Various Artists – Wattstax: The Complete Concert (review)

Various Artists – Wattstax: The Complete Concert (10-LP Box Set) (Stax/Craft Recordings)

One of the most important concerts in history gets deluxe treatment

On a recent trip to Memphis, my family stopped by the Civil Rights Museum.  Among all the fantastic exhibits was a section devoted to the Wattstax concert – at the time, the largest, non-protest gathering of Black people in history.  Craft Recordings, along with the resurrected Stax label, has just issued Wattstax: The Complete Concert, a 10-LP box set, documenting this historic event.

They said it couldn’t be done – over 100,000 African Americans, and not a single arrest.  The entire day was a celebration of Black culture – diverse and multi-faceted.  Everyone, from the musicians, the camera crew, sound people, security and audience, were all Black. The music ranged from soul and funk, to blues and gospel, to jazz and rock n’ roll – all genres stemming from this gifted race of people.  

Never before had an entire day’s music been sponsored by a single record label, Stax out of Memphis. They rolled out their fantastic roster of talent, from the Staple Singers, Carla & Rufus Thomas, to the Bar Kays and Isaac Hayes, among many others.

It has been dubbed the “Black Woodstock” and in many ways it was just as important as the original 1969 hippie fest.

For one, the concert was organized to commemorate the 7th anniversary of the Watts Riots.  It also helped raise money for several charities.  But, most importantly, it showed the entire world that an event this large could happen peacefully. This is the place where the Reverend Jesse Jackson gave his famous “I Am Somebody” speech – and it still is chill inducing to this day.  

The concert opens with “Salvation Symphony,” an orchestrated piece written and conducted by Dale Warren, who had just added the great strings to Isaac Hayes’ now-classic Hot Buttered Soul album.  This very long piece, clocking in at over 19 minutes, goes through several movements, including some fiery guitar work.  

After a couple of impressive opening numbers from Kim Weston, and an inspired speech from Rev. Jackson, the Staple Singers storm the stage and immediately set the bar high with the funky “Heavy Makes You Happy (Sha-Na-Boom-Boom).”  “I Like the Things About Me” features a long spoken piece from Pops Staples, saying “no nationality goes through what the Black people went through and still survives like we do – right on”!  They end off with the one-two punch of “Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There” – the latter just seems to jump out of the speakers in this live setting, and Mavis Staples is a force of nature.  The Staple Singers got the second most time of any of the artists on this concert, yet you’re still left wanting more.

There’s a heavy gospel presence throughout the entire concert.  Jimmy Jones of “Handy Man” fame sings in a low voice “Somebody Bigger Than You and I.”  Several of the lesser-known acts on the Stax label each got one song to showcase their talents.  Louise McCord’s “Better Get a Move On” is phenomenal – her vocals are spine-tingling, while Eric Mercury does a rousing, tent-rising rendition of “I Shall Not Be Moved.”  

It’s amazing the diversity here, gospel numbers like “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” rub shoulders with seductive,funk numbers like “Them Hot Pants.”  I particularly like the harmonica workout of “Wade in the Water” from Little Sonny.  One of the original Stax artists, the underrated William Bell, turns in a fantastic version of  “I Forgot to Be Your Lover.”  His delivery is so smooth; a stark contrast to a lot of what’s on display here – rough.  Another Stax veteran, Eddie Floyd, rocks hard with his signature “Knock on Wood.”  

There are plenty of surprises throughout this set, like the falsetto vocal of “Explain it to Her Mama” by the Temprees, or the heavy soul of the Rance Allen Group’s “Lying on the Truth.”  The Bar Kays work the crowd into a frenzy with “Son of Shaft.”  

Sigh.  Carla Thomas is in top form.  She had such a great voice.  Why she faded into obscurity is a mystery, but she has one of the best sets of the whole day.  “Pick Up the Pieces” is fantastic soul, while this version of “B-A-B-Y” is much faster than the studio rendition.  Then, she digs back to her very first hit, the tender ballad, “Gee Whiz.”

Legendary bluesman Albert King turns in a blistering set, including the slow burn of “Got to Be Some Changes Made.”  He really bends the notes on “Angel of Mercy,” making his signature Flying V guitar cry.

There’s a really interesting point during Rufus Thomas’ set where the crowd starts to overrun the football field and Rufus implores them “power to the people / let’s go to the stands.”  His songs get stopped multiple times and he ends up pointing out people individually, rather hilariously, to get them off the grass.  Eventually Rufus treats them all to an extended “Funky Chicken.”

Another left turn is the gospel crooning of Billy Eckstine’s “If I Can Help Somebody.” The warts and all approach to this set means you get 20 minutes of Eckstine also imploring folks to stay off the field (the promoters made a deal with the LA Coliseum to use the facility as long as fans stayed off the grass – home to NFL games).  

The headliner of the entire day was Isaac Hayes, who was arguably the hottest black artist on the planet at that point, having won Oscars and Grammys.  “Theme From Shaft” is actually done twice – there were technical issues with the first run through (although, I think it’s a better version).  Hayes has the ability to be real with “Soulsville” but then gets sensual with “Your Love is So Doggone Good.”  He ends off with the powerful, passionate “I Stand Accused.” 

Closing the over six-hour event was Jesse Jackson and Jimmy Jones doing a gospel version of “If I Had a Hammer.”  

Wattstax ultimately birthed two audio soundtracks and a feature film, all put out by Stax.  The film featured not only Wattstax footage, but also performances of artists that couldn’t attend the event, along with dialogue from a then up-and-coming Richard Pryor.  All of this can be found on the 7-CD and streaming version called Soul’d Out: The Complete Wattstax Collection.

If you enjoyed the Summer of Soul movie and soundtrack, Wattstax: The Complete Concert is right up your alley.  This is historically significant recordings, but it’s the incredible performances that make this concert a must-hear.  —Tony Peters