The TV documentary “The Night James Brown Saved Boston” (1968).

Text by Sohrab Saadat Ladjevardi

When James Brown died almost exactly two years ago, I still lived in Tokyo, Japan. His death was a shock for me because he was one of the few musicians I loved to play with.

Other musicians were Elvin Jones (John Coltrane’s drummer) whom I met in Tokyo where he invited me and my sax to his birthday party at BB KING’s. However, due to my mother’s illness, I was unable to attend. The next year, Jones left the world unexpectedly.

Another musician I wanted to meet and play with was the Malian “desert” blues guitarist Ali Farka Toure. I missed my chance to meet him in Mali in 2004, when Salif Keita invited me to appear with him at a concert – commemorating his appointment as UN ambassador for Culture and Sport. Unfortunately, I was so busy with Keita that I had no time to make the trip to see Ali Farka Toure in Timbuktu. Two years later he died too – in the same year as James Brown.

Last week I had to think about my involvement in the Green Movement in Iran. I tried to think of other musicians who were politically active like me, and the first one who came into my mind somehow, was James Brown. I remembered a documentary about him which I had watched in Tokyo some years ago. Luckily when I searched for it on Youtube it was still posted.

Dear reader, I think you might be interested in watching this documentary. Even those who don’t appreciate Brown for his music, might appreciate a musician who is trying to help his people move forward. Brown proved that music isn’t just about entertaining people; it is also a medium to guide and educate them. He always cared for them and reached out to them.

About the documentary (text taken from Wikipedia)

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, James Brown was renowned for his work with social activism. In 1966, he released the single “Don’t Be a Drop-Out” as a lesson to young students who had thoughts of dropping out. He later made public speeches in front of dozens of children and advocated the importance of education in school. In 1967, he issued a patriotic single, “America is My Home”, which was a “rap” about how he felt people, particularly in the African-American community, were neglecting the country that he said “could give (them) opportunities” explaining how at one time he was shining shoes and the next, he was greeting the President of the United States as he did when President Lyndon B. Johnson thanked him for donating money to school drop-out prevention programs.

A year later, he performed in front of a televised audience in Boston the day after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr.. Brown is often given credit for preventing rioting with the performance. However, it was Mayor Kevin White who strongly restrained the Boston Police from cracking down on minor violence and protests after the assassination, and Boston religious and community leaders who worked to keep tempers from flaring. Also, White arranged to have the performance broadcast multiple times on Boston’s public television station, WGBH, thus keeping many potential rioters off the streets, watching the concert for free. Brown demanded $60,000 for “gate” fees (money he thought would be lost from ticket sales on account of the concert being broadcast for free), and then threatened to go public about the secret arrangement when the city balked at paying up after the concert, news of which would have been a political death-blow to White, and possibly sparked riots on its own. White successfully lobbied the behind-the-scenes power-brokering group known as “The Vault” to come up with money for Brown’s gate fee and other social programs; The Vault contributed $100,000 to such programs, and Brown received $15,000 from them via the city. White persuaded management at the Boston Garden to give up their share of receipts to make up the difference. The story is documented in the PBS film “The Night James Brown Saved Boston”.

Afterwards, President Johnson advised Brown to visit Washington, D.C. to greet inner-city residents there performing at a benefit concert there and expressed the notion that violence “wasn’t the way to go”. Many in the black community felt that Brown was speaking out to them more than some major leaders in the country, a sentiment that was strengthened with the release of his groundbreaking landmark single, “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud“.

Brown continued performing benefit concerts for various civil rights organizations including Jesse Jackson‘s PUSH and The Black Panther Party‘s Breakfast program throughout the early-1970s. Brown also continued to release socially-conscious singles such as “I Don’t Want Nobody To Give Me Nothing (Open Up the Door, I’ll Get It Myself)” (1969), “Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved” (1971), “Talking Loud and Saying Nothing” (1972), “King Heroin” (1974), “Funky President (People It’s Bad)” (1974) and “Reality” (1975). The week before his death, Brown took time to give Christmas presents to an orphanage in Atlanta.