When Martin Luther King was assassinated 40 years ago, only one US
city was spared the riots that followed. Ed Vulliamy tells the
extraordinary story of a James Brown gig that changed history
Sunday February 17, 2008
That ugly thing of vile violence - the assassin's bullet which struck
down Martin Luther King - did more than kill a visionary man of peace
on the night of 4 April 1968, on a balcony of the Lorraine Motel in
Memphis, Tennessee. King was in town to support a strike by garbage
workers; his trip had already been haunted by death threats, and
although they were hardly the first, the 39-year-old Baptist minister
and activist eerily predicted his own end, proclaiming to his audience:
'And then I got to Memphis. And some began to ... talk about the
threats that were out ... What would happen to me from some of our
sick white brothers ... But I'm not concerned about that now. I just
want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain.
And I've looked over, and I've seen the promised land! I may not get
there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we as a people
will get to the promised land.'
His assassination the following evening changed America for ever and
defined almost everything that ensued, including music, especially
black music. For the preacher of 'The Dream' of peace and brotherhood
to be gunned down in what was already a political and cultural
cauldron meant there could now be no turning away from what was
happening in America and the world. The moment had come - as Sly
Stone sang - to 'Stand!' and be counted.
The assassin had found the right man, as would another, killing Bobby
Kennedy at the Ambassador hotel in Los Angeles two months later. It
is hard to imagine what the four decades since would have been like
had both men lived.
On every radio set, at home and in Vietnam, Marvin Gaye's honeyed
yearning for love became urgent demands: 'What's Going On' and
'What's Happening, Brother', the Temptations now spinned a 'Ball of
Confusion (That's What the World is Today)', Stevie Wonder saw
something different in the mirror of his mind from 'My Cherie Amour'
- and was now 'asking 'Heaven Help us All'. Sly and the Family Stone
insisted: 'Don't call me Nigger, Whitey, Don't Call me Whitey,
Nigger' and Aretha Franklin demanded 'Respect', casting off the
'Chain of Fools'.
And James Brown went from 'Papa's Got a Brand New Bag' to 'Say It
Loud I'm Black and I'm Proud'.
Along with Muhammad Ali, the soul singer was America's most prominent
black figure in 1968 and the song became a slogan for his generation
and those to follow, a slogan which would also set cities across
America, Britain and later France ablaze. But igniting the ghetto was
exactly what Brown didn't want, and exactly what he stopped from
happening. Because before he recorded that song, this deeply
ambivalent emblem of the period would enter the annals of the history
not only of music, but also the narrative of King's death itself - on
the night after the murder, that of 5 April 1968, James Brown made
music keep the peace with one of the most remarkable concerts ever.
As news spread that the bullet had found its quarry in Memphis and
that King was dead, a wave of rioting engulfed 150 cities and towns
across America. One of those cities, potentially, was Boston, where
Kevin White, the Irish-American mayor, elected only three months
beforehand, was in a cinema watching Gone With the Wind when an aide
passed him a note reading: 'Martin Luther King has been assassinated
in Memphis'. White went back to Scarlett, Rhett and Mammy until
another aide tapped his elbow, saying that Edmund McNamara, the
Police Commissioner, wanted a word.
In the cinema manager's office, White learned by telephone that fires
were sprinkling the night sky over Boston's Roxbury and South End
ghettoes. He headed on foot for police headquarters, and thence to
join his assistant, Barney Frank - now a senior Democrat congressman
- in the mayoral office. White was of a mind to deploy a heavy police
presence but Frank recalls cautioning him that this might only
escalate the violence, and wherever possible, prudence should allow
black community leaders themselves to try to contain it.
According to an account of events in J. Anthony Lukas's epic history
of postwar Boston, Common Ground, 'nothing in Kevin White's
experience had remotely prepared him for the racial explosion he
faced in April'. Nevertheless, White counted among his supporters
Boston's first and only black councilman, Tom Atkins, who now
disturbed the mayor's troubled sleep on the office couch with a call
at 9am to announce that 'something terrible is about to happen'.
James Brown was coming to town.
