At the end of July 1968, the Rascals released the single that would ultimately take them to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 for the second time. More than that, though, the song would go on to become the biggest hit of their entire career...and that’s saying something when you consider that their first No. 1 single sat in the top spot for four weeks.
Unlike that first chart-topper (which, in case you’ve forgotten, was “Groovin’”), “People Got to Be Free” stayed at No. 1 for five consecutive weeks with its plea for tolerance. Noted rock critic Dave Marsh once described the song as “dated but never out of date,” and he was not wrong: some might try to argue that it’s an artifact of its time, but the fact of the matter is that it remains all too relevant even now.
In a 2018 interview with the Orange County Register, Rascals frontman and songwriter Felix Cavaliere reflected on the origins of the song.
“I was working for Bobby Kennedy’s campaign in those days,” said Cavaliere. “I happened to be with a lady at the time who was there when the assassination took place. It just really hit me very hard because I was really involved ideology-wise, and really felt this change was going to make a huge difference in the way our country was going, which...you can relate to today. So when (Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.) were taken away in that horrible manner, it jolted me, literally, into creating that song.”
In addition, after the release of “People Got to Be Free,” The Rascals reportedly would only perform shows where Black acts were on the bill, which is a bold move but a powerful statement, one that doubtlessly earned them a great deal of respect in the process.
Interestingly, though, Atlantic Records was hesitant to release the song at all.
“It caused a lot of difficulty at the record company because they kind of felt we should not get involved,” Cavaliere told the Register. “But...we were very involved, I was very involved, and I said, ‘We’re going to put this thing out. And as a result it became No. 1 in all of the oppressed places all over the world. Such as Berlin in those days, Hong Kong, South Africa, which was not a free country. So I’m pretty proud of that.”