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‘It was an out of body experience’: looking back at the Wattsstax music festival | Music

In the long, hot summer of 1965, Memphis soul singer William Bell travelled to Los Angeles with Stax Records’ labelmates Booker T and the MGs and Rufus Thomas to play a club date attended by many people from the predominantly Black neighborhood of Watts. “We had such a great reception there,” he said. “It was so popular that people were turned away at the door.”

At the same time, Bell felt tension in the air. “There was a sense in the Black community that something had to give,” he said. “People were tired of being suppressed. It was like a volcano waiting to blow.”

Several weeks later it did in a way so profound it made history – for both righteous and ruinous reasons. On the one hand, what became known as the Watts Riots of 1965 – referred to by others as the Watts Uprising – made clear to the world the depth of anger that Black citizens felt over the racism they experienced in everything from policing to housing to education. On the other, the protests spiraled into a melee that involved mass arson, looting and shootings that left 34 people dead and a community in greater despair than ever.

In the wake of the rubble, young community leader Tommy Jacquette created an annual Watts Summer Festival meant to benefit the area and bolster the citizens. Little did he know that seven years later, that modest festival would balloon into something enormous and enduring. In 1972, Stax Records and its artists – including Bell, Isaac Hayes, the Staples Singers, The Bar-Kays and others – returned to Watts to create a benefit concert, dubbed Wattstax, that drew over 100,000, mainly local people. The event, during which not a single violent act took place, was captured in a documentary and a live album that each became classics. Now, for their fiftieth anniversary, the Wattstax film is returning to theaters joined by a new box set that, for the first time, includes all six hours of the original show. The latter is especially meaningful because so much of the music had never come out before. “It’s an answer to a prayer,” said Wanda Hutchinson of the vocal group The Emotions, who performed at the event. “There was so much great music that people who weren’t there didn’t get to hear.”

Then again, it’s amazing that the event took place at all given the many obstacles its organizers faced. “This was an enormous undertaking for us,” said Al Bell, who was Stax Records’ president at the time and who is not related to William Bell. “We were trying to do the unimaginable,” added Deanie Parker, who handled the label’s publicity and who helped organize the event. “We were coming from the other side of the country, from Memphis, and we had never done anything like this before.”

Regardless, Al Bell had been determined to do something for the Watts community ever since he saw that area erupt in flames in 1965. “It was all over television,” he recalled. “I hadn’t seen that kind of rebellion before. It frightened me but I also knew very well what gave rise to it.”

Bell himself had been stopped by the Memphis police multiple times, for no reason he said, mirroring the incident of police harassment that sparked the Watts uprising. Besides helping the people of the area, Bell also wanted to create an event that would “let the world see the kind of people we really are. We had been so misunderstood. Many white people, if they would see two Black people walk together, they’d think there’s going to be a problem. We had to live with that.”

Stax’s mission to counter that mindset began modestly. The company had just opened its first west coast office, and the person charged with running it, Forrest Hamilton (son of the famed jazz drummer Chico Hamilton), was the one who had the idea to build on Jacquette’s original Watts festival. When they, and the other organizers, started to brainstorm an event, they eyed venues with capacities of just 2,500. Then, they considered 5,000. But as Stax began talking to local people, and once they got all of their own stars on board, they became more ambitious, believing they might have a shot at filling a stadium. If that first seemed like a pipe dream to them, it struck the folks at the venue that they wound up securing – the Los Angeles Coliseum – as downright laughable. “They thought of me as this Black boy from a little record company in Tennessee,” Bell said. “They had no respect for us – none.”

He believes that the Coliseum people only agreed to let the show happen there because they didn’t think it would draw that many people. But this was before Stax got busy promoting the hell out the show on Black radio and newspapers, in the streets and in the skies, with streamers advertising it behind prop planes. Once it became clear that Wattstax would, in fact, draw a huge audience “they came to us and said, ‘you can’t perform here,’’ Bell said. “Luckily our chief attorneys had put a clause in the contract so they couldn’t get out of the agreement.”

Jesse Jackson and Isaac Hayes at Wattsstax festival Photograph: Stax Records

They did, however, try to intimidate the Stax executives by stressing that they were liable for any damage caused to the turf on the field the mighty football team, the Los Angeles Rams, would play on the next day. To mitigate that, the show’s organizers had to take out expensive insurance and they almost needed to use it due to what happened during the set by Rufus Thomas. The singer encouraged the fans to come out of the stands and onto the fields. “But once we told him that couldn’t happen, Rufus, being the great entertainer he was, made getting them back on the stands part of his performance,” said Bell.

