Book Review: Rock & Roll Books

James Sullivan

Rock & Roll Books

The Hardest Working Man: How James Brown Saved the Soul of America

by James Sullivan
Gotham Books, 272 pp., $25

"His was a self-confidence so supreme it bordered on the absurd," James Sullivan writes of James Brown. After all, what other entertainer was called on to stave off riots? The book tells the story behind Brown's April 5, 1968, concert at the Boston Garden the day after Martin Luther King was gunned down in Memphis and many U.S. cities were in flames. The performance was almost canceled before a radio deejay hipped officials: Thousands of slighted James Brown fans in a city on the brink was a situation worth avoiding. Brown and Mayor Kevin White usually share credit for televising the concert, yet both needed convincing. The complicated negotiations intrigue, but Sullivan never fully commits to the concert and surrounding events, flashing back and forth between Beantown and Brown's early life and career. Despite too many tangential tidbits, it works until the book lurches on in anticlimax for several chapters after the curtain drops on the big show, addressing everything from the Godfather's well-documented influence on hip-hop to his problems with the Internal Revenue Service. Nevertheless, the concert is a fascinating lens through which to view Boston race relations, the civil rights movement, and Brown's remarkable career as the hardest-working man in showbiz.

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