James Brown: A Strict Disciplinarian, a Brilliant Songwriter, and the Night He Saved Boston

James Brown ran a tight ship in terms of his band, backup singers, and staff. He believed that the audience deserved to get the best show he could give and he always delivered.

Disciplinarian: One of the things he was known for in terms of his staff is that their pay would be docked if they broke his rules for such things as being late or their appearance not being exemplary. For example in terms of appearance, one story concerned his backup singers’ stage clothes. If a singer’s dress was not pressed properly for the performance he would point to the singer and flash either one or two fingers at her. The amount of fingers represented the amount that would be deducted from the girl’s pay. Obviously a singer learned quite quickly that her paycheck could be reduced quite a bit after a week of performances if she had too many mistakes. So in that sense he was a strict disciplinarian but it was always done with his belief that the audience deserved the best performance and appearance from him and his group.

Songwriting: When it came to songwriting he was better than good. He was outstanding. Even while performing, if he got an idea for a song it would not be unusual for him to tell the group that after the show or the following day they were going to go to a recording studio and put down some tracts of his idea.

James had a philosophy about writing music. A musician once said James would sometimes put in a measure that defied music writing logic as it was something that just wasn’t done. But James had always said I don’t care if it’s the way music should be written or not. If it sounds good, we’re going to record it as is.

The Night that James Brown Saved Boston: This goes back to April 5, 1968. He was scheduled to appear in concert on that date at the Boston Garden. It just so happened that it was the day after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

The mayor of Boston, Kevin White and the City Council were on the verge of canceling the concert as there had been several incidents of rioting in cities across America as a result of Martin Luther King’s assassination. The politicians felt that a concert could have evoked a riot and with thousands of people in one area the results could be devastating. Others felt that the concert would be a healing of sorts and that it should go on as to cancel it might also incite rioting. In conversations with James Brown and his people the officials made the decision to allow the concert to take place.

On the night of the concert James Brown not only sang but talked to the audience. The majority of the concert went well until towards the end some of the crowd nearer the front attempted to storm the stage. Officials were afraid that a riot would break out as a result of a shoving incident. Some of the people from the audience that were on stage just wanted to be close to him. James took charge of the situation and talked with the people. He shook their hands and encouraged them to go back and sit down as it wasn’t fair to the rest of the audience if they could not see or hear the rest of the show. He said to everyone over the microphone that he understood them and their struggles along life’s way. He said that he had grown up in hardship and poverty when he was young. More importantly though he stressed the importance of respect and wanting them to respect him as well as each other and to be proud they were black.

The crowd returned to their seats and the rest of the concert continued without incident. After the concert was over people left peacefully and there were no occurrences outside the venue as most of the concert goers went on their way peacefully. What James Brown did for race relations that evening deserves the biggest thank you that can be given.

The following day newspapers reported that with the thousands of people at the gathering and not one incident of rioting taking place that the people of Boston could be very proud of the way they handled themselves.

As if we haven’t learned enough about James Brown listen to this. He was a man’s man. Even though he did not approve of the Vietnam War he did several shows for veterans overseas because he felt that we should support the troops. And this was during a time when the American Public was fed up with the war and was strongly against it.

In conclusion I can only say that I am proud to write this article about a man who gave so much more than his music to society. There are many lessons to be learned here for music students about this brilliant songwriter and an activist who made it possible for an audience to peacefully enjoy a great show.

Copyright © Paul Romaine 2011