Not that Atkins wasn't a fan of the Godfather of Soul. He hailed from
Indianapolis, but had to leave his home state for Michigan to wed his
white college sweetheart because interracial marriage was illegal in
Indiana. He studied Arabic at Harvard and stayed in Boston to work
for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People,
for which he became Boston's executive secretary. The Boston Globe of
1963 recorded his 'stern young voice boom metallically' as it
exhorted a rally of 6,000 blacks to 'march to the polls and vote'.
What troubled Atkins was that he had taken a call from a DJ called
James Byrd on Boston's soul station, WILD, who doubled as the local
agent for James Brown. Byrd said that Brown had been booked to play
the Boston Garden to an audience of 14,000 that night, the vast
majority of whom would be young and black. For all its claims to
American aristocracy, the city remained highly segrated and the
violence over desegregation of schools had been worse than anywhere
else in the north.
The Garden, nervous that the concert was tantamount to hosting a
riot, had cancelled the show. Atkins needed no time to realise that,
with America in tinderbox mode, for the gig not to go ahead would
light the fuse to an even bigger powder keg. 'There'll be thousands
of black teenagers down at the Garden,' he later recalled pleading to
White, 'and when they find those gates locked, they're going to be
pretty pissed. King's death and Brown's cop-out will get all mixed up
and we'll have an even bigger riot that last night, only this time it
will be in the heart of downtown.'
Frank admits that he had thought Brown was a famous football player.
White had never heard of him, and kept referring to him as 'James
Washington'. Atkins persuaded the mayor not only that the concert
should go ahead, but that the proceedings should be televised to keep
people off the streets. The task was to convince the Garden, the TV
stations - and James Brown himself. Three commercial channels balked,
but public broadcaster WGBH agreed. Byrd was livid, explaining that
Brown had recorded a television show in New York, conditional on
exclusivity, and would 'not like' this breach of contract. With Brown
in the TV studio, Byrd called his manager, Greg Moses, who raised
another problem: Brown would 'take a bath' if no one turned up for
the show, in which case who would underwrite the gate?
The answer dawned on Atkins: the city of Boston. White was appalled,
but Atkins won him round, the mayor warning that it must never 'get
out that we underwrote a goddam rock star with city money'. Atkins
told Moses that the city would make up the difference between
whatever Brown netted and the value of a full house. So Atkins and
White boarded the mayoral limo for Logan airport to greet the
Godfather of Soul.
America had reached a point of explosive convergence between the
politics of race and racism, the Civil Rights movement led by King,
the culture of insurrection in mid-Sixties America and war in
Vietnam. President Lyndon Johnson made civil rights a pillar of his
'Great Society' agenda but approved massive increases in spending on
the war in south-east Asia. King, meanwhile, had the insight to see
how 'the bombs in Vietnam explode at home. They destroy the hopes of
a decent America. The promises of the Great Society have been shot
down on the battlefields of Vietnam.'
'Vietnam invaded every corner of American music', music historian
Craig Werner later wrote, and 'no matter how often LBJ, Nixon or for
that matter the Weathermen or the Panthers lied about how profoundly
our experiences of Vietnam were connected, the music told the truth'.
It had been in the South that King launched the movement against
American apartheid, but Chicago was the focal point of America's
insurrection in 1968: where the black movement converged with Abbie
Hoffman's 'Yippie' revolt - whereby the 'Summer of Love' had grown up
and got serious about race and Vietnam - and violence engulfed the
Democrat party convention, for which both Black Panthers and Yippies
would famously stand trial. The city's Southside ghetto had, to a
greater extent than its counterparts, brought with it in the
migration from the cottonfields the dual howl of the black odyssey,
the blues and gospel. But, as the great Chicago bluesman Willie Dixon
confessed: 'Every time you change the news, you got to change the
blues because the news ain't always the same.' While the blues had
chronicled the tribulations of black America, they did not confront
the system. To do that, a new sound emerged: soul, and soul was about
to become inescapably political.
