(July 13, 2021). It’s funny how in the summer of 2021 where soul music fans are eagerly anticipating the long-awaited biopic about our late Queen, Aretha Franklin, comes another movie about an event during a more famous, long-ago summer – an event from which Lady Soul was conspicuously absent.
That other historic summer would be 1969 and the film is Questlove’s must-see documentary, Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), released Friday July 2 in theaters and on Hulu…to near universal acclaim.
Spoiler alert: If you haven’t seen the film, you may want to come back and read this after you have.
Summer of Soul is a stellar retelling of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival (held at Mt. Morris Park) as captured in dozens of hours of long-lost film footage and curated by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson in his directorial debut.
The concert documentary is a “passion project” by Questlove, who has long established his credibility as a musical authority by first being a key member of hip-hop’s first true self-contained band, The Roots, and then authoring several music-related books, serving as adjunct instructor at Clive Davis’ Institute of Recorded Music at New York University, and now adding movie directer to his credits.
In other words, there probably isn’t anyone in this generation more suited than The Roots’ famous drummer to trust with this kind of footage and to pull off a film like this. And he more than does it justice. We should basically be paying Questlove tuition for the education we get from watching this film.
For those who haven’t heard the story, the footage that serves as the foundation for Summer of Soul lay in a basement for more than 50 years before producer Robert Fyvolent unearthed it. He and co-producers Joseph Patel and David Dinerstein – under Questlove’s direction – put together a two-hour documentary that mixes amazingly restored footage of the six-weekend music and entertainment festival with interviews from concert attendees, organizers, artists and, in a few cases, their surviving offspring.
Summer of Soul should be required viewing for music fans and historians everywhere, particularly those with an affinity towards soul music and Black history. It is an old-school music lover’s delight and, perhaps more importantly, a glimpse into one of the most pivotal times in our history during the 20th century.
Coming a year after the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy and several years following the murders of John F. Kennedy and Malcolm X, the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival was an escape…a chance for Black folks to come together and enjoy a free concert featuring some of the biggest A-list talent around.
While much of today’s Black entertainment – like the annual BET Awards – focuses on “the culture,” the Harlem festival was our culture back then. It served as a calming force for a Black community that had grown weary of a country that had dealt blow after whopping blow during the just-ending decade. It also was a reflection of a changing culture where being Black was becoming more of something to be celebrated, particularly within our own community.
As the film notes, we had collectively shed the term “Negro” as an identifier and proudly adopted “Black” instead. It was around the time that terms and slogans like “Black is beautiful,” “Black power,” and “Say it loud, I’m Black and I’m proud” were en vogue.
Natural hair was becoming a source of pride and big afros were a thing of beauty – on our men and our women. African styles in both hair and clothing were spotted throughout the huge audience and with performers onstage.
It was truly something to behold…something so Afrocentric, it’s no wonder mainstream America – outside of local NYC coverage at the time – hadn’t seen it before now.
After many viewings, here are DJROBBLOG’s ten biggest takeaways from Questlove’s masterpiece documentary, one that took the biggest awards at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and should be similarly recognized in any of the categories for which it is eligible at next year’s Oscars.
One. Stevie Wonder’s Clavinet…and his drumming.
Questlove has said in interviews that when he saw the footage of then-19-year-old Stevie Wonder’s performance, he knew what had to open the film. In particular, Stevie’s playing of the drums was phenomenal. During the opening sequence, while interpolating the Isley Brothers’ “It’s Your Thing,” we see Stevie retreat from his keyboards to a drum set where he proceeds to launch into a freestyle performance before getting into a solid groove with the rest of the band.
More than anything else, the performance validated all those times we saw credits in the liner notes of Stevie’s classic albums: “all instruments played by Stevie Wonder.” Anyone wondering if and how Stevie played those drums got their answer during Summer of Soul.
Equally as important was Stevie’s riffing on the Clavinet, the keyboard type that was coming into popularity around that time. During his performance of “Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day” – one of 15 top-ten soul hits Stevie had already acquired by mid-1969 – you could hear the bridging of the legendary artist’s past and future. Keen listeners will note keyboard interpolations of his prior year hit, “I Was Made To Love Her,” followed later by the Clavinet glissando that begins “You Haven’t Done Nothin’,” his No. 1 smash from five years later.
Two. They took us to church.
As noted in the film, gospel music to the Black community is more than just religious, it is our therapy. The Reverend Al Sharpton probably said it best in stating, “We didn’t know anything about psychiatrists or laying on a couch. We didn’t know about therapists, but we knew Mahalia Jackson.”