As the film captures, Thomas turned a potentially chaotic part of the event into one of its most entertaining, using his humor to coax the fans to return to the stands. As a result, they didn’t even need to involve security, whose role had been a delicate issue for the organizers from the start. “We had to ask ourselves, ‘who should the security be? And how much should we have?” Parker said. “We did not want to imply that we didn’t trust the people who were going to be in the audience – people who were already feeling disenfranchised and excluded. The emphasis was on making sure that the security looked like the people who were at the concert and at keeping it to a minimum.”

For that, Bell relied on some people who had been referred to him by his friend, the film-maker Melvin Van Peebles. “He told them to have no guns and it worked,” Bell said, despite the fact that there were members of both the Crips and the Bloods gangs at the show. Another issue had to do with maximizing the event’s legacy. To make it more than just a one-off concert, Stax combined its own funds with those of famed documentary producer David Wolper to finance a Wattstax movie. To shoot it, Wolper brought in director Mel Stuart, whose most recent effort had been Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. That meant that both the producer and the director of the film would be white. “It was an issue,” Parker said. “They had the expertise and the contacts which opened doors for us. But we had to teach the white folks what we were trying to achieve.”

For one thing, they wanted their film to be more than just a concert doc. To do so, on a separate occasion they filmed a mix of local people and hired actors (including Ted Lange, who would later star in TV series The Love Boat) to talk about many aspects of the Black experience. The conversations covered subjects from racism and integration to food and sex. Stuart felt the film also needed a comic commenter. Bell found a brilliant one in the young Richard Pryor, who had just been signed to Stax. Pryor opens the film by soberly stating “all of us have something to say, but some are never heard. Over seven years ago, the people of Watts stood together and demanded to be heard.”

Pryor’s subsequent comedy bits are scattered throughout the film. Combined with all the talk from the locals and actors, more of the film’s footage features conversation than music, which became an issue. “I definitely recall that 100,000 people sang along to my song Knock on Wood but that wasn’t in the movie,” musician Eddie Floyd said. “A few other artists I know were also disappointed that their work wasn’t on screen.”

At the same time, the film does feature many incredible performances, from Kim Weston’s rousing opening reading of Lift Every Voice and Sing, which is often referred to as “the Black national anthem,” to a highly theatrical performance by The Bar-Kays. The band’s leader, James Alexander, said that they intended to make their contribution even more theatrical. “We had the idea to ride into the Coliseum on white horses with carriages like gladiators!” he said with a laugh. “But we were told we couldn’t have carriages tracking up the field.”

Even so, the highly animated Bar-Kays nearly upstaged the show’s headliner, Isaac Hayes, even though he appeared in iconic Shaft/Black Moses mode. “He was kinda pissed at us,” Alexander laughed.

Ultimately, though, the spirit of the event elevated all of the artists. “It was an out of body experience for them,” Parker recalled. “When they got backstage after performing, they were floating on cloud nine.”

Mavis Staples at the Wattsstax festival
Mavis Staples at the Wattsstax festival Photograph: Stax Records

Wanda Hutchinson of the Emotions had an experience that day which, she said, helped her challenge some of her own assumptions about race. “At one point, I saw these weird guys with beards down to their waists arrive in a limousine,” she said. “I later found out that they were ZZ Top! Based on what they looked like, I thought they’d play honky-tonk. When I finally heard their music, I said ‘wow, these guys are bad!’ I was profiling them just like we get profiled!”

In talking with various musicians and organizers of Wattstax fifty years later, all of them said that too many issues Black people faced at that time remain today. “It seems like we haven’t learned anything from history,” William Bell said.

But Al Bell prefers to stress the positive. “The sum total of the Black community was in accord that day,” he said. “That’s what I’ll remember.”

For Parker, the film and its newly restored soundtrack have the potential to provide worthy lessons for both Black and white audiences. “For the Caucasians, I hope it makes them curious enough to go back and examine what motivated us to take on this kind of venture to begin with,” she said. “For Black people, I hope they use it as a mirror and whatever they see in that mirror that needs to be improved, restored or enjoyed, they will embrace it and see how they can get more of it today.”

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