Curtis Mayfield, born in Chicago in 1942, recorded his 'People Get
Ready' with the Impressions in 1965. 'There's a train a-coming', it
cautioned, 'you don't need no baggage, you just get on board'. The
train was 'picking up passengers from coast to coast' and although it
was a nominally a train to religious salvation, this locomotive was a
barely coded metaphor for an iron horse a-coming in this life too.
This is what, looking back, Chuck D of hip hop group Public Enemy
explains as the 'brewing period. When what is sung ain't necessarily
what is heard. When Martha Reeves sings "Dancing In the Street",
people are thinking about doing other things in the streets, so that
song becomes an anthem of the riots.'
In 1967, the Impressions released 'We're a Winner', but now the
message was loud and proud: 'No more tears do we cry/ We have finally
dried our eyes/ And we're movin' on up'
Mayfield performed it at a Panthers rally in the Oakland Auditorium
early in 1968, in the company of Bobby Seale and Stokely Carmichael.
On the other hand, he praised King - Mayfield's 'musical truth'
involved a high-wire act between 'Black Power' and a democratic world
for all people.
There were other strains, too: Nina Simone had hitched her
heart-stopping voice to the mast of the civil rights movement as
early as 1964 with 'Mississippi Goddam', in response to the murder of
Medgar Evers by the Ku Klux Klan and the bombing of a black church in
Alabama, killing four children, in 1963, and Aretha Franklin was
engaged directly with Dr King, a family friend and regular visitor to
the Franklin household.
In Detroit, Tamla Motown had burst black music's banks into the
mainstream. In California, whites and blacks played together for the
first time in Sly and the Family Stone, of which the Panthers
disapproved. And then there was the Hardest Working Man in Showbusiness.
By 1968 James Brown become a superstar and businessman, a pioneer of
black capitalism, telling audiences that 'Black Power' meant owning
radio stations, a restaurant franchise and a Rolls- Royce as he did,
and employing a retinue of staff. He had travelled far: born,
according to his autobiography, in 1933 in a shack outside Barnwell,
South Carolina, he had been abandoned by his mother and then his
father, and raised by an aunt at the brothel she ran in Augusta,
Georgia. He hustled, picked cotton, shined shoes, cut sugar cane,
excelled in sports and boxing and stole cars for which he was
sentenced to hard labour - and learned music, playing piano in the
prison gym and forming a gospel quartet.
Brown's stardom, his cogency and hypnotic dazzle, his blackness, was
beyond rhetoric. It got called 'soul' or 'funk' but even these words
were insufficient - Brown's potency was mercurial and subliminal as
well as in-your-face and primal.
The sound that he was speeding towards by 1968 all but dispensed with
melody and harmony, bringing an orgasmic howl and raw rhythm to the
fore; even Jimmy Nolen's chicken-scratch guitar was percussive. Its
power was in the pulsating, restless, heartbeat that gave voice to
the energy, virility and vibrancy of the ghetto street, but without a
trace of victimhood. Quite the reverse: Brown and cuts like the
seminal 'Cold Sweat' were becoming a gale-force statement of pride,
black pride even before 'Say It Loud'.
As he rose to mega-stardom, it was as though the new generation of
black youth of America had found and created James Brown, rather than
the artist finding his public. His sound was the uprising, it was (to
re-assert Craig Werner's phrase) 'the truth' and the truth was
political without Brown having to say so.
Then between 23 and 27 July 1967, the worst riots in American history
had swept Detroit and 47 people, mostly black, were killed. Brown
joined Martha Reeves to plead that 'it's not time to steal, shoot and
kill one another'. To address the causes of rioting, Lyndon Johnson
tasked his Vice-President, Hubert Humphrey, to oversee a commission
on education among blacks. Humphrey approached leading figures to
solicit their support for a 'Stay in School' drive and entertained
Brown at the White House.
The result was Brown's 'Don't be a Dropout', with its chorus:
'Without an education, you might as well be dead'. In January 1967,
Humphrey decreed the distribution of 'Don't be a Dropout', with
badges and supporting literature, to almost every radio station in America.
While Brown's relationship with Humphrey was seen as vainglorious by
black militants, his campaign was prescient of the movement's later
shift from 'Burn Baby Burn' to 'Learn Baby Learn'. Never simple to
characterise, the singer's politics could be described as being even whimsical.
