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Boston's Debt to James Brown

This article is more than 11 years old.

On the night of April 5, 1968, white Bostonians were huddled in their houses, fearful that race riots were about to engulf the city the day after Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. As it turned out, black Bostonians were huddled in their houses too, because Channel 2 was about to air a James Brown concert from Boston Garden.

The story of that time is at the heart of a new documentary, which airs on VH1 Saturday night, the 40th anniversary of that concert. "The Night James Brown Saved Boston" isn't really a documentary about the 1960s or Boston per se, but it's as riveting a record of that time and place as you could hope to see.

Brown's April 5th concert was on the verge of cancellation because the new mayor of Boston thought it would inflame the situation. Whether the decision to televise the concert instead saved Boston from burning — chances are the city's unique history, geography and demographics had more to do with it — David Leaf's documentary is first-rate story-telling and history-teaching.

In terms of a smart and strong narrative, it's reminiscent of J. Anthony Lukas' "Common Ground" (the book, not the miniseries.) With a great soundtrack. It would have been easy for Leaf to rely on Brown's performance; the singer was at the top of his game in 1968, both as a songwriter and an entertainer. Instead, he tells a tale of tribal politics, interspersed with great clips from the Boston show.

Kevin White, a liberal, had narrowly won election as the mayor of Boston over Louise Day Hicks, a conservative, at a time when nobody but the Irish need apply for that job. White, in a terrific interview from 1993, jokes that if the overweight Hicks had looked like Grace Kelly, he never would have been elected. He admits he "had never met anything like James Brown ... Man, he was a piece of work." Brown, in turn, called White "a swingin' cat" from the Boston Garden stage.

Thomas Atkins, also interviewed in 1993, had just been elected Boston's first black City Councilor in the 20th century — there was no district representation then — and brokered the deal. Brown wanted $60,000; White refused to pay that much.

A third tribal leader isn't mentioned, but deserves as much credit. There was no overwhelming mandate for David Ives, as president of WGBH, to televise the concert. None of the local commercial stations were about to do so. Ives' taste ran more to "Uncle Vanya," which Channel 2 was scheduled to air that night. But Ives knew what his responsibility was. Dick Flavin, who worked in White's press department, jokes that the mayor didn't know James Brown from Jamestown, but he no doubt could also have been talking about Ives and the blue blood power structure at WGBH back then.

Still, the VH1 documentary gets the point of culture shock across. It shows that, trying to be hipper than they could ever be, WGBH announcers continually referred to "Negro entertainer Jimmy Brown." Executive producer Michael Ambrosino mentions that he had never been to a rock concert.

Other talking heads capture the people and the era. Cornel West says "something died in the soul of black people" with Dr. King's assassination and "We still haven't gotten over it." Al Sharpton notes that other black acts crossed over to white America; Brown made white America cross over to black acts.

Leaf, who also made "The U.S. vs. John Lennon" and "Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson & the Story of 'Smile,' " knows you don't have to spell everything out. He shows, for example, very few black faces among the Boston police force, underlining the segregation of black Boston.

And then there's the music, starting with a blistering performance of "That's Life." Or is blistering performance redundant with Brown? (The DVD in August will include the whole concert and the full 74-minute documentary as opposed to VH1's tighter 45-minute version.)

I was a student at Boston University back in 1968. I remember thinking that the concert trivialized King's death and, frustrated by the delay in the broadcast and a tinny TV, I didn't pay that much attention to the James Brown concert. I obviously didn't know what to make of it in 1968. Fortunately, 40 years later, David Leaf does.

Ed Siegel is a critic-at-large for Morning Edition.

"The Night James Brown Saved Boston" airs on VH1 tomorrow night. For details, click on the link below.

This program aired on April 4, 2008. The audio for this program is not available.

Ed Siegel Twitter Critic-At-Large
Now retired and contributing as a critic-at-large, Ed Siegel was the editor of The ARTery.

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