In our last two blog posts, we explored a brief history of funk music and took a closer look at what exactly makes funk grooves feel funky. But one historical event in particular, that occurred in Boston, cemented the notion that funk exists for everyone and that music is a healthy outlet for reacting to one’s surroundings.
On April 4th, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. Riots broke out in practically every major city around the country, including Boston’s South End and Roxbury, which were predominantly black neighborhoods. James Brown was scheduled to perform at the Garden the next night, April 5th. City officials feared a weekend of riots and violence, and, to protect the downtown area from unrest, considered canceling the concert.
But a young black city councilman, by the name of Tom Atkins, persisted that canceling the show would have the exact opposite effect as intended. He claimed there wasn’t enough time to spread the word and that having thousands of fans, consisting mostly of black teenagers, show up at the Garden only to be turned away would quickly devolve into a full-scale riot in the heart of downtown.
Instead, Atkins proposed that not only the show go on, but it should be televised. If people were either at the concert or at home watching the concert on TV, they wouldn’t be in the streets rioting. Atkins, with the assistance of then-mayor Kevin White, worked with WGBH to broadcast the concert on such short notice. However, James Brown had a non-compete contract with a TV station in New York, which stated he couldn’t participate in another televised performance until after the New York concert aired. Violating that contract would cost him about $60,000. Without hesitation, the mayor guaranteed the money for Brown, despite not knowing where exactly the money would come from.
Only about 2,000 people showed up to the concert despite the Garden having a 14,000 person capacity. Many people feared riots and elected to avoid the downtown area altogether. At the beginning of the concert, mayor White and councilman Atkins introduced James Brown and pleaded that the audience, at the concert and at home, honored Dr. King’s message of peace. Brown spoke highly of the mayor, assuring the audience that the mayor sympathized with the struggles of marginalized communities. Then the concert kicked off.
The show was going well up until the very last few minutes, when a group of young fans stormed the stage. Police began using force to keep people back, but Brown intervened and told the police to stand down. Brown stopped in the middle of a song to shake hands with fans, but when the group wouldn’t leave the stage, he took a different tone. He talked directly to the audience; “You’re not being fair to yourselves and you’re not being fair to me. I asked the police to step back because I figured I can get some respect from my own people. Now are we together, or we ain’t?” As the group retreated from the stage, the crowd let out an enthusiastic cheer and the show went on. There were no riots in Boston that night.
Since the performance was recorded and televised, you can watch the entire concert below. The mayor’s brief speech at the beginning and the way Brown handles the crowd at the end stand out as particularly powerful moments. And this concert shows Clyde Stubblefield in his prime. He was just 24 years old during this performance! The band couldn’t be tighter. It’s no wonder Brown’s hypnotic grooves had the power to bring some peace to hurting communities around the country.
From then on, Brown gained the respect of many politicians and people in positions of power, and for good reason. If Brown possessed the power to prevent a riot from happening, he certainly had the power to start one if he desired. But funk’s close ties to black communities played a crucial role in shielding Boston from the worst of the fallout following Martin Luther King’s assassination, further deepening the historical significance of funk music in the US.