dr. King and to save people’s lives that night” – even as some critics accused him of trivializing King’s murder by playing a concert.

“However he did it, he did it,” says the erudite Sharpton.  “You can argue the means and the technique, but you can’t argue the results.”