'When a great man is killed for no reason and he happens to be your
friend,' he continued in his autobiography, 'you feel the loss twice
over. In Martin's case, it was all one feeling, because with him it
was like the nation had lost its greatest friend. That's what Martin
was - America's best friend. And a lot of Americans didn't even
realise it ... Like a lot of people, I knew [the assassination] was
going to bring a great deal of violence, burning and death, and I
know everybody would lose by it. I don't want it to happen, and I
knew Martin wouldn't want it to happen.'
Brown called the radio stations he owned in Baltimore and Knoxville,
demanding to be put live on air. 'I urged the people to stay calm, to
honour Dr King by being peaceful.' Next day, he recorded his TV show
in New York and went 'from the studio directly to the airport and
flew to Boston. I wanted to go through with my concert there because
I thought it would give me an opportunity to keep some people off the
streets that night - the night everybody was predicting the worst
rioting - and to talk them out of the situation.'
He remembers being met by Mayor White and Atkins, and being 'filled
in on the situation' in the limo. Atkins, recalls Brown, had told the
mayor that if the show had been cancelled 'he'd be lucky if his own
office was left standing'. After a long wrangle about Brown's other
TV contract in New York, 'we both got to talking about how we felt
about Dr King.
'"You know", I said, "I didn't always agree with him, but he was a
great man and he did a lot for all of us ... If I was faced with some
of the same situations he was - people beating me, throwing things at
me, cursing me, spitting on me - I don't know if I could stay
non-violent, not as a matter of philosophy'.
'"I know what you mean", [Atkins] said, "I once spent an entire night
in Mississippi in 1964 arguing that point with him. I'm non-violent
if I have to be, but I don't want anybody to ever make the mistake of
thinking they could hit me and get away with it".
'"Brother, that's where I'm at," I said. "But I had the deepest
respect and love for him."'
By now the car was arriving at the Boston Garden, surrounded by fans
come to claim refunds because they could now see the concert for free
at home on TV. And Brown stops thinking about King, turning to the
matter of money again. 'Now things were really a mess. For the first
time I got really mad.' The TV recording of the show was 'killing the
gate ... I'm going to have to play to an empty house, I'm going to
have to pay for it myself.' Atkins calmed him down, and told him that
'the city guarantees the gate'. 'Fair enough,' said Brown. 'Let's get to it.'
Brown's own later account omits a huddle in the mayor's office during
which he demands a guarantee of $60,000. The mayor was appalled.
'Martin Luther King had just been killed', J Anthony Lukas later
wrote, 'and the highest paid black performer in America who made $2
million a year, had a Victorian mansion, a Rolls-Royce, two Cadillacs
... was worrying about the gate from one measly concert! But White
was running out of options. "Okay Mr Brown," he said, "you've got
your commitment, now get up on that stage!" '
Actually, it was Atkins who took the stage, watched by 2,000 mainly
black youths in a hall less than a sixth full. 'This country owes
James Brown a great debt,' he said, 'and we're lucky to have him here
tonight with us. Give a great round of applause to James Brown!'
The audience did, but it was not the Godfather of Soul who took the
next turn, it was a man Atkins described as 'young, a man who cares,
and he's going to make this a great city - the honourable mayor!' The
crowd deflated at the sight of Kevin White in a slick blue suit.
Sensing his anxiety, and the crowd's hesitation, Brown seized the
mike, telling the audience: 'This is one swingin' cat. Okay, yeah,
give him a round of applause, ladies and gentlemen, he's a swingin' cat!'
Masterfully (if absurdly) blessed, the mayor told a now willing
audience that, 'Twenty-four hours ago, Dr King died for all of us,
black and white, that we may live together in harmony. Now, I'm here
to ask for your help, to make Dr King's dream a reality in Boston ...
and pledge that what any other community might do, we in Boston will
honour Dr King in peace."
'The man is TOGETHER!' shouted Brown, adding: 'Let's not do anything
to dishonour Dr King.' Then he lit the fuse under one of the great
concerts of all time, throwing off his jacket and launching into a
frantic, pleading, driving account of - of all things - 'Has
Everybody Got the Feeling?'.
