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.”
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.