FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
Martin Luther King, Jr. was gunned down 40 years ago this week. News of the shooting spread like wildfire. Rioting in black neighborhoods from Seattle, Washington to Washington, D.C. painted the picture of a nation going up in flames.
In Boston's black Roxbury neighborhood, the rioting was particularly hot, and then the Godfather of Soul stepped in with a little funk to cool things down.
(Soundbite of recording)
Mr. JAMES BROWN (Singer): (Singing) Baby, baby, baby. Baby, baby, baby. Baby, baby, baby. Baby, baby. I got the feeling, baby...
CHIDEYA: On April 5th, 1968, the day after King was killed, James Brown took the stage at the Boston Garden. The televised concert featured Brown's call for peace. That night, Mr. Dynamite might have kept Beantown from burning down.
David Leaf's new film, "The Night James Brown Saved Boston," premieres this Saturday on VH1. Hi, David.
Mr. DAVID LEAF (Director): Thank you for having me.
CHIDEYA: So first, let's get a little context about James Brown. By '68, how big was the Godfather of Soul, and how major was this concert, which had been scheduled well before King's death?
Mr. LEAF: In 1968, James Brown was three years into what would have in those days been called his crossover career. He finally made it big on the pop charts after a half-dozen years of being a major R&B attraction in the mid-1960s with songs like "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" and "I Feel Good."
So he was not just appealing to black audiences primarily, but he was - he a pretty significant mixed audience as well. In the mid-'60s, he played a place called the Boston Arena, which seated around 6,000 or 7,000, so playing the Boston Garden on April 5th, 1968 was a step up for him because that seated almost 15,000 people.
So it was indicative of how much his popularity had grown through the years. And so this was just a regular concert that had been scheduled. He was known as the hardest-working man in show business, did more than 200 dates a year, and this was just the latest stop.
CHIDEYA: James Brown went into the streets of Harlem as the tension on America's streets was building, and here's Brown explaining his decision to walk right into the fray.
Mr. BROWN: I don't want to be a cat, sitting from up high and looking down and saying I wonder what they're doing down there. Find out what's happening, and I know how everybody feels because I might live in society, but my heart's in the ghetto because that's where I was born, you see?
CHIDEYA: How did Brown react to the news of King's death?
Mr. LEAF: When news of Dr. King's assassination reached James Brown, he was in a recording studio in New York City, and he immediately went on the air, television and radio, calling for peace. He was obviously very upset - how could you not be? And as news of the rage in the communities of inner city America reached Brown, he decided that he needed to go look for himself.
So he went up to Harlem, uptown in New York City, to see what was going on, and he was not happy with what he saw. He was - literally he was heartbroken to see black Americans destroying their own neighborhoods. And so when he got to Boston the next day he knew that he needed to do what he could to help keep the peace in Boston.
CHIDEYA: Boston is a city which has had some ignominious moments in racial history, some...
Mr. LEAF: Absolutely.
CHIDEYA: ...real hardcore tensions. And in 1968 the mayor of Boston was Kevin White. You interviewed him for the film, and his initial plan was to cancel this concert. How did he change his mind, and how did he tell you what he did to sort of have a change of heart on this?
Mr. LEAF: Well, Kevin White had been elected in November of 1967 as a progressive candidate. The candidate he was running against was against desegregation; she was against integration. So in this racially divided city on the morning of April 5th, the chief of police said to Mayor White: I don't think I can keep this city safe if you allow 15,000 people to come to this concert. I'm not sure I guarantee security.
So they were going to cancel the concert. There had been rioting in Roxbury the night previous, but it was contained. That's where they wanted to keep it localized, and they were concerned that 15,000 young black people coming to downtown Boston would be, you know, a light would go off and there would be a riot.
But when news that the concert was about to be canceled reached black activists in the Roxbury community, they got in touch with Tom Atkins, who was a city councilman, who said to the mayor, if you cancel this concert in the wake of Dr. King's assassination and 15,000 kids show up and the gates to the Boston Garden are locked, you will have a riot.
