In August 1972, the iconic soul and R&B label Stax hosted an unprecedented, star-filled day of music to commemorate the 1965 Watts riot. Piers Barber looks back at an event which sought to go down in history as “the black Woodstock.”
The word ‘Watts’ has mostly passed into history as a name synonymous with American racial violence. In the conventional retelling, the 1965 riot, which took place in part of South Los Angeles and resulted in 34 deaths and an estimated $40m in property damage, is pinpointed as a crucial turning point in the black freedom struggle. It’s the moment when the honourable, non-violent protest typified by the activism of Martin Luther King was thrown out to be replaced by impatient violence carried out in urban ghettos. It seemed to take worryingly little time for the optimism of the early 1960s to be replaced by the nightmare of Vietnam, a flurry of political assassinations and the seemingly relentless images of American cities in flames.
While there can be little doubt that violence in Watts spurred later instances of violent urban insurrection, the small neighbourhood’s story is far richer and complex than the typical prominence of the revolt suggests. For starters, the revolt prompted a raft of self-initiated community projects, which themselves grew out of a vibrant – if persistently frustrated – civil society in Watts which was all but obscured by the chaotic media coverage of the riot. In particular, the community turned to its enviable art and music scene to highlight the rich potential of its now infamous neighbourhood.
Among the creative projects introduced was the Watts Summer Festival, an annual celebration of music held at the riot’s ground zero which aimed to celebrate the community’s endurance and unity, showcase its creative prowess and promote a sense of political consciousness and neighbourhood pride. The event continues today, with admission always free.
The seventh annual iteration of the festival featured a startling finale: the Wattstax festival, a stunning six-hour celebration of black culture which took place at the Los Angeles Coliseum in August 1972. With subsided tickets offered at just $1, the event was intended to bring together a beleaguered community for a day of unforgettable celebration, commemoration and union. All profits would be donated to local community causes.
The event was all made possible through the committed involvement of Stax, the Memphis-based record label responsible for some of America’s finest ever soul and R&B releases. The event wasn’t pure philanthropy – by the 1970s Stax was a major business, and the festival was partly conceived as a PR tool for its burgeoning roster of famous artists.
On the day the event was attended by over 110,000 people, making it at that moment possibly the largest ever gathering of African Americans outside of Martin Luther King’s historic March on Washington in August 1963. Over $73,000 was raised for the community in ticket sales.
Stax made good on their aim to maximise the event’s marketing potential. Multiple recordings of the concert were released on CD and as a 1972 film, Wattstax, which won a special award at the Cannes Film Festival that year. It’s a far more profound documentary than the straightforward concert film – indeed, it serves as a remarkable time capsule of a community coming to terms with its new found infamy and stigma. It features footage of the concert spliced together with images from the dramatic riot, but also centralises images of black life – storefronts, homes, fashions – in the years following the tumult. Residents are heard musing over issues of violence and race, love and loss. The late Richard Prior even offers his own consistently amusing viewpoints through a monologue interspersed throughout the film.
The show itself was remarkable, not just for the calibre of musicians in attendance but in the social message and confidence that it exuded. Among the biggest stars on show was civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, whose speech concluded with the reading of rousing call and response poem ‘I Am Somebody’ (the audio of which was later sampled by Andrew Wetherall in his memorable remix of Primal Scream’s ‘Come Together’). Fists raised, the crowd then joined Kim Weston in a moving rendition of the ‘black national anthem,’ ‘Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.’
The day’s performances represented a memorable showcase of the talents of a remarkably diverse label. The crowd were treated to blues from the guitar of Albert King, politically-infused soul from the (albeit depleted) Staple Singers, and playful disco from Rufus Thomas, with ‘Do The Funky Chicken’ an inevitable crowd pleaser. Gospel was also given a prominent role – The Soul Children’s rendition of the Violinaires ‘I Don’t Know What This World Is Coming To’ was especially selected for the relevance of its message in the context of the Watts violence. Other acts such as the Temprees, the Bar-Kays and William Bell also performed.
Isaac Hayes, wearing his famous vest of gold chains for the first time, produced the event’s highlight. Fresh off the success of his recent Shaft and Black Moses albums, Hayes was introduced by an adoring Jackson and treated the audience to an hour-long set at a moment when he was working at the peak of his considerable powers. His high octane performance represents a key moment in the history of soul music and was later reissued as an individual album – At Wattstax.
The show didn’t exactly go off without a hitch. The cavernous nature of the stadium produced some unfortunate sound problems, while scheduling mistakes and delays meant that a few of Stax’s most prominent acts, most notably The Emotions and Johnnie Taylor, were unable to perform. A few down-tempo moments were unenthusiastically received by an exposed crowd sweltering in the LA sun, though the only moment of disturbance – when a few teenagers refused to leave the field in front of the stage – was ultimately calmly dealt with by Jackson.
Once again, then, ‘Watts’ seemed to be the word on the edge of America’s lips. This time, though, its prominence was associated with community strength and exhilarating musical talent rather than apocalyptic racial violence. Wattstax was the ultimate showcase of music’s power as protest and communion. As performer Lee Sain remembered, “it was the closest thing to heaven on earth that I could imagine.”
At a moment when the federal government’s conventional approach was to at best turn the other cheek to the needs of the nation’s inner city communities, it was particularly noteworthy that the event was even commended by Senator Alan Cranston in the US Senate in 1972: the event’s organisers, he commented, were “inspirational examples of good citizenship to all Americans of every race, creed and national origin.”
The event possessed considerable healing power. Its unusual context and successful execution worked wonders for the mindset of one of the nation’s most maligned and stigmatised communities. As Stax’s head honcho Al Bell admitted, “it caused us to begin to see ourselves differently.”
“We were perceived as a people during that time and all the way back to slavery that if you allow a lot of us to congregate it’s going to be a problem, there will be problems.” Instead, at Wattstax “you saw celebration, you saw people having fun and enjoying themselves, being free.”
“To me that was the most profound statement that Wattstax made.”