They sure as hell had, and there was no turning back now, not for
Brown, not for Boston, not for music. The Godfather of Soul stormed
through the songs they loved best in the Garden and at home on TV,
while the streets of Boston remained empty and silent, as every other
ghetto in America burned.
The concert was a fulgent stroke of lightning, as surviving footage
proves, Brown in overdrive and on fire, even by his standards. The
sound was impenitent, his body and voice way up the Richter scale as
he thundered through 'Papa's Got a Brand New Bag', 'Please Please
Please' and the rest, punctuating the music with his own prototype of
rap - gasping and rasping his lyrics - entwined with impromptu homage
to the dead Dr. King.
'Throughout the show,' Brown recalls, 'I tried to work in a little
rap about Dr King and the whole situation. I talked about my life and
where I'd come from. At one point, when I was just reminiscing about
Martin, I started to cry - just a few tears rolling out, nothing
anybody could see - but it was like it was all starting to really
sink in what we lost. But I pulled myself together, I thought that
would do the most good, and went on with the show.'
Backstage during the course of the concert, talking by radio to
police cars patrolling empty streets, Atkins and the mayor negotiated
with WGBH, Boston's public radio broadcaster, for the whole show to
be repeated as soon as it was over. Brown came back to agree between
numbers that was 'fine by me', and announced as much before going
into his finale, at which point a group of fans breached security and
clambered on to the stage to shake Brown by the hand.
The police made a move to clear them off. 'All it would take,'
recalls Brown, 'to destroy everything I had been trying to do all
night long was for there to be an incident with the police and have
it televised.' Brown stopped the music, and parlayed with the police:
'I'm all right', he said, 'I want to shake their hands', which he
did, before asking the fans to please, and quietly, leave the stage,
which they did, before hurrying home to watch the televised re-run.
One of those roaming the streets that night was Peter Wolf, lead
singer in the J Geils Band. 'I remember going through the South End,
and every window seemed to be watching James Brown,' he says.
'My wife and I went to the Garden that night,' remembers one fan,
Robin Upton, now living in Cambridge across the Charles River. 'We
were so upset about the King assassination ... and were probably the
only white people over 30 in the place.'
Years later, Upton met Mayor White and he mentioned 'how frightened
we had been when we first got there'. White replied: 'Nowhere near as
frightened as I was.'
But, says Leon Rock, another witness to the show, now living in
Maryland: 'I grew up in the old Orchard Park public housing, and was
one of those black teenagers Mayor Kevin White was scared would riot
at that time. I knew councillor Thomas Atkins well, and if it were
not for Mr Brown and his impassioned plea from the stage for blacks
to be cool and not set fire to their own neighbourhoods and
communities, Boston would have had a race riot on its hands. But
James Brown was more than Mr Please Please Please. He was a brother
who ... energised generations: "Say It Loud I'm Black and I'm Proud".'
By the time James Brown recorded that song, his capriciousness had
taken him elsewhere. He travelled directly from Boston to Washington
DC, were several people had been killed in the rioting, and 'I
couldn't believe the destruction: buildings smoking, smashed glass
all over the streets'. He went on live television, and said: 'I know
how everybody feels. I feel the same way. But you can't accomplish
anything by blowing up, burning up, stealing and looting. Don't
terrorise, organise. Don't burn, give the kids a chance to learn. Go
home. Be ready. Be qualified. Be somebody - that's Black Power.'
Within a month, though, Brown had dined at the White House and cut
the patriotic 'America is My Home', before he endorsed Vice President
Humphrey, who was contesting the Democratic nomination for the
Presidency against the man who embodied the civil rights movement
more than any other since King's death, Bobby Kennedy. So in early
June, while the 'cool' artists flocked to a massive Kennedy
fundraiser at the Los Angeles Sports arena, Humphrey appeared on
stage with Brown at a concert in the same city with the crucial
California primary approaching.
'You can do the boogaloo, man', Brown rapped at the VP, who started,
excruciatingly, to gyrate. He was trounced in the California primary.
