In 1972, the Memphis-based soul label Stax Records set out to do the impossible; organize an outdoor concert at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, basically free (tickets were a dollar), commemorating the seven-year anniversary of the Watts riots, all filmed and recorded for an accompanying movie. Going down on August 20, the concert showcased a wide range of soul, blues, gospel and R&B artists of the era ranging from obscure to famous, including Albert King, Carla Thomas, David Porter, Eddie Floyd, Ernie Hines, Isaac Hayes, Jimmy Jones, Johnnie Taylor, Kim Weston, Little Milton, Luther Ingram, Mel & Tim, Rufus Thomas, the Bar-Kays, the Dramatics, the Emotions, the Golden 13, the Rance Allen Group, the Soul Children and the Staple Singers. This amounted to, and was intended as, the black Woodstock, and it went off without a hitch; not a single incident or arrest was reported.
The two albums it spawned—Wattstax and Wattstax 2—provided a terrific summation of southern soul of the early 1970s. The movie climaxed with Jesse Jackson introducing Isaac Hayes by reverently and somewhat comically removing his hat before Hayes performed “Theme from Shaft,” much to the crowd’s delight. On the first album, this had to be substituted with Hayes performing Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine,” unfortunate but not tragic, as Hayes’ 18-minute reading of the song is typically expert. Wattstax 2, meanwhile, is a bit more free-form, capturing some of the more obscure artists in attendance that day and turning over a lot of running time to Richard Pryor, who figured heavily in the film; always appreciated. The Wattstax albums were widely sampled; for example, Public Enemy used Jesse Jackson exclaiming “brothers and sisters!” and Rufus Thomas saying “now here’s what I want y’all to do for me.”
Watch the full Wattstax move here.