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Wattstax poster 1973.jpg
Theatrical poster
Directed by Mel Stuart
Produced by Larry Shaw
Mel Stuart
Starring The Staple Singers
Richard Pryor
Carla Thomas
Rufus Thomas
Luther Ingram
Kim Weston
Johnnie Taylor
The Bar-Kays
Isaac Hayes
Albert King
Ted Lange
Cinematography John A. Alonzo
Distributed by Columbia Pictures (1973, theatrical), Warner Bros. (2004, DVD)
Release dates
  • February 4, 1973 (1973-02-04)
Running time
98 min.
Country United States
Language English
Box office $1,560,000 (US/Canada rentals)[1]

Wattstax is a 1973 documentary film by Mel Stuart that focused on the 1972 Wattstax music festival and the African American community of Watts, California.[2] The film was nominated for a Golden Globe award for Best Documentary Film in 1974.

The Concert[edit]

The concert was dedicated to the community of Watts, California on August 20, 1972. It was held at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum from 3:00PM to 11:00PM. The festival attracted 100,000 (mostly African American) people to attend. Each ticket was only $1, making it available for anyone to attend. Stax Records organized the whole show, letting people hear the music of their artists such as The Staple Singers, Isaac Hayes and Rufus Thomas. The reason the concert was held was to commemorate Watts after its 1965 Riots. The concert was filmed by a camera crew which captured the performances and the dancing audience. Wattstax is well-known as the "Black Woodstock."[citation needed]

Starting at around 3:00PM, the festival begins with Kim Weston singing "The Star-Spangled Banner. Not one person stood up or gave attention to the U.S.'s national anthem.[citation needed] Many of L.A.'s Blacks were unhappy with the politics at the time, so that's why no one acknowledged the song.

Dale Warren (the conductor of the Wattstax orchestra) opened up with the second piece "Salvation Symphony." It is instrumental and was played to warm-up the band. Then, The Reverend Jesse Jackson came out on stage to give the audience an introduction to the festival. He complimented the community of Watts that they had grown stronger after their riots from seven years before. He finisheed with the call and response litany "I Am - Somebody". The whole stadium joined in. When finished, Jackson called Kim Weston back to the center of the stage to sing the "Black national anthem": "Lift Every Voice And Sing. The majority of the crowd stood and raised their fists to show respect.[citation needed]

There is no official order of appearance list for the concert. Not every artist was filmed or included in Wattstax CDs or albums. There is a good chance that after Kim Weston finished, the first official act was Jimmy Jones with "Somebody Bigger Than You And I."[citation needed] Unless the songs just aren't released, Jones only sang that one song. And then, a huge highlight of the show came on stage, the family group: The Staple Singers. A couple hours before the festival, they were in Las Vegas doing a show and almost did not perform at Wattstax. Immediately when plans were canceled, they flew to L.A. ready to perform their 30-minute act. Not knowing the exact order of songs performed, they performed "Oh La de Da," "Heavy Makes You Happy," "Are You Sure," "I Like The Things About Me," "Respect Yourself," and of course "I'll Take You There." The act finishes with a huge round of applause from the crowd.

The next artist to perform was Deborah Manning with "Precious Lord, Take My Hand." It is unknown if she/the next seven mentioned artists performed more than one song. Next on stage was Lousie McCord with "Better Get A Move On." And then Lee Sain with "Them Hot Pants." Little Sonny performed next with a groovy version of "Wade In The Water." After him was William Bell who sang "I Forgot To Be Your Lover." And then, a group called The Temprees sang "Explain It To Her Mama." After was Frederick Knight with "I've Been Lonely (For So Long." Then came "Pin The Tail On The Donkey" by The Newcomers. Then, well-known Stax artist Eddie Floyd sang "Knock On Wood" and "Lay Your Loving On Me." After he finished, Stax's Golden 13 (Eddie Floyd, The Newcomers, William Bell, Debra Manning, Eric Mercury, Freddy Robinson, Lee Sain, Ernie Hines, Little Sonny, Louise McCord, The Temprees, Frederick Knight) got the crowd clapping along to the group's version of "Old Time Religion." After settling the crowd down after the church-tune, Rance Allen and his group came onto the stage with "Lyin' On The Truth" and "Up Above My Head."