CHIDEYA: According to your film, the plan to show it on TV brought its own set of problems, especially for James Brown. What was wrong with that deal in James's eyes, and how did he, Atkins, and the mayor work it all out?
Mr. LEAF: When James Brown arrived in Boston that afternoon of April 5th, he was more than a little bit surprised to find out that not only were people lined up at the Boston Garden to get refunds for tickets, but that an announcement had spread like wildfire throughout the city that the concert was going to be on television.
James Brown was an entrepreneur, he's a capitalist, and he was a promoter of his own shows. The way he made money was to put on concerts, take the risk. You know, he had a band of 20 people and an entourage, so - and a Lear jet even. So he had enormous expenses on a daily basis that he needed to be reimbursed for if this concert were going to be on television.
But the primary problem was James Brown was expecting to take in somewhere between 50 and 100 thousand dollars at the box office that night, and suddenly with the concert on television, with refunds being offered to people lined up to bring their tickets back, he was looking at there being very few people at the Garden, and he said to the city, how are you going to make me whole here?
CHIDEYA: And what did they tell him?
Mr. LEAF: The truth of what happened behind the scenes the night of that concert in terms of how much money James was going to get, how much he actually got, is a really complicated tale. And it's "Rashomon"; nobody really tells the same story. But the person who speaks for James Brown, his long-time personal manager who was there that night, says we were promised a certain amount of money and we only got $10,000. The next person who speaks in the movie is the mayor, who says, well, James was worth the 60.
Somewhere between that 10,000 and that 60,000 left the mayor's office, but only 10,000 seems to have gotten to James Brown.
CHIDEYA: Well, that's the concert biz. Let's get down to concert night. Here is a clip of Brown soon after he starts the show.
(Soundbite of recording)
Mr. BROWN: (Singing) I want you to know (scream) it ain't no sin, because I reckon with my friends, my friends, my friends, to do it over again. But that's all right...
CHIDEYA: So when you interviewed band members and concert-goers, how'd they describe the energy in the Garden that night, and how did they describe what the show meant to them?
Mr. LEAF: The band, which was primarily black - interestingly enough, James Brown had a white bass player at the time. So it was an integrated band, which was extraordinarily unusual in that era. Everybody was tense backstage before the show. Everybody was tense onstage. In those days there was no real security, there was no wanding. They didn't check your bag to see if you had a gun in it.
So anybody could have come into the Boston Garden and, you know, it was a scary situation for everybody. People were expecting a disaster at any moment.
CHIDEYA: So since the title of the film is "The Night James Brown Saved Boston," I assume you believe that. I assume you believe that he did.
Mr. LEAF: Well, it's - honestly, it's not my belief. The story is told from the point of view of the people who were there, or the most respected historians in the country, like Dr. Cornel West.
So between the band members, the mayor's office, the mayor, the city councilor, the mayor's press secretary, the people from WGBH who produced the broadcast, the people who went to the concert, the evidence as we see in the newspaper clippings from that era, what happened was James Brown took the stage, everybody was off the streets.
There was no reports of any significant rioting or activity, unlawful activity that evening. And what happened with the television broadcast was that after the concert ended, they immediately played it again, and then they played it again, and people kept watching it.
You have to remember, music on television was a different animal in those days. You were lucky to see your favorite act once a year on "The Ed Sullivan Show." So for an artist of James Brown's stature and magnitude - you didn't get to see James Brown perform for two hours on television.
So for the people in the city of Boston, music fans, James Brown fans, this was a gift, and it kept people really distracted from the pain and anguish they were feeling.
CHIDEYA: David, thank you, appreciate it.
Mr. LEAF: Thank you very much.
CHIDEYA: David Leaf's new film, "The Night James Brown Saved Boston," premieres this Saturday on VH1.
(Soundbite of music)