In 1969, James Brown graced the cover of LOOK magazine, with the headline "Is This The Most Powerful Black Man in America?"
James Sullivan's new biography, The Hardest Working Man: How James Brown Saved The Soul of America, (Gotham Books)makes a compelling case that on one night, in the midst of unspeakable tragedy, he was.
Even offstage, Brown always had a flair for drama and a healthy ego. "I was the one who made the dark-complexioned people popular," he once said. Yet that grandiose self-importance was always tempered. In September 1968, the singer wrote in his monthly column in entertainment magazine Soul: "I've been acting as a spokesman to my people. Keep in mind, I haven't been acting as a spokesman FOR my people—I'm not qualified to do that. I don't know who is."
And in a televised address following Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination—the moment when, Sullivan argues, Brown cemented his legend—he said he hoped the movement "…don't cost no more lives…I'll be doing everything I can to make sure…And I—I might give my life…"
But more to the question LOOK magazine posed about the extent of Brown's "power," The Hardest Working Man examines Brown's influence and finds it vast. In a cultural sense, Brown filled the black leadership void that emerged after King's death. Brown believed his working-class roots only enhanced his reach. "Dr. King himself wasn't a street person. I was. I came from a ghetto and was close to the people in the ghettos all over America."
Soul Brother No. 1 had street cred, earned in part by message tunes such as 1966's hip-talkin' "Don't Be a Dropout."His appeals to black youth to study and seek entrepreneurship reached millions through black radio, sold-out concerts and appearances on television talk and public-affairs shows.
Sullivan's book is framed around the single event: April 5, 1968, the night after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., as more than 100 U.S. cities erupted in violence. On that evening, Brown had a concert scheduled in Boston.
This was the city where King earned his doctorate and met the woman he would marry, Coretta Scott. Known as the "Cradle of Liberty," Boston had experienced three nights of violence in 1967 after a skirmish between police and black protesters. And on the night of the Brown concert, activists in Roxbury (the city's largest black section) had urged residents to stay off the streets.
Local black leaders convinced the mayor of Boston, Kevin White, not to cancel the concert but to televise it to encourage would-be troublemakers to stay home. Boston's sole black city councilman, Tom Atkins, led negotiations between local public television station WGBH, a reluctant mayor (who had never heard of Brown), influential private financiers, the venue at Boston Garden and Mr. James Brown himself. Brown had his own reasons to worry about the concert. He didn't want to jeopardize a contract he'd already signed for exclusive film footage for a future TV special. He also worried some of his fans would choose to watch the show from their homes.
The show did go on. An ominous mood cloaked the arena, where a crowd of less than a fifth of the capacity attended. Roxbury experienced only minor violence and vandalism. Brown, Atkins and empathetic mayoral assistant (now congressman) Barney Frank were applauded.
For the rest of the weekend, other city leaders asked Brown to play peacemaker. He visited Rochester, N.Y., and with less success, Washington, D.C. where 12,000 troops of the National Guard were stationed. In D.C., 12 citizens died during the unrest, 1,097 were injured, and more than 6,100 were arrested. Some 1,200 buildings had been burned, including over 900 stores. To be fair, much of the damage occurred while Brown was in Boston.
Though no one could fulfill MLK's symbolic role as "drum major for justice," James Brown wielded influence through a successful merger of music and message. His many appearances on televised teen dance shows, the all-important Ed Sullivan Show and even a cameo role in the surf-movie knockoff Ski Partyhelped build his popularity with hip white youth in the 1960s.
Sullivan's important work has a few historical miscues. A section about Brown's late 1960s conversion to a natural hairstyle reads "…The Panthers wore naturals. The Nation wore naturals…" The latter group did not sport Afros—it was more close-cut styles—though its men did not straighten their hair, and its women generally covered their heads. Sullivan notes that 1967 was the year the Boston Celtics named Bill Russell the NBA's first black coach, which was actually in 1966. And the influential Washington radio station WOL did not adopt the slogan "Information is Power" until Dick Gregory became a host two decades later.
These minor quibbles aside, Sullivan excels at tracing Brown's influences, from flamboyant minister Charles “Daddy” Graceto dynamic musicians such as Louis Jordan and Tampa Red. While Sam Cooke and Lou Rawls emulated gospel vocalists, Brown adopted the crowd-pleasing gimmicks of the preachers, especially with his cape act. Brown and his band developed the signature sound now known as funk. Sullivan credits Brown's bandsmen with creating many nuances in the funk sound.
By the 1980s, though, Brown's singles faded from the top of the charts, his legacy grew due to early hip-hop artists such as Afrika Bambaataa, Marley Marl and Public Enemy paying tribute to his "Funky Drummer" in lyrics and samples. Homages from the likes of George Clinton, Michael Jackson and Prince, and cameo film roles in The Blues Brothers and Rocky IV (singing "Living in America") kept the one-man force of nature in the public eye.
Two years ago, the world woke up on Christmas morning to learn that the force had died. It is perhaps the greatest tribute that the matchless soul lives on.
Bijan C. Bayne is a cultural critic based in Washington, D.C.