The The Bar-Kays were introduced and performed "Son of Shaft," "Feel It," "In The Hole," and "I Can't Turn You Loose." After their performance, David Porter did an instrumental called "Introduction," then performed "Ain't That Loving You," "Can't See You When I Want To," and "Reach Out and Touch." On the Wattstax 3-CD Set, it shows that The Emotions performed. It turns out, due to schedule and timing, right before they walked onto the stage they were told that they couldn't perform. But, on the 3-CD Set, it includes three live songs (that weren't done at Wattstax.) After them on the CD are Little Milton and Mel & Tim. They each have one song. Both songs were live, but it is possible they weren't sung at Wattstax.[citation needed] Johnnie Taylor followed. Just like The Emotions, he was told there was no time for him to perform. But, a song is included in the CD from a live performance of Taylor. The song is from his album "Live At The Summit Club."

Now, back to the actual Wattstax concert, Albert King performed (in order): "Matchbox Blues," "Got To Be Some Changes Made," "I'll Play The Blues For You," "Killing Floor," and "Angel of Mercy." Carla Thomas sang "Pick Up The Pieces," "I Like What You're Doing (To Me)," "B-A-B-Y," "Gee Whiz," and "I Have A God Who Loves." Thomas' father, Rufus Thomas, followed. He came on-stage wearing a bright-pink outfit. He asks the audience if they like the outfit by saying, "Ain't I'm Clean?" The whole audience roars in agreement and laughter. He sang his song called "Breakdown" first. Towards the end of the song, several people climbed the fence, wanting to dance closer to Thomas. He told them to not come on the field until he directs them to. He then sang "Do The Funky Chicken." More audience members climbed the fence and ran towards the center of the stage. With at least one thousand concertgoers on the field dancing, Thomas told them to go back to their seats when he finishes. He ended his act with "Do The Funky Penguin".

The Soul Children sang "I Don't Know What This World Is Coming To" and "Hearsay." It is unknown who performed next all the way until the end of the night. The last artist to perform was Isaac Hayes who came on-stage with a full crowd of security around him. He first sang "Theme From Shaft." The crowd roared when they discovered he was performing. An album was released by Hayes entitled "At Wattstax". The album lists all of his songs performed.

The night's finale-song was sung by Jimmy Jones featuring Isaac Hayes and Jesse Jackson. They sang "If I Had A Hammer," and the crowd left the Coliseum around 11:00PM.


The film begins with an introduction by Pryor, followed by shots of urban life on the streets of Watts, accompanied by the song "What You See Is What You Get" by The Dramatics. Mel Stuart was not entirely satisfied with the full concert footage and added the Pryor interludes between certain songs and live shots of urban life in the city. Stuart wanted someone to narrate between the scenes to create a transition in a comedic but meaningful way.

Scenes of Stax's artists flying in from Memphis are accompanied by the song "Oh La De Da" by the Staple Singers. Then, another Staples tune, "We the People", backs scenes of the concertgoers arriving at the Coliseum. Everyone was dressed in colorful, 70's clothing.

The first song played in concert is the "Star-Spangled Banner" performed by Kim Weston while the audience sits. Jesse Jackson then encourages the audience to raise their right fists in the air while he recites his poem "I Am Somebody". Kim Weston follows with a performance of the "Black National Anthem", "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing". While she sings the audience becomes more invigorated, and people stand and continue to raise their fists in the air. The scene is inter-cut with images from African-American history. Jimmy Jones sings "Somebody Bigger Than You and I".

A brief discussion about religion is followed by a performance of "Lying on the Truth" by the Gospel band The Rance Allen Group, inter-cut with shots of churches around Watts. The song "Peace Be Still" is heard, and eventually seen, performed by The Emotions in a local church. Next, the film briefly discusses Gospel music, and "Old-Time Religion" is performed by "The Stax Golden 13", composed of William Bell, Louise McCord, Debra Manning, Eric Mercury, Freddy Robinson, Lee Sain, Ernie Hines, Little Sonny, Eddie Floyd, the Newcomers, the Temprees, and Frederick Knight. After a brief interlude with Pryor, Melvin Van Peebles introduces the Staple Singers, who play "Respect Yourself" in concert.

The Bar-Kays follow another montage commentary on African-American identity. The Bar-Kays saxophonist, Harvey "Joe" Henderson speaks saying, "Freedom is a road seldom traveled by the multitude" (a phrase later made famous when it was sampled by Public Enemy in "Show 'Em Whatcha Got"). The Bar-Kays then play "Son of Shaft." A montage of conversations about unemployment and crime in Watts plays.