But when Kennedy went to make his victory speech at the Ambassador
hotel on 6 June with the White House in sight, he was assassinated.
Brown had backed a bumbling pro-war loser agsinst the great hope of
the civil rights movement, and it hardly helped his standing when
within days, he left on another extraordinary adventure: for Vietnam,
of all places. The very fact of his Pentagon-assisted visit was seen
as a further betrayal. After King's killing, some white soldiers in
Vietnam paraded in KKK robes, a Confederate flag was hoisted at
another base for three days and the slogan 'I'd rather kill a nigger
than a gook' (ie the Vietcong) was scrawled on barrack walls.
Unlike Bob Hope, who flew in from and straight back to Bangkok, Brown
- an honorary lieutenant colonel for the occasion, Brown stayed in
Saigon with a slimmed-down version of his band. Just before arriving
at their hotel a mortar hit a few doors down the street and killed 17
people. The group proceeded to tour a series of bases aboard a
military plane, 'harder than any tour I'd ever done', as Brown later
recalled. The reaction from the troops, though, was 'incredible ...
they found out I wasn't no Oreo cookie' - that is, black on the
outside, white in the middle.
Three days after his return, Brown filled the 48,000-capacity Yankee
stadium in New York's Bronx. And on 7 August, Judas of the anti-war
movement, he went into a studio in Los Angeles and cut 'Say It Loud
I'm Black and I'm Proud'. Such is the existential and cultural irony
of radical show business.
The song became an immediate, huge hit, but Brown dropped it from his
live repertoire within a year, disturbed (as he later wrote) that it
was perceived as being 'militant and angry - maybe because of the
line about dying on your feet instead of living on your knees. But
really, if you listen to it, it sounds like a children's song. That's
why I had children in it, so children who heard it could grow up
feeling pride ...'
And one further, incidental irony: most of the children that Brown
was able to recruit for the recording session were white and Asian,
with only a few black children included.
Given their lead as much by events as from their musical peers, black
artists staked their political claims. In 1969, Sly and the Family
Stone released 'Stand!': 'Stand! For the things you know are right/
It's the truth that the truth makes them so uptight ... Stand!
There's a midget standing tall/ And the giant beside him about to fall.'
That 'truth' again, and the music telling it. Curtis Mayfield and the
Impressions, who had been preaching the revolutionary truth for
years, now released such songs as 'Check Out Your Mind' and 'Stop The
War'; the latter featured on the 1972 album Times Have Changed, which
also featured a cover of Marvin Gaye's 'Inner City Blues'. Gaye had
become one of Motown's top-selling entertainers, but now something
different happened, with What's Going On, whereby rage and deep
anxiety were spoken, sometimes even seductively whispered, through a
musical tapestry which is on the surface easy to listen to, but
ultimately disturbing, yearning and a masterpiece of sophistication
Another 'entertainment' group transformed by the events of 1968 were
the Temptations, who had been the smash-hit, swinging and swaying
masters of love song. But in that year came 'Cloud Nine', which dealt
with poverty and abuse driving black youth to drugs, and the
remarkable 'Ball of Confusion', lamenting that 'Segregation,
determination, demonstration, integration, aggravation, humiliation,
obligation to our nation/ Ball of confusion/ Oh yeah, that's what the
world is today'.
The Temptations bring out a timely re-visitation of their history
next month, called Reflections (Universal), and, reflecting, the
group's leader Otis Williams sums it up: 'They were turbulent times,
and there came a point when you couldn't ignore what was happening.
And yeah, the music had to change.' But, says Williams, 'when we sing
those songs again on Reflections, I realise that we're singing about
the present, the world is still a Ball of Confusion.'
Indeed, the giant in 'Stand!' did not fall. Now, when you download
those lyrics, you are bombarded by adverts urging you to buy it as a
ringtone. Tapping in 'Ball of Confusion' admits one to just that: a
pandemonium of adverts for '3D chat bubbles'. Hip hop of the sort
criticised by Chuck D of Public Enemy is a multi-billion dollar
business glorifying the militarisation of the ghetto by gangs.
