No matter what was happening in his tumultuous personal life, the Godfather of Soul put on a memorable show when he performed in Connecticut.
According to Hartford Courant archives, Brown played here at least seven times, from the mid-1960s until his death in 2006, beginning with an outdoor gig at Powder Hill in Middlefield on August 26, 1966, with his 21-piece Famous Flames orchestra.
Three years later, on November 8, 1969, Brown performed with a slightly smaller band (still at least 12 members) at the Bushnell in Hartford, with singer Martha Whitney entertaining the crowd at set break. “As though possessed by demons,” reviewer Greg Robertson wrote, “[Brown] threw the microphone out, snapped it back with the cord, whirled, dropped heavily to his knees and crooned into the mike cradled in his arms… The audience went wild.” (Brown also gave away five one-year scholarships to the Greater Hartford Community College and donated six bicycles to area youth groups.)
The early 1970s, when Brown recorded “Sex Machine” and other funk classics, was a transitional time; he parted ways with most of his touring ensemble and added bassist Bootsy Collins and his brother, guitarist Phelps “Catfish” Collins. In February 1975, Brown played to a half-empty Hartford Civic Center; the concert that was targeted by Hartford’s city manager as a “high-risk event” requiring 70 policemen and security guards. (No disturbances were reported.) “[Brown] changed outfits five times,” Andrew Kreig wrote for the Courant. “The crowd liked it.” As his career continued to decline, Brown returned to the Bushnell in 1983, and again in September 1985, months before Sylvester Stallone and “Rocky IV” gave him another boost.
“My song is ‘Living in America,’” Brown told Courant rock critic Frank Rizzo in 1985, “and it reminds people that America is our home and that living in America is an enjoyable experience.” The song, written by Dan Hartman and Charlie Midnight, became a high point in the singer’s live show for years to come and sparked a resurgence of interest in Brown’s music. (He won a Grammy Award for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance.)
After serving three years in prison for various offenses (he was released in 1991), Brown performed at the Oakdale Theatre in Wallingford in the summer of 1993 (he was joined onstage by the Reverend Al Sharpton) and again at Foxwoods Resort Casino in 1997. “Whatever his age,” Courant critic Roger Caitlin wrote in his review of the Oakdale show, “[Brown is] still the fireball of intensity, who keeps tight control over his crack show band and is on top of the entire, lengthy workout.” At Foxwoods, when fans didn’t like Brown’s decision to play a slower number, he shared some choice words: “Oh, you’ll get your funk… You can’t help but get your funk. You’ll have funk all over your plate. You’ll have funk all over your shoes when you go home.”
Courant rock critic Eric Danton covered Brown’s 2005 appearance at the Calvin Theatre in Northampton, which took place just over a year before Brown’s passing at the age of 73.
“At 72, Brown still puts on a Show,” Danton wrote. “His voice has gotten huskier over the years; he doesn’t dance with the same abandon he once did; and if he fell to his knees now in a dramatic display of emotion, he might not get back up on his own. But he is still a riveting presence on stage, a consummate entertainer who works up a sweat making sure his audience gets what it paid for.”
“Get On Up,” a biopic starring Chadwick Boseman, opens this Friday in theaters across the country.