Wattstax Documents the “Black Woodstock” Concert Held 7 Years After the Watts Riots (1973)

Recent events in Mis­souri have brought back painful mem­o­ries for many of the bru­tal treat­ment of pro­tes­tors by police dur­ing the Civ­il Rights Move­ment. Oth­ers see specters of the riots in cities like Detroit, Wash­ing­ton, DC, and the belea­guered Watts neigh­bor­hood of Los Ange­les in the wake of Mar­tin Luther King Jr.’s mur­der. These are bat­tles we would like to think belong to the past, but in remem­ber­ing them, we should also remem­ber peace­ful expres­sions of sol­i­dar­i­ty and non­vi­o­lent respons­es to per­sis­tent social injus­tice. One such response came in the form of a mas­sive con­cert at the L.A. Col­i­se­um put on by Mem­phis’ Stax records in 1972, sev­en years after the Watts riots. Fea­tur­ing some of Stax’ biggest names—Isaac Hayes, Albert King, The Sta­ples Singers, and more—the Wattstax music fes­ti­val brought in more than 100,000 atten­dees and raised thou­sands of dol­lars for local caus­es, becom­ing known infor­mal­ly as the “black Wood­stock.”

The idea came from West Coast Stax exec For­rest Hamil­ton and future Stax pres­i­dent Al Bell, who hoped, he said, to “put on a small con­cert to help draw atten­tion to, and to raise funds for the Watts Sum­mer Fes­ti­val” as well as “to cre­ate, moti­vate, and instill a sense of pride in the cit­i­zens of the Watts com­mu­ni­ty.” To make sure every­one could attend, rich or poor, the orga­niz­ers sold tick­ets for a dol­lar each. Rev. Jesse Jack­son gave the invo­ca­tion, lead­ing the thou­sands of con­cert­go­ers in a call-and-response read­ing of William H. Bor­ders’ poem “I Am – Some­body.”

There to film the event was Mel Stu­art, direc­tor of Willy Won­ka and the Choco­late Fac­to­ry. The result­ing doc­u­men­tary, which you can watch at the top of the post, fea­tures incred­i­ble per­for­mances from Stax’ full ros­ter of artists at the time (see a swag­ger­ing Isaac Hayes play “Shaft” above). Despite secu­ri­ty con­cerns from LA offi­cials, still ner­vous about a gath­er­ing of “more than two black peo­ple” in one place, says Bell, the con­cert was a peace­ful and joy­ous­ly funky occa­sion: “you saw the Crips and Bloods sit­ting side by side—no prob­lems.”

The film inter­cuts con­cert footage with man-on-the street inter­views and “tren­chant mus­ings” from a then lit­tle-known Richard Pry­or, who offers “sharp insight into the real­i­ties of life for black Amer­i­cans, cir­ca 1972.” It’s a moment of “get-down enter­tain­ment, raised-fist polit­i­cal ral­ly, and stand-up spir­i­tu­al revival” char­ac­ter­is­tic of the post-Civ­il Rights, Viet­nam era move­ment, writes the PBS descrip­tion of Wattstax. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the doc­u­men­tary “was con­sid­ered too racy, polit­i­cal, and black to receive wide the­atri­cal release or tele­vi­sion broad­cast” despite a “not­ed” Cannes screen­ing and a 1974 Gold­en Globe nom­i­na­tion. It’s been a cult favorite for years, but deserves to be more wide­ly seen, as a record of the hope and cel­e­bra­tion of black Amer­i­ca after the rage and despair of the late-60s. The mes­sages of Wattstax still res­onate. As Bell says, “forty years lat­er, I hear African Amer­i­cans in the audi­ences react­ing to the same scenes, the same way they did forty years ago.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

James Brown Saves Boston After MLK’s Assas­si­na­tion, Calls for Peace Across Amer­i­ca (1968)

Nina Simone Per­forms Six Songs in 1968 TV Spe­cial, The Sound of Soul

James Brown, the God­fa­ther of Soul, Extols Some Odd Virtues of Ronald Rea­gan in New Ani­mat­ed Video

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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