This Day In History: March 16

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On March 16, 1972, the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, performs two shows for inmates on Rikers Island, the notorious New York City prison complex. Brown pulls out all the stops, taking the show as seriously as any other gig and delivering a message of hope to crowds consisting of young men being held in pre-trial detention.

The idea to have Brown perform at Rikers came from Gloria Bond, a member of a civilian oversight board tasked with advocating for prisoners. Bond waited in Brown’s manager’s office for weeks, knitting and getting to know the staff, before finally meeting the soul legend, who quickly agreed to do the show. Brown, who served three years in prison after being convicted of theft as a teenager, was very concerned with crime, poverty, and drug abuse in African American communities. The Rikers show came a day after he performed “King Heroin,” a song about the ravages of drug abuse, on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

Brown was also nicknamed “the Hardest Working Man in Showbusiness,” and he lived up to that title at Rikers. So many young men—the crowd consisted of 16- to 20-year-olds, most of whom were incarcerated pending trial—wanted to see Brown that two shows were booked, with a combined attendance of 1,100. Brown brought an entourage that reportedly included 18 people, including a full slate of backup singers, dancers and a comedian to warm up the crowds. The audience was enthusiastic, and witnesses stated that Brown gave the shows “110 percent” despite not being paid for the gig. After performing “Please, Please, Please,” Brown delivered a message to the young men: “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’s performance has been compared to Johnny Cash’s shows at Folsom and San Quentin prisons. Despite his positive message, Brown would famously be sent to prison again in 1988 on a slew of charges. He died in 2006. The practice of holding accused people at Rikers ahead of their trials has been widely criticized, particularly given the rate at which inmates there have died.