Wattstax at 50: Still Solid Gold

by Selimah Nemoy

“All of us have something to say, but some are never heard. [In 1965], the people of Watts stood together and demanded to be heard.” – Richard Pryor, Wattstax

In August 1972, seven years after the people of Watts made their voices heard, more than one hundred thousand people came together at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for “a soulful expression of the Black experience.” That was Wattstax: a day filled with the best music of the era by artists from Stax Records, and words of positivity and empowerment from Rev. Jesse Jackson, Melvin Van Peebles, and others to “commemorate a revolution that started the Movement and became a milestone of Black pride.”

The documentary film Wattstax preserves for generations not only the concert but also a window into life in the 1970s Watts community with cutaway segments of people talking with one another in everyday circumstances: a barber shop, on the street, at church, in a restaurant, and at a nightclub. Fashionably wearing headbands, hot pants, bell bottoms, and platform shoes, the people of Wattstax shared their “man-in-the-street” stories of Black love, faith, and struggle.

These narrative moments, and hilarious insights by Richard Pryor, segued into songs about those topics performed at the concert by The Staple Singers, The Emotions, Jimmy Jones, Rance Allen, Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, Isaac Hayes, The Bar-Kays, Kim Weston, Luther Ingram, Johnnie Taylor, Albert King, Little Milton, and Isaac Hayes.

Fifty years later, Wattstax still stands as a brilliant work of documentary filmmaking by, for, and about people who believed that self-determination, respect, and unity would bring about change. I encourage readers from all generations who want to know what really happened “back in the day” to watch Wattstax and other documentaries of the era, like Stanley Nelson’s Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution and The Murder of Fred Hampton; and not to assume they are getting the truth from an interpretive, fictionalized Hollywood version of history.

My Perspective

It was one of those sweltering, suffocating nights when the thermometer bleeds and the air tastes like car exhaust. When your skin feels coated with grit. The kind of restless, overheated summer night that drives people out into the streets for relief, often from more than the weather. That’s the way it was on August 11, 1965 when a motorist named Marquette Frye got jacked up by the cops, sparking five days of uncontainable rage and setting the agenda for summers ahead in combustible cities across America.

I was a teenager living in the sanitized suburb of North Hollywood, which might as well have been a galaxy far, far away during the 1965 uprising. But as a born again convert to the power of soul music, I was paying close attention.

The previous year I’d been in the audience for the taping of the TAMI show at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. There I’d witnessed live and in person James Brown’s iconic performance, and had the transformative moment of my young life. After the choreographed slicksters of Motown sang about how love was both the thing saved you and the thing that sent you to hell,  Mr. Dynamite took the stage. I’d never seen anything like him: a compact black tornado in a checkered jacket with a mile-high pompadour, James Brown skated across the floor on one foot, screeching and howling like a trapped coyote—and then, mic stand and all, crashed to his knees where he was comforted, caped, and brought to his feet by two lanky brothers in shiny suits, the Famous Flames—only to break loose, stomping and wailing and busting through every inhibition known to man. At that moment, like all the other screaming fans in the audience, I knew I’d crossed a cosmic threshold and life would never be the same.

The next day I changed the station on my transistor radio to KGFJ-AM, Los Angeles’s soul music station, where I listened day and night to disc jockeys like the Magnificent Montague, whose on-air catchphrase, “Burn, baby, burn,” intended to ignite listener excitement, became the fiery anthem of the Watts rebellion. A few days into the uprising and under pressure from the station and the mayor, Montague changed his slogan to “Have mercy, Los Angeles!” By the time Wattstax took place, the call to “Burn, baby, burn” had become “Learn, baby, learn.”

From that time on, I honed in on the uninhibited expression of soul that I’d witnessed in James Brown. Where does it come from? What does it mean? Those two questions began to influence every choice I made and compelled my life’s most imperative quest: to find what I call The Big Truth. It was (and still is) an adventure of unexpected encounters in which, like Forrest Gump, I have crossed paths with iconic people and historical events of my generation.

One of those was the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival where I went to see Otis Redding. Had he still been with us in 1972, I am sure Otis would have blown up the stage at Wattstax. As history would document, Monterey was the life-changing performance of his career, just as James Brown’s at the TAMI show had been for him. None of us at that concert had any idea of how privileged we were to experience this phenomenal old soul of so few years—Otis was only twenty-five—who that night bridged the gap between the broken-hearted blues of Black folks and the starry-eyed abandon of the flower children. Just few months later we lost him when his plane plunged into an icy Wisconsin lake.

The year Wattstax was released, I moved to Oakland where I found the answer to my questions about soul: African drums and gospel. I saw how the drummers in my African dance classes played off each other in the same way that call-and-response gospel groups like The Dixie Hummingbirds and The Mighty Clouds of Joy did with syncopation. In gospel I discovered soul music as moving as what I’d been drawn into as a teenager, but with positive lyrics that glorified God and hope instead of heartbreak and suffering. Both led me to understand where James Brown got his moves and, by 1980, liberated my mind, spirit, and soul.