And from the zenith of 1968, although some of his greatest hits like
'Sex Machine' and 'Hot Pants' were still to come, James Brown's life,
including his political life, embarked on a path towards weirdness
and disaster. He began 1969 by playing at President Nixon's inaugural
ball. And while the bombing of Vietnam and Cambodia became one of the
war crimes of post-Holocaust history, Brown heartily endorsed the US
commander-in-chief of those war crimes, in 1972, the year of the
'Black Woodstock' at 'Wattstax'.
Brown's concerts were picketed and 'James Brown, Nixon's Clown'
became a popular chant. In 1974, he wrote 'Funky President' for
Gerald Ford, among the un-funkiest Presidents America has ever had -
the man of whom LBJ, Brown's other pal, said: 'He has trouble chewing
gum and walking at the same time.' But worse was to come.
One of the singularities about Brown's road team during the Sixties
was that drugs and alcohol were all but banned; 'Nobody got blitzed
because you didn't do that in front of the Godfather,' his manager
Alan Leeds recalls. 'Anyone of us who wanted to made sure he wasn't
around - that was a ticket home.' Which made it all the more
dangerous for Brown to experiment with drugs as he hit middle age,
and especially when that drug was PCP. Much has been written about
Brown's descent into drug addiction, depression, grotesque decadence,
violence against his wives, self-delusion, and the charges for
firearms and car chases for which he was finally jailed again.
Little did Brown think before performing at San Quentin prison in
1981 - when he told the NME how scared he was to be there, and how
appalled by the uniformity of the prisoners' skin colour - that he
would end up behind bars again himself. 'Those black kids [the
prisoners]', he also said then, 'ain't ever seen a black president,
and nine times out of 10 they won't ever see one.'
The idea was to establish a quasi-Masonic, secret stash, an emergency
fund to underwrite the city's fortunes in an hour of need. The Vault
was a shadow city cabinet, with a shadow city budget if the
Irish-American political establishment - behind whose various
candidates the Vault moved as it wished - spent all the money, which
it often did.
The Irish-American mayor White distrusted the Anglo Brahmin
establishment but in mid-April 1968 he appealed to the Vault to solve
what he called his 'James Brown problem'. Soon returning from the
long table in the Vault's boardroom to City Hall, he took a call from
the Vault's Charles Coolidge, who said: 'Mayor, you have a hundred
thousand dollars on account'.
One of the Vault, Gilbert Catlin, later explained that 'we had some
pretty fierce arguments about that James Brown thing, but the mayor
persuaded us that if we didn't come up with the money, the blacks
were going to burn the city down'.
James Brown was, in the end, paid $15,000, the Vault having
arm-wrenched the Garden into waiving its slice of the profits.
By the turn of the millennium, the Vault had died off, but Kevin
White had become the longest-serving mayor in Boston's history, from
1968 to 1984; he would recall James Brown as 'a bit of a snake-oil salesman.'
Tom Atkins became a street hero in the de-segregation of Boston's
schools, and went on to become general counsel of the National
Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which for decades
remained America's largest, as well as first, civil rights organisation.
Recalling all these events 12 years ago, Atkins described his
'preferred way to deal with barriers - knock 'em down!'. He admitted
to the Boston Globe that he had been to church 'thousands of times',
but was not a religious man. 'I am not one to sit around and wait for
miracles', he mused. 'I believe miracles are usually man-made'. And
with James Brown, 40 years ago this April, he pulled one off.
Revolution soundtrack by Chuck D
The Public Enemy writer and rapper offers his own 'Black Power' Top
10 - 'for anyone who can't remember 1968 - or wasn't even born then.'
1. Sly and the Family Stone, 'Everyday People'
2. James Brown, 'Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud'
3. The O'Jays, 'A Gamble'
4. Nina Simone, 'Young, Gifted and Black'
5. Carlos Santana, 'I am Somebody'
6. Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, 'We're a Winnner'
7. Isley Brothers, 'FIight the Power'
8. Gil Scott Heron, 'The Revolution Will not be Televised'
9. Marvin Gaye, 'What's Going On?'
10. The Beatles, 'Come Together'