James Brown probably had to sing his 1968 hit “Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud” for a lot of white people over the years. Nowadays, there’s something especially perplexing about watching old videos of him doing it in Hugh Hefner’s living room, with blonde bunnies scattered cross-legged around the floor. But in 1969, there was nothing strange about it at all. Hefner, the robe-encased Playboy publisher who died Wednesday at the age of 91, was hosting his second TV variety show, Playboy After Dark, in 1969, when Brown visited to perform his black-power anthem. It was par for the course at Playboy.
Hefner will never transcend his role as the cover-boy for objectifying American women, no matter how kind history is to him, but he was unquestionably a champion of civil rights and gay rights long before the progressive movement made it cool in the 1960s. Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. were all interviewed at length in the pages of Playboy; the very first Playboy interview, in fact, was a conversation about race between writer Alex Haley and Miles Davis in 1962.
Hefner’s first TV show, Playboy’s Penthouse, ran for two seasons in 1959 and 1960, and showcased a fairly stunning array of his favorite jazz artists, including Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis Jr., and Nat King Cole. The show was meant to portray a typical party in Hefner’s lavish Chicago home (Playboy was born in Chicago and remained headquartered there long after Hefner moved to L.A.), with glasses clinking and guests giggling in the background as the host chatted up his latest visitor. Although it was actually a sound stage at a local ABC affiliate, it was clear that these artists were Hefner’s friends.
A decade later, Hefner went back to TV with 52 episodes of Playboy After Dark in 1969-70, this time from L.A. (though still not from the Playboy Mansion, which he bought in 1971). His new show was in technicolor, and it leaned away from jazz and toward the radio rock that was popular, with guests like Steppenwolf, Fleetwood Mac and The Byrds. But he also made sure to invite some of the most vibrant voices in soul music, like Brown, Marvin Gaye and Ike & Tina Turner, and he always gave them time to talk to his white audience, not just sing. His interviews were sometimes awkward and stiff—like Hef—but they were sincere. It’s what progress looked like in 1969. At one point in the clip below, he jokes to Brown, “I understand you’re flying high these days in more than one sense.” Brown, of course, had recently bought a jet. Hefner also asked Brown if he’d kindly explain the importance of “black capitalism” to white America before he took the stage.
In the decades that followed, Jesse Jackson, Jim Brown, Dick Gregory and other titans of the civil rights movement would trumpet Hefner’s role in advancing black culture in America and introducing black artists and activists to the mainstream via print and television.
Check out the video of Brown singing “If I Ruled the World” and “Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud” on Playboy After Dark in 1969. Below that, you can watch Ike and Tina Turner cover The Beatles’ “Come Together” in 1970.