The “Peace Be Still” Connection

As Oakland’s old griots used to say, “Everything is everything…” and how I got liberated is nothing less than a Forrest Gump story with a double Wattstax twist.

On a visit to L.A. in 1978, I met Patti Henley, a Chicago native now singing backup for Motown legend Smokey Robinson. I thought I would find the answer to my questions about soul from him, but it turned out that Patti held the keys to that kingdom.

When I told her how I’d been listening to gospel music, Patti invited me to come to L.A. and hear her sing “Peace Be Still” at a local church. I was captivated and pulled out the paper bulletin we’d been handed when we entered the church, writing on it in pencil: “I want to live where that song is.” Not long after, I wound up saved and sanctified at a storefront church in East Oakland that looked exactly like the ones in Wattstax.

A decade later I moved back to Los Angeles and became friends with Wanda Vaughn of The Emotions. Both Patti and Wanda have been my sisters in the spirit and extended family ever since. And here’s where it all comes together at Wattstax: After the scene in which Wanda, sister Sheila, and cousin Theresa tear up the church singing (here we are again) “Peace Be Still,” the segue goes straight to Patti Henley talking about her great-grandmother.

I caught up with both women for some insight into their Wattstax experience at this milestone anniversary.

Patti Henley

Patti Henley was in the Kilpatrick-Cambridge acting workshop when a call came for those who could improvise the “man-in-the-street” conversations that were grafted into the film. Though not residents of Watts, participants like Patti seamlessly represented the Black experience of the era. Previously in Chicago, Patti had been active in the civil rights movement with singer-composer Brenda Lee Eager as part of Jesse Jackson’s Operation Breadbasket. And while Wattstax has been called the “Black Woodstock” it was the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival (which became the Academy Award-winning documentary Summer of Soul) that took place the same year as Woodstock. Patti also sang at that event.

“I’m grateful my life took the path it did, chartered by God, that allowed me to participate in so many iconic events of the era,” Patti says. “No matter how important what I was doing was in those times of turbulence and upheaval, Brenda and I were drawn to the movement and chosen by our gift. Singing has made us ambassadors with a gift to inspire people to the call, and open their minds and hearts to civil rights and to God.”

Soul Sisters, a new documentary film about Patti Henley and Brenda Lee Eager, is pending release. Today, on top of performing on stages around the world, Patti and Brenda are working in schools to bring the positive values of the civil rights movement (racial harmony and justice) to young people. Learn more at soulsistersofficial.com.

Wanda Vaughn, The Emotions

After fifty years, I guess there’s no harm in revealing that the interior of what appeared to be a storefront church in Watts where The Emotions sang “Peace Be Still” wasn’t actually a church but the chapel of a funeral home. It was filmed the day before the actual concert, and The Emotions also performed at the event itself.

Like other Stax artists, Wanda, her sister Sheila Hutchinson, and cousin Theresa Davis were aware of what a major event the concert was. “Huge artists came to support us,” Wanda says. “It was the first time Mavis Staples and I really talked about what was going on with the riots. And we understood how powerful our talents were to bring people together. It was a big deal.”

Wanda’s takeaway fifty years later is that “what we learned then didn’t get carried over to this generation: that we are all one and enjoy the things we enjoy about one another and find what we love. It’s not about color and difference. Can we find what we love and expand on that? My contribution has been singing. Let’s put a spirit of joy into the world. That has been my mission since Wattstax: a mission of love through song.”

The Vaughn family, including Wanda who continues to perform with The Emotions; husband Wayne, a producer, composer, and keyboardist best known for his work with Earth, Wind & Fire; and their four adult children are seeking to fulfill that mission to the next generation in their chosen pursuits of education, entertainment, and wellness. Their recent “3 Generations of Groove” fam jam at the L.A. Zoo’s Summer Music Nights was an example of that, reflecting the initiative “Pass The Torch” currently in development by daughter Wendi Vaughn.

Full Circle at Fifty

The last song in the Wattstax film, “Soulsville,” performed by superstar Isaac Hayes, is a tender and painful look at what we all hoped we would see change: poverty, prejudice, injustice, hatred. While fifty years later those evils have not been extinguished, neither has the soul of Soulsville. That flame of hope still shines, still bears witness to the light, still points the way. And as keepers of that flame, my takeaway is that all of us, young and OG, may persist and go forward in the original spirit of words hollered by a passionate radio deejay to proclaim his love for people, soul music, and the community:

“Burn, baby, burn!”

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Selimah Nemoy is an award-winning storyteller, journalist, and author. Born in Los Angeles, her coming-of-age journey was shaped in the 1960s by soul music, then by the turbulent, multicultural 1970s in the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Area. Selimah served with the White House Press Corps, and as English editor for both a Japanese and an Italian newspaper. At launch, her book
Since I Lost My Baby: A Memoir of Temptations, Trouble & Truth was an Amazon #1 New Release in R&B & Soul. Read an excerpt at her website, selimahnemoy.com

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