Friday, August 11, 2006

Black Moses At Wattstax! (Well, Sort Of)

Isaac Hayes - Rolling Down a Mountainside

In August 1972, The Stax Organization (as the label was known at the time) provided gratis to the Watts Summer Festival its entire roster of artists for a day-long concert at the Los Angeles Coliseum (then home of the L.A. Rams) as a goodwill (and marketing) gesture. The event, thereafter referred to often as "the black Woodstock," was filmed for posterity by director Mel Stuart and producer David Wolper, and footage from it, intercut with other performance footage, comedy bits by the then relatively-unknown Richard Pryor (much of the material would later appear on the seminal LP That Nigger's Crazy) and "man-on-the-street" interviews with assorted denizens of Watts (including a pre-"Love Boat" Ted Lange and, pre-"Sanford and Son," the guy who played Aunt Esther's husband, whose name I cannot recall), was released as the 1973 film Wattstax. This great film was for many years commercially unavailable, save for a P-Vine import, and it only made rare appearances on pay movie channels in the US (I taped it off of Cinemax back in 1998). In conjunction with the 30th anniversary of the film, the legal wrangling over the rights to the film, which had prevented its prior release on video (although Columbia Pictures put out the film in 1973, it did not have full ownership to it) was finally put resolved and the film was re-released, followed by a DVD release.

The re-release of the film also brought resolution to a controversy surrounding the original film. At the time of Wattstax Isaac Hayes was a megastar, having delivered the groundbreaking Hot Buttered Soul album in 1969 and riding high with the soundtrack to Shaft, for which he had won an Oscar. Hayes closed out the concert with a set that included the famous "Theme from Shaft" and the ballad "Soulsville" from the soundtrack. All seemed to be well until Wattstax was due to be released. MGM had the rights to the film Shaft and demanded that the songs be removed. As a result, the "Theme to Shaft" portion was shown in abbreviated form (just the intro, over which Jesse Jackson introduces Hayes - "He's a bad, bad - I'm a preacher, I can't say it" - and the closing is played). To replace "Soulsville" it was decided that Isaac would perform his newest single, at the time entitled "God Is On Our Side," so the performance was shot on a soundstage and edited into footage of the audience to close out the film. (The film's re-release restored the original ending, which fortunately was found in the vaults, so the DVD includes "God Is On Our Side" as one of its bonus features.) Stax issued a 45 of the song, now retitled as "Rolling Down a Mountainside," as part of their "Wattstax" marketing strategy (more on that later). "Rolling Down a Mountainside" features the usual orchestral style for which Hayes was famous, but it's Hayes' vocal that really makes the record work. Although inspiring, the words are somewhat trite (think of the "American Idol" winners' first singles), but Hayes puts them over with soul and a warmth that tugs the heartstrings. It's one of my favorite Isaac Hayes records.

It should be noted that there was actually lots of strange stuff that happened during the making of Wattstax and in Stax Records' attempts to use the film for marketing of its records. The concert itself ran too long and several acts, including Johnnie Taylor and The Emotions, had to cancel their sets. Some artists, like Little Milton, had other engagements that day. To compensate for this, the film's producers arranged for Taylor, Milton and the Emotions to appear at a Los Angeles nightclub in order to shoot some footage for the film. Of the three performances, however, only Taylor's was suitable for use in the film (lighting issues marred the other two). Little Milton was subsequently filmed lip-syncing "Walking the Back Streets and Crying," and the resulting "music video" footage is actually a strong point in the film. The Emotions also managed to have a strong showing in the movie, as a later performance of the group, singing "Peace Be Still" at a church, was added.

Editing tricks aside, the film was very well-received when released and Stax attempted to capture the momentum to boost its own record business, an effort that yielded mixed results. "Rolling Down a Mountainside" failed to chart. A double-LP soundtrack, Wattstax - The Living Word, came out and did well, but a second double-LP volume (featuring Stax's second-tier acts and lots of the Richard Pryor material) fared poorly. "Peace Be Still" was issued as the Emotions' next 45, but it was doomed to fail, as gospel DJs wouldn't play it because the Emotions were a popular secular group and R&B DJs were disinclined to play gospel records at all. The Staple Singers fared well when "Oh La De Da," a song used as background music in an early scene of the film, was released with overdubbed applause (they did not perform the song at the Watts Summer Festival at all) as a "Wattstax" 45. Stax tried the same trick with Eddie Floyd's next 45, "Lay Your Loving on Me" (which did not appear in the film at all - it should be noted that Floyd himself only appears in the film for about one minute, as part of a group gospel sing along with William Bell, Frederick Knight and other second-tier acts), but the ploy didn't work. Although Rufus and Carla Thomas both did good sets at the festival and were the only "old guard" Stax acts featured in the film (Rufus' performance of "The Breakdown" and "Do the Funky Chicken" incited the crowd to come out of the stands to dance on the football field, after which Thomas masterfully talked the crowd back into their seats; this whole scene is captured in the film and is considered by some to be a show-stealer), no "Wattstax" marketing was employed for their records, which was unfortunate, especially for Carla, whose career at the label was rapidly winding down (her last 45 came out in 1973).

If you don't have it already, I strongly recommend that you get both the Wattstax DVD and the 3-CD set Music From The Wattstax Festival and Film. The DVD features the original full version of the film (with Isaac's original performances), the full footage of Albert King's performance of "I'll Play the Blues for You" (which appeared in shorter form in the film), and commentary tracks by many parties involved with the film (including Al Bell and Isaac Hayes) and by Stax historian Rob Bowman, who is joined by Chuck D. The CD set, released by Fantasy Records in connection with the film's re-release, features great liner notes by Rob Bowman and includes lots of performances that did not appear in either the film or the two soundtrack LP sets, including lots of the Johnnie Taylor/Emotions/Little Milton club date and performances by second-tier Stax artists who did not appear in the film. These are a must for any soul fan!


bklyn6 said...

I'll a little late posting, but I watched "Wattstax" for the first time ever, today. I could dig it!

I got the sense that Issac Hayes must've been hot back then. I guess it was his save the best for last appearance in the documentary.


Unknown said...

Yeah, really Isaac was one of the biggest stars not just in America, but on the planet at that moment in time.

If you listen to the commentary track on the DVD with Isaac you can hear him tell the story of going to Africa and seeing a huge mural of him painted on the side of a building. Its hard to understand now just what big and revolutionary he was at the time, because his image as a strong black man emerged in parallel to dramatic changes in culture and the emergence of black power. It was HIS moment.