Ain't That a Groove
[James Brown] is the most ultimately self-made man in American history.
—Rev. Al Sharpton
All I can do is lay in the groove and hope to make you move.
The defining moment of James Brown’s gripping performance at the Boston Garden on 5 April 1968, the day following Martin Luther King, Jr.‘s assassination—a performance that, even if it didn’t connect to the coping with a larger cultural tragedy, would still be a breathtaking display of entertainment—happens near the end, during one of Brown’s famous climaxes that threatens to never stop climaxing. Fans begin to bum-rush the stage, prompting the onstage police presence to brusquely react; it’s the kind of moment that Boston’s newly elected mayor, Kevin White, had been dreading, a moment when the crescendo of the music and intensity of human emotions coalesce into some kind of unstable force.
“Wait a minute, wait a minute,” Brown implores, ad infinitum, then instructs the cops to stand down and, with patience and poise, reasons with the hyped-up crowd as it quickly collects around him. Within seconds, he’s dismantled a potentially explosive situation. “Are we together or aren’t we?” he asks, and then has the band plunge back into the delirious “I Can’t Stand Myself (When You Touch Me)”. Crisis averted; groove revisited.
I Got the Feelin’: James Brown in the ‘60s, a three-DVD box set that includes both the original television broadcast of the Boston Garden show and The Night James Brown Saved Boston, a recent David Leaf documentary about the show’s historical significance, is all about crisis and groove. Brown’s grooves are conduits of crisis, all tensed up and dangling on edge, while the country’s racial and existential crises following King’s death needed, in essence, a groove in which to find some semblance of reason and security.
After nearly being cancelled by White, who was anxious about the rioting that was happening in virtually every other major American city, Brown’s Boston concert became an unofficial memorial service for King’s memory and a call for city-wide peace. For the most part, it worked—local public television affiliate WGBH aired the concert live and then rebroadcast it throughout the night, and, in comparison to cities like Washington, D.C., Baltimore, and Chicago, Boston was spared from excessive destruction and rioting.
“Mr. Brown did not stop the riot,” says Charles Bobbit, Brown’s longtime personal manager, during one of the interview segments in the documentary. “Mr. Brown stopped it from being a riot.” Naturally, The Night James Brown Saved Boston casts Brown’s music and presence as evidence of music’s power to transcend entertainment, to be a salve, to provide an outlet for grief and frustration. (And while it’s true that Brown was an agent of social change, that didn’t mean that he wasn’t also a shrewd businessman, demanding $60,000 from the city for appearing on stage that night. Bobbit claims they only saw one-sixth of that amount.) Vengeance is the groove and dissent is coded in Brown’s hollers and shrieks that suddenly depart from the script. Rev. Al Sharpton, Cornel West, Boston DJ James “Early” Byrd, then-city councilman Tom Atkins, and a host of others who were on-hand that monumental night flesh out Leaf’s film about James Brown as concept: the man who defined showmanship, invented funk, predicted hip-hop, and also managed to rescue New England’s largest city from violent unrest.
Better still is James Brown the performer, as documented on the uncut broadcast of the Garden show. For roughly 80-minutes, Brown leads his huge band, orchestra and all, through a string of some of his most incendiary live selections: “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World”, “There Was a Time”, “Try Me”, “Cold Sweat”. WGBH’s equipment was not made for R&B or rock shows, and its engineers were used to the stationary setup of classical concerts, but this unfamiliarity with the material actually adds to the show’s excitement. Cameras scurry to keep up with Brown’s sudden departures into interpretive dance, the microphones consistently overload when Brown screams in their general direction, and occasional technical difficulties blank out the screen entirely—it’s as if some great event is happening in a place where it shouldn’t be happening, and something equally out of its jurisdiction is there to capture it for posterity.
The third disc in the set offers more live footage, this time a set from the Apollo Theatre in New York City a month earlier, originally produced for a television program entitled James Brown: Man to Man. It’s more or less the same setlist, though this one’s shot in color—good thing, too, because it makes it easier to decipher the queasy psychedelic imagery that’s projected onto the back wall. And although there’s no imminent crisis that Brown is keeping at bay here, the show does splice in footage of Brown walking the city streets and discussing race in America: “My fight is against the past. My fight now is for the black American to become American.”
A crucial bonus feature on the final disc includes Brown’s performance of “Out of Sight” from The T.A.M.I. Show, a legendary 1964 concert film, featuring the Beach Boys, Chuck Berry, Marvin Gaye, and the Rolling Stones, that has never been released on home video. Brown blows into the frame from stage left, joins his band and the groove, gets that feeling, and does his thang. You could swap this performance with the performance from the Boston Garden and not be able to tell which one was conducted on a night when tensions within a racially segregated city were at a boiling point—this music is itself a crisis, always on call.