30th Anniversary of Wattstax on Special Edition DVD


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30th Anniversary of Wattstax on Special Edition DVD
Warner Home Video

In August of 1965, rioting that lasted for six days, killed 34 and destroyed hundreds of properties erupted in the South Central Los Angeles neighborhood known as Watts.

In August 1972, this community reconvened for a different purpose—more than 100,000 strong in Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for a seven-hour concert, headlined by Isaac Hayes, to benefit the Watts Music Festival. Since almost the entire concert roster consisted of artists who recorded for Stax Records, a label synonymous with southern soul, R&B, and blues, the concert became known as "Wattstax" and even "the black Woodstock."

In August 1972, I was a white suburban Philadelphia boy preparing for life in the fifth grade. I was just beginning to discover what I liked and did not in the world of music, on the other side of America in more ways than one. Soundtracks to such "blaxploitation" films as Superfly and Shaft became one of my first loves. I began to recognize and then seek out such names as Curtis Mayfield and Isaac Hayes, people who seemed to hold points of reference so different from me that they may as well have dropped into my life from Mars, their music all soulful and exciting and maybe even a bit dangerous. I was hooked into my lifetime music addiction.

In September 2004, Warner Home Video released the film documentary of this concert, Wattstax - The Special Edition , for the first time on home video/DVD, directed by four-time Emmy winner and co-producer Mel Stuart, with former head of Stax Records Al Bell serving among its executive producers. In tandem, Fantasy / Stax Records released the CD Wattstax: Highlights from the Soundtrack , a worthwhile companion because it features additional music not presented in the film.

Highlights from the Wattstax 30th Anniversary DVD
(Soundtrack CD)

The documentary is introduced by Richard Pryor, who interjects comedic monologues between segments and calls the concert (and by extension the film) "a soulful expression of the black experience." The scene then sets up nice and tight by weaving the Dramatics' "What You See Is What You Get" through shots of everyday Watts locals going about their daily routines interspersed with shots of the city burning.

As excited as I was about seeing Hayes at the height of his Black Moses prime, I was close to unimpressed about an hour into this DVD. I was looking forward to seeing complete performances from the show I had only heard about in legend. There was what seemed like an awful lot of locals' chatter about political, economic, sexual and racial inequality instead. (There IS the rare gem of occasional insight, such as when a young woman reflects, "Can't nobody give a woman the blues like a man. That's the blues. That's the sho' nuff blues.")

Albert King's "I'll Play the Blues For You," for example. You see him play the intro, the first verse, the chorus, and then the film cuts to a collage of anonymous reflections on how and why you get the blues. Pardon me, but when you wanna know about the blues, why not let someone who sings and plays them do the talking? Someone like Albert King?

Thank goodness I kept the faith, because the performance footage of Johnny Taylor, Rufus Thomas, Luther Ingram and Isaac Hayes that rumbles through the second half of this documentary like a thunderstorm proves worth the thirty-year wait. The DVD concert footage is audibly and visually very crisp and clear (and its "Special Features" thankfully include King's complete "Blues").

Just one more word about King's performance: It is a powerfully stinging, swinging blues that proved a musically defining moment in King's career and exposed modern electric blues to a largely urban audience for whom "black music," at the time, meant "soul" or "R&B." Moments of such musical and historic importance are rarely documented for posterity like this.

After Little Milton's "Walking the Back Streets and Crying" (presented in what looks like an early music video and not the live version from the concert, which appears on the companion Wattstax soundtrack), Johnny Taylor rips off an incendiary, wicked version of the soul stomp "Jody's Got Your Girl and Gone" that shows how pervasive and potent was James Brown's influence on 1970s R&B (this footage is also not from the Wattstax concert but from a small indoor club).

Rufus Thomas, the Crown Prince of Good-Time Southern Funk, is just a full-blown hoot. Picture this: His large baldhead frame adorned in hot pink shorts with matching shirt and pink full-length cape, plus white knee boots, he begins his set by lifting up his cape to show off such sartorial splendor and ask, "Ain't I'm clean?" After the laughter, he throws down an earthquake powerful "The Breakdown" that sounds the very definition of throbbing, stanky Memphis funk. There's some amazing dancing in the crowd shots during this number and his next, his trademark steaming hot "Funky Chicken."

Luther Ingram offers another definitive version of a classic soul song, singing the words to "If Loving You is Wrong, I Don't Want to be Right" so passionately they convince you that he's wrenching them from his heart for the very first time. Abandoned in his own misery, lost among shimmering teardrops of guitar, Ingram so sadly looks at his watch in between the lines "If I can't see you when I want/ I'll see you when I can," a detail of inspired soul genius that shines lustrous and brilliant.

Isaac Hayes at Wattstax
(his complete set)

Riding the success of his chart-topping Shaft soundtrack, headliner Hayes ends the DVD with a performance so resplendent it leaves no doubt of his place in the pantheon of modern soul royalty. His segment begins with "Shaft," the famous cauldron of electric big-band soul, here boiling over with wicked wah-wah rhythm guitar, funk bass, and congas. Hayes' rhythm guitarist and conga player really sparkle through the aural clarity of the DVD.

Hayes ends the concert film with "Soulsville," a slow-rolling gospel blues about hard life in a rundown, hopeless town, which he punctuates with saxophone and some powerfully emotional testimony. (The original ending to the concert, Hayes' "Rolling Down a Mountain," is offered among the DVD special features.)

Someone should have had the sense to take the microphone from Jesse Jackson about five minutes quicker (most likely not the first time that phrase has been written) into his introduction of Hayes to the stage. But Jackson did nail another introduction, earlier in the show: "Today on this program you will hear gospel and rhythm and blues and jazz. All those are just labels. We know that music is music."

"Music is music." Whether you're an 11-year-old suburban Philly whiteboy like me, or a 65-year-old rumpshaker from Memphis like Rufus Thomas, music is music. Right on.

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