A music journalist looks at one of the soul legend’s key performances—as well as his overall legacy.
By the late ’60s, notes Boston Globe contributor Sullivan, Brown was “Soul Brother Number One to black America.” On April 5, 1968, one day after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Brown played what would become a landmark show at the Boston Garden. But the show almost didn’t occur. As the city’s traditionally black neighborhoods hovered on the verge of chaos—a fate that befell many cities around the country following King’s death—Garden officials and Mayor Kevin White decided to cancel the concert. However, after much negotiating with city counsilor Tom Atkins, activist Paul Parks and others, they agreed that “the concert would have a healing effect on the city”—especially since they decided to televise the event live. After an argument over the fee for his appearance, the Godfather of Soul took the stage, pleading peace and turning in an electric, if somewhat ragged, performance. Because most of the audience who couldn’t make it to the show chose to watch at home, Boston’s streets remained mercifully free of violence. With serviceable prose, Sullivan ably navigates the many conflicting allegiances surrounding the event, taking time to chronicle Brown’s rise to fame and the concurrent increase in civil-rights agitation and its reflection in the music of the time. He charts Brown’s burgeoning relationship with Al Sharpton and other civil-rights leaders, and examines the backlash the entertainer endured when he supported Richard Nixon. (During a 1973 performance at The Apollo, one banner read, “James Brown, Nixon’s Clown.”) Throughout the narrative, Sullivan provides intermittently insightful commentary on Brown’s music, duly recognizing that “his crucial innovation was to hear each instrument in his orchestra as another form of percussion.” Continuing in that vein, the author closes by citing musicians whose sound was most directly influenced by Brown, including Afrika Bambaataa, Run-DMC, Marley Marl and Big Daddy Kane.
Sullivan may not capture the fiery soul of the best James Brown performance, but he shines a light on an important instance of music affecting real change.