In his directorial debut, Roots drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson celebrates the great lost music festival of 1969
At this point, rock documentaries and concert films like Woodstock, Monterey Pop, Urgh! A Music War, and The Decline Of Western Civilization are considered part of the canon of pop culture.
Lost in the deluge are the “soul-u-mentaries,” featuring R&B (and related) entertainers doing their thing in concert. Summer Of Soul, a document of an ongoing Harlem festival in 1969, looks like a likely candidate to liven up the present summer of 2021.
Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
This movie was directed by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, drummer of the Roots and all-around collector and fan. Anyone who has ever heard Questlove’s podcast knows that he is the ultimate information junkie, having committed every major B-side, writer’s credit, and dollarbin hidden treasure to memory. He was certainly the right person for the job.
Some backstory: for six weekends in the summer of ‘69, the Harlem Cultural Center ran a series of outdoor shows at New York’s Mount Morris Park (now known as Marcus Garvey Park). Thousands of people were in attendance. It should be mentioned that the world was music-fest crazy at the time. Besides the shows at Mount Morris and Woodstock (which the former occasion keeps getting compared to), there were rock, folk, blues, jazz and country fests raging from one end of the globe to the other. It was so pervasive that some of the same acts kept popping up, regardless of the format. During that fabled year, from the Isle of Wight to the Monterey Jazz Festival (which was just starting to experiment with rock acts) to the Ann Arbor Blues Festival, there was no serious lack of outdoor live music.
VIDEO: Summer of Soul – Harlem: Then and Now
Despite this, the Harlem Cultural Festival was hardly “just another” outdoor show. Spawned in the wake of, and during, a very tumultuous time in black history, with battle zones raging from the community to Vietnam, this event emphasized unity among folks of color. One good thing about the early rock festivals is the relative diversity; never again would Lou Rawls and the Grateful Dead be booked at the same event, but it happened at Monterey Pop in ‘67. Taking the cue that soul meant more than whatever was in the Top 10 R&B chart that week, the organizers of the Harlem festival responded with a lineup that represented 360 degrees of the black music experience.
Gladys Knight & the Pips, David Ruffin, Chuck Jackson and Stevie Wonder were repping the mainstream soul sounds, on a special all-Motown show. The Chambers Brothers and Sly & the Family Stone added a touch of Fillmore East rock. The Fifth Dimension were more on the pop end, and added a touch of grit that their records only hinted at. Mahalia Jackson and the Edwin Hawkins Singers brought the gospel; the Staple Singers, a couple years away from becoming breakout superstars, were transitioning out of the gospel world and into soul music with a message. Herbie Mann, Max Roach and Nina Simone (among others) jazzed it up. African music was present, via Olatunji and Hugh Masekela. There was even a Latin music contingent, via Ray Barretto, Mongo Santamaria and Cal Tjader. One group, Listen My Brother, featured a young Luther Vandross as one of the members. Even though all were filmed, not all of them made it to the final cut of the movie. But Summer Of Soul still manages to get the point across.
Like most festival flicks, not everything that happened at the fest was captured in the film. There are a few modern-day perspectives and interviews that weren’t present at the time of the festival. Not a mere concert movie, Questlove has peppered the movie with context. Scenes of riots, moonshots and late sixties Harlem life are juxtaposed with musical performances. While this might be distracting in some instances, it adds to it in others. Then there are the performers themselves: guitarists Sonny Sharrock (with Herbie Mann) and Wayne Bennett (with Ben Branch & the Operation Breadbasket Choir), as well as drummers Stevie Wonder (!) and Max Roach, attacking their instruments like rifles. David Ruffin had been gone from the Temptations for a year at this point, and while his solo success was minor and fleeting, his stage charisma makes him look like the most carefree gent in the world. Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples performing a touching duet. The Fifth Dimension pulling random audience members on stage to dance. And, on a lighter note, why in the hell is Gregg Errico’s drum kit facing sideways, during Sly & the Family Stone’s set??? (Maybe Questlove, a drummer himself, knows why.)
Already people are speculating that the reason Summer Of Soul laid around on the shelf is because it may have been too incendiary for that moment. Even without the modern historical insertions, the politics might have been too much for some folks to handle; when Nina Simone asked an all-ages audience if they were ready to kill to protect themselves, she likely meant every word she said. While it is indeed a great loss that this movie wasn’t released at the time, in later years, we did get Soul To Soul (1971), Wattstax, and Save The Children (both 1973). Although the late sixties political fervor had cooled a little by then, Richard Nixon was still president, and there was a feeling of discontent in the air.
VIDEO: Save The Children (1973)
You still got your share of classic R&B performances (the Staple Singers appeared in all three movies, PLUS Summer Of Soul!), but because of the times, the filmmakers would not let you forget the politics that brought them there. They weren’t added in post-production; it was already in the air. Soul To Soul, filmed in Ghana (a country in West Africa) showed American soul acts touring ancient slave fortresses. Wattstax depicted residents of Los Angeles’ Watts community speaking frankly about race relations. Save The Children was filmed at an Operation PUSH concert in Chicago in 1972. Acts like Curtis Mayfield, Cannonball Adderley, the Jackson Five, James Cleveland and others were received enthusiastically, but poor Sammy Davis, Jr. appeared not long after being photographed hugging President Nixon. None other than Jesse Jackson had to intervene, to keep the crowd from booing.
Even with the delayed release of the movie, time has not dulled the impact of Harlem turning out to see these performers in their primes. If you look closely, there’s at least one show of interracial unity – there’s a quick crowd shot of a white man hoisting a black child on his shoulders. Maybe other lost soul concert films will be dusted off and reissued, like the aforementioned Save The Children. Or It’s Your Thing, a 1970 movie documenting a 1969 Isley Brothers concert at Yankee Stadium, with appearances from Moms Mabley, the Five Stairsteps, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Edwin Hawkins Singers, and others (including an Ike & Tina Turner performance from another gig).
In the case of Summer Of Soul, in addition to all those great performers and a few surprise guests, you get a strong sense of pride, a hell of a fashion show, and about a million Harlemites demonstrating how to do the boogaloo. How sweet it was.
VIDEO: Summer of Soul trailer