MLK: James Brown “Saved” Boston

Martin Luther King was assasinated on April 4, 1968. By April 5, riots were tearing apart major American cities. Not Boston.

Mayor Kevin White** engineered a a deal that allowed Brown to perform and the legendary local PBS station to carry the show live. Everyone stayed home. Brown’s concert has been local legend for years, and now with the 40th anniversery of King’s death, VH1 has produced a rockDoc on the Boston show.

The Boston Phoenix calls this the greatest concert in Boston history:

On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, America’s greatest civil-rights leader, was assassinated in Memphis. Violence erupted in major cities across the county as African-Americans, who had already endured so much, reacted to the loss of a leader who was both spiritual and practical. Mayor Kevin White panicked. Although Boston wasn’t literally burning, like Detroit or Los Angeles, it was approaching an ignition point. He considered canceling all public events, including a James Brown concert at the Garden. Fortunately, his advisers suggested that stopping the show would be viewed as yet another stifling of black expression and could easily start the very rioting they’d hoped to avoid. The mayor made history by meeting with Brown and asking if they could work together to keep the peace. He was less lucky with the local affiliates of the three major TV networks, who all declined to broadcast the show, according to music historian Dick Waterman. Instead, the PBS station, WGBH, stepped in so Brown’s music could reach beyond the Garden’s 14,000 seats and into the living rooms of everyone in Greater Boston. The show was an absolute tour de force. Brown soothed his mourning audience by dedicating the concert to Dr. King and delivering a million-watt performance packed with greats: “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” “Cold Sweat,” “That’s Life,” “Try Me,” “Please, Please, Please,” and more. He invited White to speak to the crowd and the cameras. And when police reacted to fans who rushed the stage at one point, Brown assured them he could handle things himself, pleading, successfully, for everyone to return to their seats. On this night, music literally helped determine the course of Boston’s history.

The Boston Globe reflected on the show right after JB’s death.

“I remember going through the South End and every window seemed to be watching James Brown,” said Peter Wolf , the lead singer of the J. Geils Band.

WGBH has its own documentary and streams audio of the entire concert online.

Here’s some YouTube footage from the concert. I regret that it doesn’t show Mayor White and JB at the beginning of the show asking for peace. That’s the most compelling part of the show. The best part of this clip starts at about 2:25 – watch how JB handles the people rushing the stage.

**Mayor White is also known for posting bail for the Rolling Stones. It seems Mick and the boys had some drug trouble in Providence and White was afraid of the chaos that would ensue if they didn’t show up for their gig. White called the Governor of RI and voila. “The Stones have been busted, but I have sprung them!”, an ecstatic White announced to the Boston Garden crowd.

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