When James Brown Played Rikers Island Prison 50 Years Ago (1972)

Though not as well known as John­ny Cash’s con­certs at Fol­som and San Quentin pris­ons, James Brown’s 1972 con­cert at Rik­ers Island equal­ly quelled ris­ing ten­sions, and dis­played the humil­i­ty of the artist at the top of his game. Fifty years ago on March 16, Brown and his full band played two sets in front of a crowd of around 550. And until a bet­ter source is found, the above video is the only mov­ing record of that event, a shot from a tele­vi­sion news broad­cast. How did this con­cert come about? Accord­ing to the research of New York Times writer Bil­ly Heller, a lot comes down to the tenac­i­ty of Glo­ria Bond, who worked at the New York Board of Cor­rec­tions.

Ear­li­er in 1972, Rik­ers Island had seen major unrest. Inhu­mane con­di­tions and over­crowd­ing had led to a riot that injured 75 inmates and 20 guards. The post-riot atmos­phere was a “pres­sure cook­er”. The Board had pre­vi­ous­ly brought in Coret­ta Scott King to speak to pris­on­ers, and Har­ry Bela­fonte to per­form. But James Brown was some­body dif­fer­ent, with music that was rev­o­lu­tion­ary, and lyrics that were influ­enced by, and an influ­ence on, the Black Pow­er move­ment.

Brown’s man­ag­er Charles Bob­bit told Glo­ria Bond that the God­fa­ther of Soul was a hard man to get a hold of and rarely came to the office. Accord­ing to Bond’s daugh­ter Anna, Glo­ria replied:

“She says to him: ‘Well, Mr. Bob­bit, I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll bring my knit­ting and I’ll sit in that cor­ner over there,’” Anna Bond said. “‘I won’t both­er any­body. I’ll just wait till he comes.’”
Glo­ria Bond did just that. “Every­body in the office got to know her, and they’d bring her cof­fee,” Anna Bond said. “She became part of the entourage by sit­ting in her lit­tle cor­ner, knit­ting.” Even­tu­al­ly, Brown arrived at the office and came face to face with Glo­ria Bond. “And the rest is his­to­ry,” Anna Bond said.

It helped that Brown was on a musi­cal cru­sade to save kids from drugs and a fast track to prison. Hav­ing once served time in his younger days, Brown saw too many Black youth going to jail for drug-relat­ed crimes. He had record­ed a song, a spo­ken poem in the style of “It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World” called “King Hero­in.” The drug was dec­i­mat­ing com­mu­ni­ties by the turn of the decade.

At Rik­ers he told the most­ly young audi­ence: “When you leave here, you can have a good life or you can have a bad life. How­ev­er you do it when you get out is up to you.” Brown used his own life as a mod­el of ris­ing above adver­si­ty. He also brought his full game (and his full ensem­ble to the show), treat­ing this gig as impor­tant as a show at the Apol­lo, maybe more so.

The pho­tog­ra­ph­er Diana Mara Hen­ry shot sev­er­al rolls of film that day and doc­u­ment­ed in black and white Brown and his band. Her quote from the short video below (note the incor­rect year) serves as a vibe for the whole expe­ri­ence:

“As an artist, you put every­thing you can into a per­for­mance and at some point you turn it over to the audi­ence.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

James Brown Gives You Danc­ing Lessons: From The Funky Chick­en to The Booga­loo

The Best Com­mer­cial Ever? James Brown Sells Miso Soup (1992)

James Brown Saves Boston After Mar­tin Luther King’s Assas­si­na­tion, Calls for Peace Across Amer­i­ca (1968)

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the Notes from the Shed pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

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