Sheila E.’s Iconic: Message 4 America offers a musical palette of iconic songs, primarily from the ‘60s and ‘70s. Though the album dropped in September, the self-released project didn’t garner as much attention as it deserved, so we’re happy to give it a shout out during Black History Month.
Described as a musical movement for turbulent times, Sheila conceived of the album as “a call for us to rise up and stand for something that is greater than our self-interest.” Instead of creating new music, she chose to reinvent “some of the greatest protest and revolution songs . . . to fit current times.” Assisting her in this endeavor are members of her band plus a bevy of exemplary guests. Of course, Sheila Escovedo herself is a renowned drummer and percussionist perhaps best known for her work with Prince, but she’s also an amazing vocalist as she proves on each and every track.
The album opens with “Funky National Anthem,” a powerful medley drawing upon multiple texts beginning with Sheila’s spoken intro from the Declaration of Independence. After a brief (and yes, very funky) version of the National Anthem, the final three minutes draw upon some of the most famous and inspiring speeches by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Presidents John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama. On this track, Sheila issues a “call for our leaders to rise up and work for the betterment of men and women, no matter the race, color, or creed.”
The first celebrity guest enters on the Beatles’ “Come Together,” with Ringo Starr taking over the drum kit. Once again, a rousing spoken intro kicks off the arrangement (as in the Primal Scream version): “This is a beautiful day / we are unified / we are of one accord / today we are together / when we are together we got power!” Sly & The Family Stone’s “Everyday People” also features original band members: Freddie Stone on lead vocal and guitar, and Lynn Mabry on tambourine.
An album of this nature can’t be complete without representation from Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield. On Gayes’ “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” Sheila deftly incorporates elements of “Trouble Man,” with Eddie M. (former Prince saxophonist) on lead vocals. “Pusherman,” the Mayfield classic from the Superfly soundtrack is sung by Sheila, who adds “You took Prince, Pusherman.” You know she won’t finish this album without a Prince tribute. Anthony Antoine was selected to sing the combined “America – Free,” yet another amazing and provocative track.
Israel Houghton takes over on Stevie Wonder’s “Jesus Children of America,” with Greg Phillinganes on organ and Dino Saldo on harmonica. Really, it doesn’t get any better than this. Oh wait! Another highlight is the James Brown Medley. Bootsy Collins joins Sheila for this funk fest that joins together half a dozen of JB’s Black Power era anthems, beginning with “Talking Loud and Saying Nothing” and concluding with “Super Bad.” And there’s more P-funk. George Clinton sits in for “One Nation Under a Groove,” which segues into “Mothership Connection.”
These are just some of the treats in store on Sheila’s masterful Iconic: Message 4 America, featuring some of the top musicians in the business performing amazing arrangements of iconic songs. I believe Sheila E. has also achieved her other goals: “To bring awareness, to spark conversation, to allow healing, to restore hope, to express love, to find peace, and to unite through music.”
Those who tuned in to Boston’s public television station WGBH on April 5, 1968 planning to watch Sir Laurence Olivier in a production of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya were probably shocked to hear “Negro singer Jimmy Brown and his band” introduced instead. Vanya, Astrov, and Yelena were booted from that evening’s programming in favor of a live broadcast of James Brown’s concert at Boston Garden, which occurred only twenty-four hours after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The concert had been planned for months, but in the wake of King’s tragic demise, it was repackaged as a “memorial concert” and shown live on WGBH, with rebroadcasts throughout the night. James Brown and this concert are often credited with keeping the peace in Boston that night, as it was one of the few major American cities not torn apart by reactionary violence, riots, and vandalism. Dozens died and hundreds were injured in cities throughout the United States, but according to Tom Atkins, Boston’s only black councilperson in 1968, “The city was quieter than it would have been on an ordinary Friday night.” Whether Brown actually did save Boston is up to the individual to decide, preferably after having watched The Night James Brown Saved Boston and James Brown Live at Boston Garden.
James Brown’s musical and political roles in the aftermath of King’s assassination are chronicled in this three-disc collection from director David Leaf. Disc one, The Night James Brown Saved Boston, documents the events surrounding the concert. Incorporating footage from the concert, news clips from riots at the time, and commentary from Dr. Cornel West, Rev. Al Sharpton, Jr., Dr. Robert Hall, Brown’s manager Charles Bobbit, and several others, this disc provides an overview of what happened in the country and how Boston, with James Brown’s help, prevented itself from going up in flames that night. The second disc in the collection is James Brown Live at the Boston Garden, the actual WGBH broadcast from that night, complete with questionable sound quality, occasionally jumpy camera-handling, and one of the most electrifying James Brown concerts ever caught on tape. Finally, disc three is entitled James Brown Live at the Apollo ’68, and it is a compilation of various Brown performances at Harlem’s Apollo Theater in March of 1968. While the three-disc collection is entitled I Got the Feelin’: James Brown in the ‘60s, nearly all the footage is from 1968.
