Soul Brother No. 1 James Brown Endorses Richard Nixon? Believe It
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because complicated figures always seem to have a way of finding each other.
By Eugene S. Robinson
- Soul Singer James Brown not only played Richard M. Nixon’s 1968 inaugural but by 1972 he was endorsing him for a second term.
- The move, unsurprisingly, was deeply unpopular.
“No more Black stuff.” Coming out of the late 1960s, both John and Robert Kennedy had been assassinated and so had Martin Luther King Jr., the Vietnam War was grinding up some of our best and brightest, and cities were aflame with civil rights riots. And a campaigning President Richard Nixon? He was in top Nixon form.
“No more Blacks from now on. Just don’t bring ’em in here.”
In 1968, Nixon was engaged in a three-way race between him, the incumbent Democratic Vice President Hubert Humphrey and the former governor of Alabama, the unabashedly racist George Wallace, who was running as an independent. Nixon famously won via a mix of tricks and some solid politicking.
But then the head-scratcher: an offer from the Nixon camp to soul singer James Brown. The offer? An inauguration gig. Brown, politically unaffiliated though leaning right, agreed.
“No more Black stuff.”
“I accepted because I want to give our new president a chance to bring the people of this nation together in every respect of our national life,” Brown told Jet magazine. So two days before Nixon was sworn in for his second term, Brown appeared at the All-American Gala. Everyone was there: Tony Bennett, Dinah Shore and Connie Francis.
Everybody but the Nixons.
There were security concerns, not unfounded since three months earlier another James Brown show had ended in violence. So the new first couple didn’t get to hear the Godfather of Soul singing “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud.”
If Brown was stung by the Nixons’ absence at the inaugural show, we’ll never know. Two years later, his visit to Zambia helped repair American ties to African leaders that Nixon had put in jeopardy by snubbing a scheduled meeting.
But by 1972, Nixon was working hard to court Black voters. He’d given Sammy Davis Jr. a role on the National Advisory Council on Economic Opportunity, and Davis famously embraced him onstage at a ’72 campaign rally in Miami.
But when it came to Brown, Nixon pushed back against meeting the icon, saying on tape, “No more Black stuff.” An aide finally had to explain to Nixon that James Brown was hugely influential with Black voters, and Nixon begrudgingly agreed. And thus, the strangest political bedfellows of all time: Mr. Dynamite and arguably the least funky president ever, Tricky Dick.
The horse trading was supposed to be simple. James Brown’s endorsement would be repaid by fulfilling his wish to have a national holiday announced for Martin Luther King Jr. Nixon yeah-yeahs this and in photo ops seems pleased as punch to be meeting with Brown, whose message at the time was very much a quasi-conservative pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps thing.
“I don’t want nobody to give me nothing, just open up the door, I’ll get it myself,” Brown sang, and though he knew most of the Black community back then despised Nixon, he had hoped Nixon would at least open up the door.
So in 1972, Soul Brother No. 1 James Brown does the almost unthinkable and endorses Richard Nixon for president, and the world loses its collective mind. Or at least the portion of the world that he had most hoped to appeal to: Black folks.
Black folks, to put it kindly, were not impressed. In fact, there were protests, and fans called him one of the worst things you could be in 1972: a sellout.
“I’m not a sellout artist,” Brown proclaimed in a statement. “I’m not selling out, I’m selling in.”
And not buying in? Almost everyone. Shows that routinely would have packed 13,000-person venues were now only drawing 2,500 people inside, while people gathered outside picketing. Even the Congressional Black Caucus got in on the act, excoriating the Nixon administration for the “blatant exploitation of politically naive” entertainers.
Though Nixon beat George McGovern in a landslide that year — Nixon managing to win 18 percent of the African American vote — Brown had already started to pivot and this time he skipped the inauguration. The public reason? Because the White House refused to pay for the performance. Any other reason? Maybe just a sixth sense, since the Watergate scandal that pulled Nixon down two years later was already on a roll.
Side note: This worked out well for one Rev. Al Sharpton, who recently told The Carlos Watson Show that James Brown became his mentor during this same period, after Brown’s son Teddy, who’d been part of Sharpton’s youth group, died in an accident and Brown performed shows to benefit Sharpton’s youth group. “He took me on Soul Train and soon I became like a surrogate son to him. He became the father I didn’t have,” Sharpton says. “James Brown was probably the most interesting person I ever met.”
In 1973, the Amazing Mr. Please Please Himself laid down one of his lesser-known tunes: “You Can Have Watergate, Just Gimme Some Bucks and l’ll Be Straight.” In 1974, Nixon resigned in disgrace. When Jimmy Carter won the presidency in 1976, Brown attended one of his inaugural balls. No word on whether he was paid to attend.