How Nina Simone and James Brown Mourned MLK, Jr. Onstage

After Martin Luther King, Jr.'s murder 45 years ago today, two of the era's most prominent black musicians gave career-defining performances as they helped audiences grieve.
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James Brown; AP

They were born only months apart in adjoining southern states, then rose to worldwide prominence as civil rights icons and peerlessly intense live performers. But for all their similarities, James Brown and Nina Simone's careers never quite overlapped. Brown drove his band through mercilessly athletic shows on the Chitlin' Circuit, essentially willing himself into pop and R&B stardom in the '50s and '60s. Simone leveraged classical piano training and a catholic musical taste into a mellower but broader body of work that brought together soul and jazz. In their parallel journeys, both redefined what it meant to be black in America, so it's only fitting that they ended up leaving some of their most lasting testimonies within days of each other in early April 1968, immediately following the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Simone and Brown both heard the news while on the job. He was filming a TV spot in New York and preparing for a show the next night at the Boston Garden, while she was about to begin her first rehearsals for a concert at Long Island's Westbury Music Fair two nights after that. Before either played a note, the country descended into chaos: Riots broke out in 125 American cities, resulting in 46 deaths and more than 2,600 injuries.

By all rights they should have been playing in each other's venues. The Garden show promised to be majority black, a downtown party in the Northeast's most segregated city. The venue managers elected to cancel the event, which left the city council terrified that thousands of ticketholders would be stranded angrily in the middle of the city with nothing to do. The minute Brown got to Boston, the mayor's office pleaded for him to think as a black leader first and an entertainer second, something that violated his entire ethos. Popular and inspirational as he was to black audiences, Brown was a reluctant civil-rights icon. He was still months away from styling his hair naturally and recording "Say it Loud—I'm Black And I'm Proud," and had scrupulously avoided any overt alliances with potentially controversial black leaders, King included. (Only later in life would he publicly befriend political figures, notably two men who weren't known for their minority activism: Ronald Reagan and Strom Thurmond.) "Instinctively the singer responded to obstacles in his path with a display of money and aggression," wrote biographer RJ Smith. "The idea of a mass movement, of an appeal based on shared beliefs rather than on superior individuality, was not in Brown's makeup." He wanted fame and the independence it brought, and wasn't satisfied playing only for black audiences.

Simone, by comparison, had become increasingly devoted to performing for black people, and for their liberation more specifically. After an apolitical upbringing in North Carolina, she experienced a gradual awakening to racial injustice until the 1963 assassination of Medgar Evers radicalized her for good. Only six months before the Evers shooting, she had declined an invitation to perform at a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee-sponsored event at Carnegie Hall. But when four young black girls were killed in an infamous Birmingham church bombing later in 1963, Simone was moved to write one of her signature songs and a seminal protest anthem, "Mississippi Goddam." From that point she became a fixture at civil rights gatherings, and her anger only deepened as the decade wore on. In her memoir, I Put a Spell on You, she called the King assassination "the traditional white American tactic for getting rid of black leaders it couldn't suppress in any other way." The immediate aftermath was "a time for bitterness." Simone's sympathies were for the country's urban rioters, but her professional obligation was to a middle-class concert hall well outside New York proper.

Brown's sympathies, as ever, were with his bottom line. As a crowd-control tactic, the promoters and local government in Boston came up with a plan to broadcast Brown's performance live on public television. Potential rioters would hopefully stay at home to catch it. Brown responded to the idea as a businessman, thinking of his many outstanding contract stipulations that limited his broadcast opportunities. "If I go on TV here tonight, I'll have lawsuits and trouble every which way," he later recalled saying to the anxious city council. Driving by the Garden early on April 5, Brown saw lines of people turning in their tickets for a refund since they now knew they could watch the show for free on their couches. Only after striking a deal to keep the gate profits—essentially forcing the city of Boston to pay him $60,000 for the service of subduing his fan base—did he put pressure on his management to nullify his other obligations, an agreement that was reached easily, "within an hour," according to his memoirs.

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John Lingan is a writer based outside Washington, D.C. He has written for The Los Angeles Review of BooksSlate, and The Morning News.

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