Wattstax (1973)

Rated R

Starring: Isaac Hayes, Albert King, Carla Thomas, The Dramatics and Richard Pryor

Rated: R Documentary/Music/Comedy

Wattstax, directed by Mel Stuart and filmed by David L. Wolper, was a film that chronicled a benefit concert put on by the Stax Records company for the 7th Annual Watts Summer Festival.  The festival was created to commemorate the riots that occurred from August 11 to August 16, 1965 in the African-American community of Watts, inside Los Angeles. 

Held at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on August 20, 1972, the six-hour concert featured Stax’s largest stars such as The Staple Singers; Luther Ingram; father-and-daughter, Rufus and Carla Thomas; The Bar-Kays; Albert King; Kim Weston; Johnnie Taylor and Isaac Hayes.  The concert featured commentary about Black life from everyday citizens in institutions, such as the church and the barbershop, integral in the Black community. 

Wattstax also featured well-known personalities including filmmaker Melvin van Peebles, actor Richard Rountree and comedian Richard Pryor.  Stanley “Tookie” Williams, leader of the Watts Crips, can be seen signaling his Crips gang members who are spread throughout the crowd.  The concert covered various genres of Black music, such as gospel, soul and jazz to blues, funk and R&B.

The idea of Stax Records becoming involved with the annual festival first occurred to Forrest Hamilton, who served as the record label’s West Coast Director.  Hamilton and others at Stax, including numerous artists such as Wilson Pickett, Carla Thomas, Booker T. and the MGs, William Bell and the label’s house band, the Mar-Keys, had been in Los Angeles when the riots occurred.  In the late summer days of August, 1965, these artists had been on the West coast as part of a promotional tour for Stax.   They performed at the 5-4 Ballroom in Watts on August 7 and 8, several nights before the rioting began.

However, in 1972, Hamilton was in Los Angeles for a different reason than music performances.  Stax Records was considering creating Stax West, a subsidiary that would be centered within the motion picture industry.  Hamilton approached Stax with his idea of the benefit concert to aid the Watts community.  However, Vice President Al Bell felt that a larger venue would be needed to accommodate such star power.  With the support of Tommy Jacquette, the founder of the Watts Summer Festival, the collaboration between the two organizations began to manifest.  In “Loud and Proud”, written by James Maycock for The Guardian, Jacquette declared that the annual festival was “‘a cultural celebration’ that ‘came straight out of the ashes of the 1965 revolt’ and was a ‘memorial for the 34 people who died’.”

A stage was constructed the night before the concert due to a Los Angeles Rams football game having been played that evening.  Accompanying accommodations, including additional seating as well as private transportation for the performers from the makeshift dressing rooms to the stage, were provided.

The name of the concert would be “Wattstax”, a portmanteau of Watts, the community, in whose honor Stax, the record company, was showing support.  The acts and a larger venue, the Memorial Coliseum, were confirmed and planning began.  According to Jacquette, the City of Los Angeles wanted Blacks corralled in the stadium, especially because of the riots, and all the LAPD officers at the event were Black.  The date selected, August 20, was aligned with the last day of the summer festival.  It also was the birthday of headlining act, Isaac Hayes; he would go on last, performing an hour-long set, including an 18-minute cover of “Ain’t No Sunshine” by Bill Withers. 

Promotional flyers and advertisements exclaimed, “JOIN US AT THE BIGGEST RECORDING SESSION EVER … IN THE MAKING OF THE GREATEST SOUL ALBUM EVER! WATTSTAX ’72 BENEFIT CONCERT.”  Finally, because it was critical that as many people as possible could attend the concert, a ticket to this star-packed concert cost only $1.

The concert, which drew more than 112,000 guests, was a major success.  The creation of a documentary as well as a live recording of the concert provided Bell and Stax Records with the national recognition and sales he wanted.  The live recording, Wattstax: The Living Word, sold greater than 500,000 copies shortly after its release in 1973.  The film footage of David L. Wolper and his crew was developed into a movie, Wattstax.  Directed by Mel Stuart, it was nominated for “Best Documentary Film” of the Golden Globes Awards in 1974.

In 2004, a newly-restored and digitally remixed version of Wattstax premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.  It was followed by a 30th anniversary special edition version on DVD that was released by Warner Bros.  In that same year, P.O.V., a series of PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) aired an episode that discussed the 1965 Watts Riots, the Wattstax benefit concert and the Wattstax documentary.

Jacquette continues to produce the Annual Watts Summer Festival, stating, “The people of Watts sent a message to the people of the world: ‘Here we are.  Hear what it’s about.  Hear what our struggle is about!’”

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