by Marshall Bowden

Wattstax was the largest gathering of African-Americans in one place since the civil rights March on Washington in 1963. The 1965 Watts riots had provided a glimpse of what was to happen in major cities across America in the latter half of the decade. Wattstax was an attempt at demonstrating positive ways the community could move forward.

The Road to Wattstax

In August of ’65 Wilson Pickett, the Astors, and Booker T and the MGs were in town playing a Stax Review concert at Watts 5/4 Ballroom, a 700-capacity house. Most of the artists leave right after the show, but Booker T and the MGs stay to record some sides and witness National Guard Troops sprinting through the streets of LA—the very beginnings of the Watts rioting

By 1972 some of the anger that fueled those riots had helped the African-American community make significant social progress. Statements of ‘blackness’ were everywhere: it was in October of 1968 that Olympic gold medalist Tommie Smith and bronze John Carlos gave a black power salute during the Olympic medal ceremonies.

The politically and socially charged atmosphere was also reflected in American black popular music, which began to break down barriers of both race and genre that had been maintained, largely, by the recording industry itself. New styles that melded many elements of various black music genres began to appear, including soul and, slightly later, funk.

In ’72 the vibe was a bit less hard-edged than it had been a few years previous, but black leaders generally recognized that there was still much work to be done. White rock promoters had succeeded in hosting very large and peaceful gatherings of young people such as the Monterey International Pop Festival and Woodstock, though there was also the tragedy of Altamont to consider. Wattstax was seen as a way to showcase the remarkable performers on the Stax Records roster at the time, and to combine an outdoor soul music festival, fundraiser, and documentary film into one glorious project.

Stax and its co-owner, Al Bell, were interested in partnering with the Watts Summer Festival. Conceived in 1966 and incorporated in 1968, the Watts Summer Festival is the oldest African American cultural festival in the United States. WSF and Stax (along with sponsor Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company) became the first groups to promote a sold-out black event of this magnitude.

The Los Angeles Coliseum, holding 100,000 people, was sold out The Stax roster of performers—very nearly all of it—would perform for free. Admission would be $1.00, and the security force would be entirely black and unarmed. Security was headed by Melvin Van Peebles, filmmaker and Stax recording artist. Ticket sales totaled some $73,000, which was given to the Sickle Cell Anemia Foundation, Martin Luther King Hospital, and the Watts Labor Community Action Committee.

Said Bell: “There’s a thread running through much of the music that came out of Stax that was uplifting, it was music that made you feel good.  Wattstax was another attempt at making people feel good, and at the risk of sounding egotistical, that is what set us apart from a lot of other people. We had the audacity to dream dreams, and to work toward turning those dreams into realities.”

Wattstax, the Movie

Mel Stuart was chosen as the director of the documentary film that Bell & Co. hoped would become a successful spin-off of the project, much as the Woodstock film and soundtrack recording had done. Stuart had made the documentary Rise & Fall of the Third Reich and had just recently finished Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, his best-known work.

Producer Dave Wolper recommended Stuart due to his documentary film experience. After the concert had been filmed, Stuart viewed the rough edit of the concert and informed Bell that the finished work was an unremarkable concert film. What Stuart proposed to do was go out into the Watts community and film ordinary people talking about their experiences living in Watts, and the experience of being black in America in general. He sought out a number of unknown, amateur actors from the area for the interviews, feeling that they would be better able to express themselves naturally in front of a camera. Says Stuart: “I said to them, ‘the black experience is something I’m not familiar with. But I’ll take care of how to make the film. The philosophy—I will be guided by you.’”

Isaac Hayes arrival at Wattstax

In addition to the man-on-the-street interviews, Stuart also filmed the rapid-fire responses of little-known (at the time) comedian Richard Pryor to a series of words Stuart fed him (the concept reminds me of a sketch Pryor and Chevy Chase did on Saturday Night Live, in which Pryor is a job interviewee subjected to a word association test by Chase. In response to the word ‘nigger’ Pryor’s response is ‘dead honky.’). The result, oddly enough, seems to give off a palpable feeling of what it must have been like to live in the black enclave of a major urban American center at that time. The ethos of the times is reflected by the clothing, language, and attitudes of the people interviewed, as well as by the music presented onstage.

The Concert and Its Influence

The morning of the show, the Watts Festival parade was held, with Isaac Hayes as the Grand Marshal. The concert began with the playing of the “Star Spangled Banner”, for which the bulk of the audience remained seated, talking, eating, doing whatever. When vocalist Kim Weston stepped forward to sing “Lift Every Voice,” introduced by Jesse Jackson as the ‘black national anthem,’ everyone stood.

Stax wanted to feature as much of its talent as possible, so sets were very brief. Not all of the 40 or so acts made it onto the stage (some, such as Johnnie Taylor, had performances filmed elsewhere, further enhancing the film’s content outside the bounds of a strict concert film), but most did.

There was as varied a cross-section of music as at predominantly white festivals such as Woodstock or Monterey. Wattstax featured gospel performers such as the Rance Allen Group and the Staple Singers, bluesmen such as Little Sonny and Albert King, R&B mainstays like Carla Thomas, Rufus Thomas, and Johnnie Taylor, pop acts like the Newcomers and funksters like the Bar-Kays. And, of course, there was Isaac Hayes, recently an Academy Award winner and one of the top acts in the music business at the time. Hayes came onstage at sundown and led his band through a high-powered set that ended the festival on a high note.

Wattstax was not as well covered at the time as either Woodstock or Monterey, even though the entire event went off without any real hitches and there were no security incidents. A minor problem ensued when Rufus Thomas got the crowd spilling out onto the field during his “Do the Funky Chicken.” Everyone was afraid a general melee would begin, but the unflappable Thomas worked the crowd with his old-school chitlin’ circuit charm and good humor. “Don’t jump the fence/it don’t make no sense” he intoned, and, lo and behold, the crowd obeyed. Perhaps it was the sight of Thomas sporting a hot pink outfit with white socks. Who could be angry or aggressive faced with such a Bacchanalian sight?

Rufus Thomas ‘Do the Funky Chicken’

Stax itself experienced extreme cash flow problems in 1974 and 1975, landing in bankruptcy court. Its master tapes were sold at auction in 1977 for $1.3 million, a fraction of their value, to California-based Concord Records.

The film version of Wattstax, which had grossed around $1 million in theaters, went out of circulation and became unavailable for years due to legal wrangling. A new DVD version was issued in 2004 as well as a 3-CD soundtrack that restores many performances to the album (Isaac Hayes is only represented by ‘Theme from Shaft,’ with the rest of his one-hour performance released on a separate disc, Isaac Hayes at Wattstax). But the event was a highly significant one, and an influence on later black musical artists, including Chuck D and Public Enemy. Chuck can be heard on one of the DVD’s commentary tracks, and his commentary is illuminating.

Emphasizing the fact that this was a time in which there was real unity in the black community and in which musical boundaries became less and less important, is Jesse Jackson’s introduction to Isaac Hayes: “Today on this program you will hear gospel and rhythm and blues and jazz. All those are just labels. We know that music is music.” The re-emergence of the Wattstax film and recent collections of music by some of its stars, including Isaac Hayes and Rufus Thomas couldn’t come at a better time, refreshing the memories of those who were there at the time, and providing historical insight for those who came along later.

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