- Written by Randal C. Hill Randal C. Hill
All the world over, so easy to see
People everywhere just want to be free
When the Rascals’ “People Got to Be Free” held down the top Billboard spot for five weeks in the fall of 1968, it gained fame as a tribute to both Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy.
King had been murdered that April, and the future classic was recorded afterward but before Kennedy’s assassination that June.
“People Got to Be Free” wasn’t released until after RFK’s death, but the timing of the song — with the twin tragedies still fresh in the public’s mind — allowed the rousing anthem to become a widely embraced plea for humanitarianism.
The original genesis of “People Got to Be Free,” however, was something entirely unrelated.
Formed in 1965 as a white rock quartet in Garfield, New Jersey, the Young Rascals began as a “blue-eyed” soul outfit. Dressed like a group of English schoolboys to appropriate the then-trendy “British Invasion” look, they spent weekends playing at Garfield’s Choo Choo Club.
The Young Rascals signed with Atlantic Records. The band’s debut 45, the oddly titled “I Ain’t Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore,” came and went quickly, but their second effort of “Good Lovin’” (a hard-driving cover of a minor hit nearly a year earlier by L.A. soul folks the Olympics) reached No. 1 on the Hot 100 chart, as did “Groovin’” a year later.
After the release of “It’s Wonderful” at the end of 1967, the quartet became simply the Rascals.
Group members Felix Cavaliere (vocals, keyboards) and Eddie Brigati (vocals, bass) co-wrote most of the songs and switched off lead vocals on the band’s 13 Top 40 winners. “People Got to Be Free” became the band’s third chart-topping 45, and their biggest hit ever, on its way to becoming an iconic civil rights tune.
Cavaliere once said of the aggressive, horn-punctuated entreaty for altruism, “That [song] was a conscious effort to get a point across that was burning inside of me. I collaborated with Eddie on that, but on that one the majority of the lyric is mine.”
Cavaliere fittingly ends the song by half-singing, half-proclaiming that “The train of freedom is about to arrive any minute now,” and that “It’s been long, long overdue.”
Before “People Got to Be Free” was issued, Atlantic balked at the idea of the Rascals releasing such an overtly political work. The musicians persevered, though, and in the end they enjoyed a hit that sold more than 4 million copies.
The Rascals then adopted two policies unique in the world of rock music: They refused to tour on segregated bills, and they insisted that at least one of their supporting acts be black.
An odd situation had inspired “People Got to Be Free” a while earlier. The song was conceived — but not developed at the time — after an ugly encounter when the Rascals’ tour bus broke down in Fort Pierce, Florida, and rowdy locals hassled the musicians over their long hair!
Randal C. Hill is a rock ’n’ roll historian who lives at the Oregon coast. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.