Written by: Cyriaque Griffon
Photographs: Solange Podell
New York, June 1968
After having lobbied President Johnson, a music star managed to go and entertain the U.S. soldiers in a war zone area in Vietnam. If one recalls the political climate of that time, not only had a harsh Viet Cong offensive reverberated in the USA, Bobby Kennedy had just been fatally shot. It was also two months after Martin Luther King’s assassination when race relations were at a breaking point and President Johnson had declared a state of emergency.
The Godfather of Soul, as he was referred to, had also been credited with having an outstanding calming effect on the tense racial situation. Case in point: Boston. As fires and mayhem had started spreading across the country on April 5 after the Reverend’s assassination, Boston was the only city that had remained quiet that same night. The singer’s performance in Boston was broadcast live with the aim of preventing Bostonians from going on the streets and triggering riots. They talked about the night when James Brown saved Boston.
What a thrilling mission when Solange Podell was commissioned to follow for several days in the streets of New York one of the most mediatised music stars of the sixties. Brown arrived in New York amid escalating tensions. Two days before he was still entertaining the troops in Vietnam. He welcomed her with his legendary big smile. She went with him to the NBC studio where he was to attend the Johnny Carson Show, one of the most popular TV shows of that time.
Because he had volunteered to go and sing in Vietnam, he had been designated honorary lieutenant colonel. As Solange went and saw him backstage in his dressing room, he was proud to open a box and showed her a row of medals he had received for the occasion. I am leaving to tour in Canada soon. I would like you to follow me there as a photographer he said while getting very close to her, as he really seemed to be about to grab her by the waist. She turned down the offer but continued her assignment for two days.
He was handsome and elegant, dressed in a light-coloured suit, walking in the streets of New York with some members of his entourage. In the tide of racial tensions of that time, some of his staff members did not reserve Solange such a warm welcome and Brown insisted they let her do her job. James Brown’s song Say it loud: I’m black and I’m proud would soon be embraced as an anthem by the Black Power movement. Solange, as an advocate against racism, would prove two days later in Yankee Stadium where Brown was due to perform, that she was white and proud in a crowd of 40,000 overexcited black spectators. She captured magical moments of that evening including the unmissable and mythical theatrics at the end of the show when, in a routine that was his trademark, an exhausted Brown would fall on his knees and his assistant would come over and place a cape around his shoulders. As the over-excitement started exuding from the crowd, he had told her again that he wanted her to follow him next in Canada.
Solange and Brown got separated by the crowd and did not have time to say goodbye. She knew later that Brown’s assistant had been told by the singer to contact Solange. As the assistant did not seem to like the ‘white’ photographer, he never gave the message. Solange had finished her assignment. She left the stadium and went back home. Tell her to wait for me Brown had said.