Stax Records was a veteran, battle-hardened company by the time the early ‘70s rolled around. Stax Records had a rough time of it in the previous decade, knocked down a few times but always rising from the dead, reborn. They’d lost early backbones of the label like Otis Redding, had the master and distribution rights to their early catalogue grabbed out from under them and built themselves up again with new superstars the likes of Isaac Hayes.
Stax Records had never lost its commitment to supporting the community around them though, increasingly working with artists and personalities that reflected this priority, such as Rev. Jesse Jackson who was a Stax signed spoken-word artist at the time. The unlikely studio in the unlikely Memphis neighborhood was back on to bigger things by 1972; taking over radio with dance crazes like Rufus Thomas’ “Funky Chicken”, and achieving crossover success in film with projects like Shaft.
Often referred to as the “black Woodstock”, Wattstax was an ambitious idea pursued by Stax to create an event in the riot-torn neighborhood of Los Angeles that would invite the community to come together, celebrate their survival and a renewed sense of hope in their future. “We’re involved because we feel our company has a responsibility to the person who buys our records”, said Forrest Hamilton, West Coast director of Stax at the time. To encourage as many members of the community to attend as possible, tickets for the event were sold for only a dollar each.
Los Angeles’ black community responded by filling the 100,000 seat Los Angeles Memorial Stadium on August 20, 1972 for a pivotal day in the “black-is-beautiful” African-American culture. Documentary filmmaker Mel Stuart filmed more a “happening” than just a concert, the week of events leading up to the concert as well as the performances of the day. Stuart utilized a “man on the street” approach to capture the social significance of Wattstax beyond the musical performances and earned a Golden Globe nomination for his efforts.
A full-on Stax roster participated in Wattstax, which meant more big names performing than any one headline could accommodate. Isaac Hayes, Staple Singers, Carla and Rufus Thomas, The Emotions, William Bell, and The Bar-Kays were all among those on stage that day. As a part of the series of re-releases that Stax has issued to celebrate it’s 50th anniversary this year, the original two-LP Wattstax soundtrack has been digitally remastered and expanded here to three CDs. This adds over an hour of additional music taken from sequel soundtracks and other related recordings from the events leading up to the day, including sessions from LA’s Summit Club. Beyond orchestrating an obviously stellar musical line-up, the idea of community outreach was the driving force behind the project, perhaps not the easiest message to convey on CD but one that is definitely communicated here.
As much as Wattstax was an impressive musical display and accomplishment on film, the main purpose and legacy of the event lies in the repercussions it had throughout the community. This is a key point that is highlighted throughout the deluxe re-release of Wattstax. Liner notes include rare photographs from the concert and an essay written by soul music historian Rob Bowman, and the albums themselves appropriately include pivotal pieces to the Wattstax experience.
The pieces include the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s powerful introduction to the crowd that included the recitation of his “I Am Somebody” poem, as well as comedy sets by Richard Pryor that originally appeared in the Wattstax film to connect the music performances with man-on-the-street commentary. While serving as an incredible postcard of the concert, the revamped Wattstax fulfills the even greater challenge of presenting a snapshot of culture and a moment in time for an entire community.
// Notes from the Road
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