Celebrating the 50th anniversary of James Brown saving Boston - Metro US

Celebrating the 50th anniversary of James Brown saving Boston

The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, left a hole in a lot of people’s hearts.

When news of his death started to spread, so did a wave of riots in cities ranging from New York to Baltimore. While the country struggled to deal with this surge of social unrest, Boston was mostly spared, all thanks to the Godfather of Soul, James Brown.

The music icon was scheduled to perform at the old Boston Garden the day after King’s murder, but nearly didn’t take the stage due to Mayor Kevin White, who was concerned that the show would only fuel more violence. However, some city officials also feared that canceling the show would exacerbate the issue.

Tom Atkins, a young African American city councilman, suggested that they air a free broadcast of the show on live television, in an effort to keep more people in their houses as opposed to taking to the streets. The plan almost didn’t come to fruition as Brown had a non-compete agreement with another station and would’ve lost $60,000 if his Boston performance was broadcast. However, White agreed to pay Brown and the show went on.

Although only 2,000 fans showed up to the 14,000-seat Garden that day, Boston was able to avert a riot thanks to Brown’s performance. 

This historic moment will be commemorated with a 50th anniversary tribute show at the Regent Theatre on Saturday night. Tony Wilson, who’s been called “the young James Brown” by the late legend himself, headlines the performance and will be backed by several surviving members from Brown’s band.

“It was very important that it wasn’t going to be another riot after Martin Luther King’s assassination,” Wilson says of the 1968 show in Boston.

In typical James Brown style, this weekend’s performance will be full of energy, filled with spins, flips and, of course, all of Mr. Dynamite’s classic songs. Chinese concert violinist Judy Lei will join Wilson as well for renditions of “It’s A Man’s World” and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

“We’re going to do all of James Brown’s hits,” Wilson says. “It’s going to be high energy.” 

Young James Brown Boston

After a stint with Michael Jackson, Wilson began working with Brown in the early ’90s. The late icon taught his protege everything he needed to know about working with bands and showmanship, and Wilson promised Brown that he’d keep his legacy alive.

“James Brown took me under his wing,” Wilson says. “He passed the baton over to me and I told him I would always keep his legacy and keep his band working as much as I can.”

Wilson believes Brown’s mantra of “I’m black and I’m proud” has inspired generations of African Americans to believe in themselves.

“It made me as a young kid hold my chest out and say I’m black and I’m proud of it,” Wilson shares. “I think it was very important that he single-handily gave African American people something to be proud of, and that’s themselves.”

If you go:

March 24, 8 p.m., Regent Theatre, 7 Medford St., Arlington, $40+, regenttheatre.com

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