Elvis Costello is completely drunk at the bar at the Columbus, Ohio, Holiday Inn. He is sitting with Stephen Stills and journalist Bonnie Bromlett. Stills is deeply annoying Costello who in turn is going out of his way to be obnoxious in order to offend Stills. Stills keeps banging on about old soul musicians. In order to get Stills’ goat, Costello refers to Costello to James Brown as a "jive-ass nigger", then upped the ante by pronouncing Ray Charles a "blind, ignorant nigger". Bromlett is appalled by Costello's language and writes up the exchange in her column igniting a tinder box of media accusations directed at Costello.
Costello almost immediately apologized for the incident in the cold light of morning, indicating that he had only said what he had in order to annoy Stills and because he had been drunk. Costello pointed to his work with Rock Against Racism, and swiftly recorded 'Get Happy!!!': an album of largely obscure soul covers that went far to demonstrate Costello’s long-standing love of soul music – but controversy over the incident continued to follow Costello. In a Rolling Stone interview with Greil Marcus, Costello recounts an incident when Bruce Thomas was introduced to Michael Jackson as Costello's bass player and Jackson said, "I don't dig that guy..."
Costello remained mortified by the incident and declined an offer to meet Charles as a result of long standing guilt and embarrassment - though Charles himself had apparently long-since forgiven Costello ("Drunken talk isn't meant to be printed in the paper"). Costello’s ongoing championing of black music, from soul to jazz to blues would eventually see the incident put behind him.
One of the songs on Costello's 'Get Happy!!!' album, entitled ‘Riot Act’, deals with the incident.