In 1972, forty years ago today & seven years after the infamous Watts riots, a concert unlike any other was held at the famous Los Angeles Coliseum. The event was created by Memphis-based Stax Records, a label that had quickly given a voice to the hard-fought struggles of racism and inequality (and at the same time, promoted love and harmony) through the powerful soul music of Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, The Bar-Kays, Isaac Hayes and many more. The concert was called the WattStax Music Festival, and it was designed to help unify the people of the area while promoting strength and togetherness.
The concert intentionally coincided with the anniversary of the 1965 Watts Riots, which began in south L.A. during a traffic stop by a white police officer on two black brothers. A large crowd formed, clashing with area police until spiraling into a full blown riot, with tens of thousands of people over five days destroying millions of dollars in property. Thirty four people died. The riots, which took place in the largely African-American neighborhood of Watts, was determined to be the boiling point of years of discrimination against blacks in the area. Watts had suffered quietly for years under disappearing industrial jobs that dropped the neighborhood into poverty, woefully inadequate school systems, neglected city services and living conditions, and the racism of L.A. police. The fight for Civil Rights was reaching a fever pitches across the country, and Stax was the soundtrack.
Twelve years later, the WattStax Music Festival, the brain child of Stax executive Al Bell, was designed to bring unity and empowerment to the African-American residents of the Watts neighborhood and beyond; having the Reverend Jesse James to speak, and featuring some of the hottest, chart-topping artists of the time; The Bar-Kays, Albert King, Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, Luther Ingram, and many more. The great Isaac Hayes, fresh off Grammy and Academy Awards wins, headlined the event. In keeping with the desire to allow as many people as possible to experience the landmark festival, the 100,000+ festival-goers only paid $1 admission each.
The Dramatics opened with “Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get”. Isaac Hayes closed with “I Stand Accused”, followed by Rev. Jesse Jackson & Jimmy Jones’ recital of the Civil Rights anthem, “If I Had A Hammer”. WattStax was later called “A Soulful Expression of the Black Experience”.
Filmmaker Mel Stuart, (who passed away eleven days ago at the time of this writing), filmed the event, which would become a highly celebrated feature documentary, with cut scenes featuring Richard Pryor, along with clips of the Watts neighborhood and area residents discussing the issues they were facing.
WattStax accomplished Al Bell’s vision of creating a “black Woodstock”; spreading the many messages and positive feelings of Stax’s famous music, while working to help strengthen & unify an African-American community that had been suffering under the burden of racism and inequality for years. The film, which received widespread celebration and a Golden Globe nomination, took the legendary concert to an international audience. Now, after forty years, the messages of the WattStax concert continue to reverberate through our culture.