Get down and get right
The 50th anniversary celebration of the all-day revue at LA’s Memorial Coliseum in 1972 demonstrates the breadth of Stax’s R&B purism.
ON AUGUST 11, 1965, the black community of Watts in south Los Angeles went up in rage and flames when an all-too-common incident on those streets – police officers physically restraining a young man under arrest – exploded into six days of rioting and harsh, militar y response. A year later, local activist Tommy Jacquette founded the Watts Summer Festival, a commemorative celebration of black arts, unity and rebuilding that is still held annually.
One summer, though, the party got too big for the ’hood. Held on August 20, 1972, Wattstax was an all-day R&B revue held at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, a 100,000-capacity concrete bowl usually reserved for football. Produced by Stax Records, the bill was packed with the Memphis label’s stars and hopefuls – among the former, the Black Moses, Isaac Hayes; the Staple Singers; and black-rock tsunami the Bar-Kays. William Bell, blues guitarist Albert King, Rufus Thomas and his daughter Carla represented the company’s first, golden age in the 1960s. Admission was a dollar; proceeds went to charity. Wattstax, in turn, reaped a Woodstock-size bounty (the alliteration was no accident): a concert documentar y and two double-LP soundtracks.
It was a last hurrah. In 1975, Stax – America’s other great, black, crossover-hit factory – closed shop, bankrupted by frantic expansion and a cash-flow war with its distributor. But it’s hard to imagine that trouble ’round the bend while riding the soul train in this 50th-anniversary box set – the whole day over six CDs from the backing orchestra’s instrumental overture to the Reverend Jesse Jackson’s closing benediction. As you hear in long stretches of pleas and chiding from the talent and Jackson, the show’s MC, the biggest problem was keeping the fans in their seats while the performers worked a stage at the 50-yard line surrounded by empty grass per the Coliseum’s owners, fearful of damage to their field.
“I wish the mike cord was long enough – I’d go there with ya,” Thomas exclaims, interrupting the jubilant churn of his 1971 hit Do The Funky Penguin to disperse a bum rush of dancing on the turf. Jackson is more severe, noting how “100,000 white people come out here, chase a football on Sunday, and they can sit in the stands.” The difference: who wants to be acres away from the action while The
Rance Allen Group are going to Sunday service via Sly And The Family Stone – the beatbox-vocal breakdown in Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s Up Above My Head – and The Bar-Kays tear through Otis Redding’s I Can’t Tear You Loose like Grand Funk Railroad?
A single-disc condensation, The Best Of Wattstax, means you don’t have to keep pressing fast-forward to get through the crowd control; the 1973 double albums are also on vinyl again. But none of those have the Staples’ swinging kick-off, their 1970 single Heavy Makes You Happy with Mavis calling the stadium congregation to attention and ascension; Memphis vocal group The Newcomers torching the schoolyard bounce of Pin The Tail On The Donkey like a George Clinton makeover of The Temptations; or Hayes’s full, headlining set with not one but two takes of Theme From Shaft – that chewy wah wah guitar speaking in Hendrix-like tongues – and the big-band storm in Part-Time Love, a 1963 hit for Little Johnny Taylor updated with a massive chug of percussion, guitar frenzy and black-angel chorale.
The Watts Riots and the long, hot summers that followed in other American cities in 1967 and ’68 were still recent, painful histor y at Wattstax. “I think the police can relax now,” filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles declares early in the day. “We’re here to consecrate, not desecrate.” Later, William Bell addresses “the brothers that might want to start a little trouble and rap on a few heads. That ain’t the way. We’re doing this for you… because we love you.” Wattstax was also selective stor ytelling – “A day of black people taking care of black people’s business,” as Jackson puts it, introducing Stax’s second-era president and the show’s driving force, Al Bell. There is no mention of the label’s white founders, Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton, and no trace of its original, integrated house band, Booker T. & The M.G.’s, who broke up in 1971 partly over the turn in business affairs at Stax.
But there is a thrilling case here for the breadth and depth of Stax’s R&B purism in 1972. At Motown, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder were leading a revolt in progressive soul – over the strong, initial objections of their boss, Berry Gordy. And that June, two months before Wattstax, Gordy moved his business address from Detroit to Hollywood with motion pictures on his mind. At the Coliseum, in comparison, Stax laid on the down-home grit and get-right church. Kim Weston, a Motown refugee, delivers The Star-Spangled Banner like a lesson from the Old Testament. Announced as “funk-soul personified”, Lee Sain belts Them Hot Pants as if he’s measuring himself for James Brown’s cape. And in I Don’t Know What This World Is Coming To, The Soul Children throw verses back and forth like holy argument, then fly into the choruses with shared, shouted exhilaration.
Wattstax didn’t end with Hayes’s majestic come-hither and gladiator bling. A few weeks later, Stax taped three nights at the Summit Club in LA to accommodate a few acts left out at the Coliseum, including Little Milton, the duo Mel & Tim and Chicago sisters The Emotions. Those complete sets, priceless off-colour stand-up comedy by Richard Pryor and related studio recordings for the film are added to the full concert in an even bigger box, Soul’d Out: The
Complete Wattstax Collection. That’s a lot of black power in ever y sense and edition. And this time, you can get up and dance on the grass all you want.
“There’s a lot of black power in every sense and edition of Wattstax.”