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Some say Hub owes debt to James Brown

James Brown performing during his televised concert at Boston Garden the day after Martin Luther King Jr. was killed. James Brown performing during his televised concert at Boston Garden the day after Martin Luther King Jr. was killed. (GLOBE FILE/1968)
By Douglas Belkin
Globe Staff / December 26, 2006
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James Brown will be mourned by millions around the world this week as one of the great musical innovators of the 20th century. But in Boston, he will be remembered by many as the man who helped prevent the city from burning down the night after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

On April 4, 1968, the day before Brown was scheduled to play a concert at the Boston Garden, King was shot to death in Memphis. In Detroit, Washington, D.C., and Chicago, rioters set fire to white-owned businesses.

In Boston, Mayor Kevin White, then just 38 years old and four months into his first term, gathered his aides at City Hall and prepared for the worst.

"It was incredibly tense," said John Henning, the longtime television broadcaster who, in 1968, was in the fifth year of his career.

According to a Boston Globe account that weekend: "By noon Friday it appeared that Boston's black community of 80,000 was poised for a violent upheaval. Roving bands in Roxbury, North Dorchester , and the South End inflicted injuries on a dozen persons, set fire to one store , and looted seven others."

Fearful of more violence, the managers at the Garden decided to cancel Brown's concert, and White was faced with a dilemma, according to an account in the book " Common Ground, " by J. Anthony Lukas . If Brown didn't go on, there wouldn't be enough time to get the word out and thousands of angry black teenage fans would be left at the Garden with nothing to do.

Only this time, "it'll be in the heart of downtown," Lukas quoted Councilor Tom Atkins as saying.

In a telephone interview yesterday, US Representative Barney Frank, who was White's aide in the 1960s, said city officials believed Boston could potentially have a citywide riot among blacks and whites.

"You get a bunch of 17-year-olds together you never know what's going to happen," said Frank, a Democrat from Newton.

White made a decision. He would reinstate the concert, but would try to suppress attendance, get a television station to carry it live, and then appeal to youths to stay home and watch it.

But there was a catch. That Friday, Brown taped a television show in New York and was under contract not to appear on TV before it aired. If the concert at the Garden were broadcast live, it would cost him a bundle.

According to Lukas, who reconstructed events from interviews with the participants: Atkins met Brown at the airport, and explained the situation as the pair rode toward downtown in a limousine. "No way," Brown shouted. "They'll sue me in New York."

"James, James," pleaded Atkins. "We'll work this out! But right now you have an opportunity to help save this city."

Finally Brown relented -- at a cost. He demanded $60,000 to cover his expenses. White, now out of options, agreed, Lukas wrote.

Only 2,000 people showed up for the concert -- the Garden held 14,000. When White got on stage, the crowd was subdued.

White, according to a Globe report on the concert, urged the audience at home and in the Garden "to make Rev. Dr. King's dream a reality in Boston. . . . No matter what any other community might do -- we in Boston will honor Dr. King in peace."

"Brown sang and danced, and as usual thrilled his audience. But he also talked to them and for this is being credited with helping to avert potential disaster," according to the Globe.

The concert aired live on Channel 2 and was then immediately rebroadcast, Frank recalled yesterday. Across Boston, people stayed home and watched.

"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.

Brown brought calm to a simmering city.

"It really prevented the city from blowing up," said Henning.

Said Frank: "You never know what might have happened if they all came down."

Globe correspondent Steve Morse contributed to this story. Douglas Belkin can be reached at dbelkin@globe.com

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