Albert King plays "I'll Play The Blues for You" which is quickly cut to another conversation with the people of Watts about blues music and depression. An unusual piece of footage is shown of performance of "Walking the Backstreet and Crying" by Little Milton, presented in the style of a music video, with Milton lip-synching the song near a train station with a burning trash can next to it.

Rufus Thomas talks about a character named "Jody" - someone who "is that fella, when you leave home at six o'clock, he's in that house at six-one." Followed by shots of various rich African Americans exiting their expensive cars and wearing flamboyant clothing, while the song "Jody's Got Your Girl and Gone" by Johnnie Taylor is being performed in a night club. Pryor performs a sketch discussing gambling.

A montage of couples in Watts is shown while a discussion about dating and romance is heard, with "I May Not Be What You Want" performed by Mel and Tim in the background. The scene then changes to a performance of "Picking Up the Pieces" by Carla Thomas. During this song, several red, black and white balloons are released in the stadium. More conversations about gender roles and romance in the African-American society follow.

In the next segment, Rufus Thomas performs "The Breakdown" and "Do the Funky Chicken." There is another interlude with Pryor, and then the hit ballad "If Loving You is Wrong, I Don't Want to be Right" by soul singer Luther Ingram. After the final interlude, Isaac Hayes enters the stadium to a large audience reaction (the concert took place on his 30th birthday). Hayes' performance of "Rolling Down a Mountain" in the original version of the film was recorded on a sound stage at a later date because MGM refused to allow the film-makers to use Hayes' concert performances of "Theme from Shaft" and "Soulsville".[3]

These songs are restored on Region 1 DVD release of the film. The camera pans out at the end of the stadium showing several people during the interludes in the film while the speech "I Am Somebody" is being shouted again followed by "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" as the credits roll.

Later developments[edit]

In January 2004, a restored version of the film played at the Sundance Film Festival, followed by a theatrical reissue in June by Sony Pictures Repertory. In September 2004, the PBS series P.O.V. aired a new documentary about the concert and the movie. That same month, the movie was released on DVD by Warner Bros., which obtained the video rights when it purchased the Wolper library (Warner's former sister company, Warner Music Group, coincidentally owns the rights to most pre-1968 Stax recordings).[citation needed]


Songs in the film[edit]

In order of appearance:

Other songs in the concert[edit]

  • "Knock on Wood", performed by Eddie Floyd
  • "Lay Your Loving On Me", performed by Eddie Floyd
  • "I Can't Turn You Loose", performed by the Bar-Kays
  • "Killing Floor", performed by Albert King
  • "Angel of Mercy", performed by Albert King
  • "Gee Whiz", performed by Carla Thomas
  • "I Have A God Who Loves", performed by Carla Thomas
  • "I Don't Know What This World Is Coming To", performed by The Soul Children
  • "Hearsay", performed by The Soul Children
  • "Ain't No Sunshine", performed by Isaac Hayes

Production credits[edit]

  • Directed by: Mel Stuart
  • Produced by: Larry Shaw, Mel Stuart
  • Executive Producers: Al Bell, David L. Wolper
  • Associate Producer: Forest Hamilton, Hnic.
  • Consultants: Rev. Jesse Jackson, Tommy Jacquette, Mafundi Institute, Rev. Jesse Boyd, Teddy Stewart, Richard Thomas, John W. Smith, Sylvester Williams, Carol Hall
  • Cinematography: Roderick Young, Robert Marks, Jose Mignone, Larry Clark
  • Edited by: Robert K. Lambert, David Newhouse, David Blewitt
  • Assistant Director: Charles Washburn
  • Concert Unit Director; Sid McCoy
  • Production Coordinator: David Oyster
  • Music Supervisor: Terry Manning
  • Music Recording: Wally Heider, Inc.
  • Post Production Supervisor: Philly Wylly
  • Concert Artist Staging: Melvin Van Peebles
  • Music Conductor: Dale Warren
  • Lighting: Acey Dcey
  • Production Staff: Jim Stewart, Johnny Baylor, Gary Holmes/Mind Benders, Humanities International, Edward Windsor Wright

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Big Rental Films of 1973", Variety, January 9, 1974 p 60
  2. ^ Canby, Vincent (February 16, 1973). "Wattstax (1972) Film: 'Wattstax,' Record of Watts Festival Concert". The New York Times. 
  3. ^ Bowman, Rob (1997). "Soulsville, U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records". p. 293. 

External links[edit]