*On August 20, 1972, the 30th birthday for Isaac Hayes and just a few days after the seventh anniversary of the Watts Riots, Stax Records held a concert featuring its roster of artists at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The event would come to be dubbed “Black Woodstock” for its lineup of the era’s top soul acts, including The Bar-Kays, The Staple Singers, Kim Weston and the birthday boy himself, Hayes.
Stax hired a film crew run by TV producer David L. Wolper (“Roots,” “The Thorn Birds”) to document the concert. Director Mel Stuart told his camera operators to fan out among the crowd and film both the talent on stage as well as closeups of folks dancing among the 112,000 in attendance. Released in 1973, the documentary “Wattstax” received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Documentary Film at the 1974 ceremony.
The concert was the brainchild of Stax’s West Coast director Forrest Hamilton, who was in Los Angeles during the 1965 riots and knew of the city’s own annual Watts Summer Festival to mark the anniversary. He contacted its organizers with a pitch to make a Stax concert its “Seventh Summer Festival.” Stax president Al Bell was on board, but envisioned a bigger venue for his artists than the confines of a park in Watts. A Stax team contacted the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, but managers at the venue were skeptical about the relatively small label being able to sell enough tickets to fill the stadium.
Welp, soon after doors opened at around 1:45 p.m. on Aug. 20, 1972, L.A.’s Black population poured in, filling the majority of seats well before its 2:30 p.m. start time. Wattstax (a combo of Watts and Stax Records) would become the largest gathering of African-Americans outside of a civil rights event to that date.
Rev. Jesse Jackson of Operation PUSH was the concert’s MC, opening with his black power speech that culminated in his trademark “I Am Somebody” call and response.
Jackson’s introduction of The Soul Children would be embraced by a new generation of music fans through its sample at the beginning of Public Enemy’s 1988 track “Rebel Without a Pause.”
The L.A. Coliseum’s policy banned seating on the field so that the grass wouldn’t be ruined for the Rams game the next day (Aug. 21). But those careful attempts to protect the field went out the window when Rufus Thomas hit the stage to perform his hit “Do the Funky Chicken.” Fans ran out onto the field to do the dance in front of and on the stage. Stax executive Larry Shaw asked Thomas to get folks to retake their seats. One dude refused to leave, prompting Thomas to clown him until he was corralled. Watch below:
Sets by the Staples Singers, Bar-Kays and the evening’s closer, Isaac Hayes, were featured in the documentary.
The documentary also included sets from artists who were unable to perform during the actual Wattstax concert. The Emotions performed the gospel song “Peace Be Still” from the pulpit of the Friendly Will Baptist Church in Watts in footage shot several weeks after the concert.
Johnnie Taylor performed his 1971 hit single “Jody’s Got Your Girl and Gone” at the Summit Club in Los Angeles on Sept. 23, 1972, a little over a month after the Wattstax concert.
Below, Little Milton lip-syncs a performance of “Walking the Streets and Crying,” adjacent to train tracks near the Watts Towers.
Also sprinkled throughout the documentary is footage of Watts residents going about their everyday lives and being interviewed about various topics. Among the celebs appearing in the film’s interview segments are Richard Pryor, actor Ted Lange (before starring in “The Love Boat”) and Raymond Gilmore Allen (best known for playing Ned the Wino on “Good Times” and Woodrow/Uncle Woody on “Sanford and Son”) who died earlier this month at age 91 on Aug. 10.
Below is a montage of all interviews in the “Wattstax” documentary.