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Wattstax drew 100,000 people — this 1972 concert was about much more than music

The Bar-Kays at Wattstax in 1972.
Courtesy of Stax Records
The Bar-Kays at Wattstax in 1972.

Updated March 2, 2023 at 3:24 PM ET

On August 20, 1972, Stax Records brought its biggest stars to Los Angeles for a marathon concert. "Wattstax" is now being commemorated with a new box set and the theatrical re-release of a 1973 documentary. But to understand the significance of this landmark event, you have to rewind to August 1965.

Carla Thomas was performing at a Stax revue show at the legendary 5/4 ballroom in Watts, Los Angeles. After the show, she met a teenage fan, Jacqui Jacquette, who had recently won a local talent contest singing Thomas's 1961 hit "Gee Whiz." Jacquette invited Thomas to have dinner with her family, and the next day they took in the sights, recalls Thomas. "We went to this little shopping center and there was this little office there where kids were being taught passive resistance, like the same type of training that the Freedom Riders had to take."

Singer Carla Thomas, also known as "The Queen of Memphis Soul."
Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images
Getty Images
Singer Carla Thomas, also known as "The Queen of Memphis Soul."

As they were getting ready to leave, Jacquette explained why. "They're killing young Black guys," she said. "They" were the police. Days later, the arrest of 21-year-old Marquette Frye brought the community to a breaking point. Over the next six days, uprisings left dozens dead, thousands injured, and tens of millions of dollars in property damage. News coverage reflected a distorted community image, emphasizing the unrest rather than its causes.

On the first anniversary of the uprisings, Jacqui's cousin Tommy Jacquette was among those to launch the Watts Summer Festival, an annual celebration of Black heritage and culture, held to help rebuild the community and honor those who died. In the festival's seventh year, Memphis-based Stax Records took it to a new level, says music writer Rob Bowman.

Bowman explains that by 1972 the label had established a satellite office in Los Angeles that was tasked with marketing Stax's existing roster, identifying new talent, and establishing a presence in the television and movie industries. But Bowman says Stax's co-owner Al Bell had a greater ambition. "He was also aware that his company was dealing with Black expressive culture and that it should have, and it did have a responsibility, to the community."

Along with Tommy Jacquette, and Stax's West Coast director, Forest Hamilton, Bell started to work on organizing a large-scale benefit concert to close the 1972 Watts Summer Festival. Calling the venture "Wattstax," the label booked the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and enlisted dozens of its artists. The show was advertised on door hangers, billboards, and airplane banners. Bell says he wanted the community to know that Wattstax was about more than entertainment. "It was a celebration of the African-American experience and a testament to the transformative power of music," he explains.

On August 20, 1972, more than 100,000 people turned out for the Black gathering, second in size only to Martin Luther King Jr's 1963 March on Washington. Billed as "The living word: a soulful expression of the Black experience," the Rev. Jesse Jackson's litany "I Am Somebody" set the tone for the day's events.

Then, Kim Weston performed "Lift Every Voice and Sing," also known as the Black National Anthem. Seven hours of gospel, R&B, funk and soul followed, featuring artists including the Staple Singers, Isaac Hayes, the Bar-Kays, Carla Thomas, and Rufus Thomas, who invited the crowd to "get on up."

Bell says pricing the tickets at only a dollar apiece meant that everyone could experience the power of music to inspire, heal, and bring people together. "You see 5 and 6-year-old kids. You see mothers; you see fathers. You see grandfathers, grandmothers. It was like a family reunion," Bell recalls. "I mean, it was like a church service; the same kind of feeling and interactions took place there." Carla Thomas agrees, "I thought the concert was a very spiritual moment because of the message in the rebuilding of Watts and the connection with the community of Watts, and the whole L.A. community, and what was going on, and how it was affecting the whole world."

The concert raised over $70,000 to support causes, including the Watts Summer Festival, the Sickle Cell Anemia Foundation, and the Watts Labor Community Action Committee. A double album of concert highlights sold more than half a million copies within weeks of its release. However, Bell says he wanted to take Wattstax's message further- including to white audiences.

"Many in this country, if they saw two of us together, they would be afraid of us because of how we were viewed, and that same attitude was put into our heads– you've got to be careful because you're going to intimidate them or create a problem," explains Bell. "We wanted us to see ourselves and the way we are to ourselves, and we wanted white America to see us as we truly are." That's why Bell had the concert filmed for a documentary.

Wattstax movie poster.
LMPC / LMPC via Getty Images
LMPC via Getty Images
Wattstax movie poster.

Collaborating with producers David L. Wolper, Larry Shaw, and director Mel Stuart, Bell recruited a mostly Black camera crew when opportunities in Hollywood were limited. Instead of interviewing pundits, they returned to Watts and filmed The Emotions singing in a church, a young Richard Pryor providing an edgy commentary on race relations, and people (including a pre-famous Ted Lange) in barbershops, on street corners, and in diners talking about their everyday lives and experiences. Interspersed with the concert footage, these vignettes illustrated struggle, resilience, and joy.

Released in 1973, the Wattstax documentary was screened at Cannes and nominated for a Golden Globe. In 2020, it was added to the National Film Registry. Although the fight for racial equality is ongoing, says Bell, so is the hope for a better future envisioned by Wattstax a half-century ago. "There was one spirit and attitude that prevailed. It was the spirit of love."

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Allyson McCabe