The Night James Brown Saved Boston chronicles the trials and tribulations leading up to and including the April 5, 1968 concert. Originally, Mayor Kevin White wanted to cancel the concert because to bring “as many as fifteen or twenty thousand black people … particularly young people” into the city “would be a problem,” but White eventually came around when Councilperson Atkins warned him that to cancel the concert in the wake of King’s assassination would cause “all hell to break loose.” The show went on as planned, with the added tag of “memorial concert” for Dr. King. Tensions were palpable: most commentators in the documentary mention various elements of fear, anger, and revenge, and Leaf blends those interviews into the narrative along with news reports of ravaged cities, pleas from President Lyndon Johnson to “reject the blind violence that has struck Dr. King, who lived by non-violence,” and an interview given by White the afternoon of the concert, in which he said, “I’m hoping it [the concert] is one valve that will let off some steam.” The rage came to a head toward the end of the actual concert, when several people jumped onstage and Brown dismissed the police in order to handle the situation himself. He told the interlopers, “You’re not being fair to yourselves and me either, or your race. Now I asked the police to step back because I thought I could get some respect from my own people. Don’t make sense. Now we together or we ain’t.” Apparently they were together, because the fans left the stage peacefully, and Brown finished the concert without further disruption. This is the most powerful moment of the entire concert, but it is rendered less so in The Night James Brown Saved Boston because it is constantly interrupted by commentary from the various informants. (Seen in its entirety in James Brown Live at Boston Garden, however, it is a positively nail-biting few minutes.) Brown may or may not have saved Boston that night, but the way in which he disarmed a potential riot certainly saved many necks and a lot of pride at Boston Garden.
The Night James Brown Saved Boston also addresses the unfortunate financial ramifications of the concert, its live broadcast, and the refunds offered to ticketholders. White had okayed the broadcast without first asking Brown, and Brown was livid about the money he stood to lose, particularly because not only would the concert be televised, but the Garden was also offering refunds to ticketholders. Bobbit, Brown’s manager, estimates that they lost about sixty thousand dollars, even after the city provided about ten thousand dollars for the expenses. White’s response is smug: “He was worth the sixty [thousand]. I don’t know about the music, but for the city, he was,” and Bobbit said that Brown ultimately shrugged off the loss and said it was good for the people. Even though White refers to both Brown and himself as “two arrogant people,” the fact that Leaf does not linger over the financial losses allows both White and Brown to save face. While Brown’s financial losses are an integral part of the story, the appropriate amount of attention is paid and the majority of the emphasis remains on the concert, not the money.
The dramatic structure of The Night James Brown Saved Boston is relatively straightforward. Little information is given about either Brown or Dr. King prior to April of 1968 and instead, the story limits itself to the 48-hour period surrounding King’s assassination and the Brown concert. (For those in need of biographical background, Rickey Vincent’s liner notes summarize Brown’s childhood and rise to stardom.) Throughout the documentary, the music and politics are interwoven without seeming preachy or overtly sentimental: “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” underscores a speech given by King on April 3, 1968, lending King’s extended syllables (“I’ve seen the promised land,” “we as a people”) a sense of musicality; at another point, footage from the concert shares the screen with a news report about the violence in other parts of the country, juxtaposing the peace in Boston with the violence in other cities. Otherwise, Leaf sticks to bouncing back and forth between the commentators and still images or concert footage, rather than inundating the viewer with too much information. The final fifteen minutes, which are devoted to Brown’s activities and activism after that night, including “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud),” drag and feel like a frantic attempt for an effective closing.
James Brown Live at Boston Garden, which resurrects the footage that had previously been abandoned in the WGBH archives, presents the concert exactly as it appeared on television that night. It opens with Atkins introducing Brown, a brief speech by White, and then, there is nobody but James Brown. The sound quality is less than stellar, but as Russ Morash, the director at WGBH, explains on disc one, the poor sound quality resulted from the incongruous equipment (the audio department usually handled “fine,” classical sounds) and the fact that “they substituted the most expendable mics that they could, fearing the worst, that they would be thrown to the floor and stamped on.” Regardless, the performance is outstanding: Brown does not need pyrotechnics, elaborate stage machinery, or his own personal lighting director – when his hair shakes itself loose from the pompadour, the sweat courses down his face, and his limbs seem to move without regard to his bones, any concerns about the sound quality are forgotten. The performance of “I Got a Feeling” last over ten minutes, and it is arguably the most outstanding number in the concert. The solos by tenor saxophonist Maceo Parker and drummer Clyde Stubblefield in “Cold Sweat” are also show-stoppers. Following is a brief clip of “I Feel Good” from the Boston Garden concert:
James Brown Live at the Apollo ’68 rounds out the triumvirate of discs in this collection, and it is the least exciting of the three but still a worthwhile viewing experience. The color video often just includes head shots or images of Brown from the chest up; such a field of vision erases his dancing and the unstoppable energy that seems to radiate from every cell in his body. Distance shots are almost too far away to capture the frenetic movement in Brown’s dance breaks, and there are too many visual distractions, such as heads in the audience and light refracting from band members’ instruments, to capture the full effect of Brown in motion. Of course, the deficiencies are not the responsibility of those who reissued this performance, and this series, broadcast on television as James Brown: Man to Man, is one of the few lengthy live performances recorded prior to Brown’s 1968 Boston concert. The middle of the program features footage of Brown in Harlem and Watts, discussing the state of blacks in the United States and remarking, “My fight is for the Black American [to] become America.” The bonus features on the disc include three other live performances, including “Out of Sight” from the 1964 concert film The T.A.M.I Show, and “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” and “I Got You (I Feel Good),” both performed at L’Olympia in Paris in 1967 and 1968, respectively.
This collection addresses an exquisite moment in American history in which music and politics reflected the best and worst parts of the human spirit. The music is incomparable, and it is no hyperbole to say that the energy in Brown’s performance transcends time, whether viewed on a black-and-white TV set in 1968 or on a 2008 digital flat-screen. Ultimately, what these discs are missing is Brown’s own (speaking) voice. West, Atkins, White, and Sharpton relate statements Brown made to them, but these secondary reflections are no substitute for hearing the Godfather of Soul himself speaking. While James Brown’s speech certainly lacked the elegance and polish of Dr. King’s, the documentary would be that much more effective if even one sentence about the concert from Brown himself was included. Alas, the music is his only statement. And what a statement it is.