Night of the Hurricane (Or Was it Just an Idiot Wind?)

How Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Ringo Starr, Stephen Stills, Isaac Hayes and Carlos Santana got hustled into doing a benefit for a rookie promoter, a powerful judge and a white-haired man, and forgot the imprisoned boxer, Rubin Carter

February 24, 1977
Bob Dylan performs on stage
Bob Dylan performs on stage.
Larry Hulst/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

It was coming on close to midnight on West 52nd Street in Manhattan and the rain was getting worse. There would be no vacant cabs passing by the San Marco where the three men stood under the restaurant's awning. Two of them were brothers, Clyde and Frank Carson, visiting from New Orleans. Finally Clyde caught the attention of the driver of an empty Cadillac limousine. As the three men pushed into the Caddy, Clyde noticed the belt buckle of the third man, a reporter. The belt buckle, not fancy by any standards, was inscribed: Rolling Thunder Revue.

"Goddamn!" said Clyde. "Those motherfuckers — after all I did, they wouldn't even give me a fucking belt buckle."

Who is Clyde Carson and why is he bitching about Bob Dylan not giving him a belt buckle? For one shining day, Carson was the promoter of one of the biggest rock benefits ever. He brought together on one stage, at the Astrodome in Houston, Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Stephen Stills, Ringo Starr, Carlos Santana, Richie Havens, Isaac Hayes, Dr. John, Kinky Friedman and even Dyan Cannon. And he doesn't even have a fucking belt buckle to show for it.

All he had, as he had painfully explained over and over at the restaurant, was a stack of debts totaling in the vicinity of $50,000.

Clyde Carson was a curious person to have decided to stage a massive show for the benefit of imprisoned boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter. He had never promoted a rock concert before. And his motives are still questioned.

Clyde Carson sat and shoveled in clams with his right hand while using the left to jab at the reporter as he insisted, with just the hint of a catch in his voice, that it had all been done for Hurricane.

"I've got three little girls — six, seven and eight," he said, with three punches to the reporter's arm, "and I think about Rubin's little daughter who grew up while he was in prison, and I think it could happen to me. Or to you," jab.

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On the other hand, if that benefit had sold out and brought in the 66,000 people Clyde expected, instead of the 30,383 he got, he (along with a secret group of backers) stood to rake off a percentage of the gross of $825,000 — ten percent of the first $100,000 of profit and thereafter a sliding-scale percentage that had been worked out with Avron Brog, attorney for Carter's defense committee. Whether the percentage slid up or down depends on whom you talked to. Clyde Carson remembered it "declining." But Brog said that if profits had hit $200,000, the promoters would "make . . . that's a 20% sliding scale." Had the show been in Louisiana's 80,000-seat Superdome, as Clyde and his coterie originally planned, a sellout would have grossed $1 million. Assuming realistic expenses of under $200,000, the Carson people would have had $800,000 or so to play with. A rake-off of only ten percent would have given them $80,000 for their trouble. Clyde and Brog don't like to talk about that; Carter would not talk about it, and performers in the benefit were never told about it.

Hurricane probably would have received a very substantial contribution, but Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder and the others would never have known that they had just performed free to line the pockets of a group of strangers in New Orleans as well. (When Clyde was later confronted with that fact, he refused to be specific about the sliding-scale deal he had made or to tell whether he had struck that deal with Carter himself. He was defensive: "We would not have made that much," he said. But one of his backers admitted they would have done all right for themselves if they'd had a sellout.)

Now that the matter of profit is a moot question, Clyde maintains that the benefit achieved its stated purpose — that of springing Hurricane from the slammer and getting him a retrial — solely by virtue of all the publicity. He is disturbed that Carter is broke, and he himself slipped him $500 on this trip to New York. "I just did the benefit," he said, in conclusion, "because I had a friend in prison I thought I could help. I don't care what you say about me. Just remember Hurricane," jab.

Hurricane Carter is not an easy man to forget, and the tale of how Clyde Carson, who had just moved from Las Vegas to New Orleans, decided to book Dylan, Wonder, et al. into a show in Houston to help out a man who was in prison in New Jersey is not an easy one to unravel.

Benefits themselves are curious creatures. Rock promoters hate them; they turn into nothing but trouble. As one example, five years after the "Concert for Bangladesh" there's been no clear, final accounting of what became of the monies. The Hurricane benefit is also without a clear ending.

It begins, of course, with Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, a man with an odd and compelling story. He's been embroiled in more controversy than any 12 convicted axmurderers.

First, there is the lingering matter of those long-ago murders in Paterson, New Jersey, for which Hurricane has served nine years in prison and for which he was recently retried. Then there was the ugly accusation that he beat and choked a woman — the leader of his defense committee — into unconsciousness. That only served to further entangle the mass of contentions that comprised his supporters — well-meaning whites who have long maintained that Hurricane, a black man, was railroaded by New Jersey authorities.

Among his strongest and most vocal supporters has been Bob Dylan, who wrote and recorded the biting ballad, "The Hurricane," declaring Carter's innocence. The song was what finally drew enough attention to make him a genuine cause célèbre.

Rubin Carter has been called everything from a "prison Buddha" to a "mad dog." He tells his own story in his book, The Sixteenth Round. He was born May 6th, 1937, in Clifton, New Jersey. As a child, he was "war counselor" of a neighborhood "club" called the Apaches and was arrested for stealing clothes. He was placed on two years probation. At about age 11, he was arrested for stabbing a white homosexual who accosted him. For that he was sent to a boys' home, where he began to learn to box. He escaped the home and joined the Army. In Germany he was transferred to Special Services as a boxer and took up the study of Islam. After his discharge, he was picked up on a warrant outstanding from his escape and was sent to a reformatory. On release he was arrested for purse snatching and assault and got a three-to-nine-year sentence at Trenton State Prison. He served four years and, after his release in 1961, began boxing professionally as a middleweight. In his five-year career, he claimed 29 wins, including 21 knockouts, and suffered 11 losses. He was a real contender — he once knocked out Emile Griffith in the first round — but the one time he boxed for the middleweight title, he lost to Joey Giardello in 15 rounds.

Then, at about 2:30 a.m., June 17th, 1966, two black men stormed into the Lafayette Bar and Grill in Paterson, New Jersey, opened fire with a shotgun and a .32 and hit the bartender and three patrons. Three of the four victims died. Half an hour later, Carter and a friend named John Artis were stopped by police who were looking for two black men in a white car. They were questioned and released.

Four months later, two alleged witnesses to the shootings, who had been in the neighborhood to burgle a sheet-metal company, signed statements identifying Carter and Artis as the murderers. The witnesses, Arthur Bradley and Alfred Bello, have since recanted (and rerecanted) on their testimony; Bello admitted to having rifled the bar's cash register as the victims lay dying.

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