Indeed, the legendary Mahalia Jackson performed at the event where she was joined onstage by a young Mavis Staples of the Staples Singers. The two gospel greats performed “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” (a/k/a: “Precious Lord, Take My Hand”) with Jackson literally passing the microphone – and the proverbial torch – to a young Miss Staples, allowing her to vamp through the song’s conclusion.
Not long after their performance, the metaphorical torch-passing was realized when Mahalia, who was having health problems at the time, died during recovery from surgery (Jan. 72). Meanwhile the Staples Singers were embarking on a legendary career that saw multiple No. 1 pop and soul hits and gold records through the mid-1970s. Both Mahalia and Mavis (with her family) are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Another prominent gospel act performing at the festival were the Edwin Hawkins Singers (featuring Dorothy Combs Morrison) who sang the classic “Oh Happy Day,” which only months earlier had become the highest peaking gospel song on the pop chart in Billboard history.
Three. The 5th Dimension seek to expand their appeal to the Black community.
The film spends a considerable amount of time on the only act besides the Beatles to have two No. 1 pop hits in 1969. The 5th Dimension performed one of those hits – the medley of “Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In” – in a rousing performance whose footage was interspersed with an interview of former members Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr. (whose courtship inspired their other 1969 No. 1 “Wedding Bell Blues”).
The 5th Dimension’s struggle to overcome the stigma they’d developed since they first hit the pop scene two years earlier was real. As McCoo and Davis noted, the group had been constantly derided for “sounding white.” There was something symbolic about their pleading opening number, the song “Don’tcha Hear Me Calling To Ya?,” which could have doubled as an appeal to a reluctant audience to give them a chance.
For 5D, appearing in Harlem was cathartic. It was a chance to both return to their Black roots and to gain more acceptance from within that same community.
Perhaps the appearance alone is what led to the very warm reception the group received from the roughly 50,000 people in attendance on Opening Day. McCoo seemed to be fighting back tears recalling the event and the band’s quest for Black acceptance during the film’s 2021 interview.
Viewers might also notice the huge engagement rock McCoo was sporting onstage on her left ring finger. She and Davis – who tied the knot on July 26th, just weeks after their Harlem performance – have been married ever since.
Four. Sly Stone’s multiethnic, multi-genre group takes us higher.
With the infamous Woodstock music festival happening 100 miles away in Bethel, NY during the same summer, Sly & the Family Stone were the only act to appear and perform at both events. Perhaps this was fitting given the band’s nearly equal appeal to both Blacks and Whites.
Still, that mass appeal didn’t prevent some of the confusion (and perhaps surprise) about the band’s make-up, as pointed out in the film. Consisting of Black and white members as well as men and women, Sly & the Family Stone was one of the first – if not the first – such groups to top the pop or the soul charts.
They performed the song that had achieved that feat earlier in 1969 – “Everyday People” – as well as “I Want To Take You Higher,” the latter of which was mixed with some of the film’s more poignant moments about the issues of race in America.
Five. Gladys Knight & the Pips…more specifically, the Pips and those moves.
The “up-and-coming” Gladys Knight & the Pips were still with Motown Records when they performed at the Harlem Cultural Festival in July 1969. Their original rendition of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” was mesmerizing, particularly the dance moves by the Pips.
Not only were the moves completely in sync, but the amount of energy and level of complexity displayed by Bubba Knight, Edward Patten and William Guest were unmatched by any other act seen in Summer of Soul. In fact, of the many times I’ve seen Gladys Knight & the Pips perform on TV in the years since, nothing matched their Harlem performance.
Six. No King, no Queen, no problem.
By 1969, the late James Brown and late Aretha Franklin were the undisputed King and Queen of Soul, respectively. Yet they were not present at the Harlem Cultural Festival.
Aretha was mentioned during the film as a planned attendee who cancelled. Interestingly, while Aretha was absent, several of the nicknames normally reserved for her majesty were bestowed on other singers present during the film. One of the narrators referred to Gladys Knight as “our Queen of Soul,” while Nina Simone was introduced by the festival’s promoter, Tony Lawrence, as “First Lady of Soul.”
Wonder what the Queen might have thought had she lived to see this.
Seven. Nina Simone was young, gifted and unapologetically Black.
And speaking of Nina, the late legend stirred the crowd with performances of the Langston Hughes-written “Backlash Blues,” one of many civil rights numbers she recorded over the years. It was followed by an inspiring rendition of the classic “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” the song whose inspiration Simone credited to a play by the late Lorraine Hansberry.
By 1969, Simone was already a well-known entity – having professionally recorded since the early 1950s. She had released her only top-20 pop hit (“I Loves You, Porgy”) eleven years earlier.
By the time of the Harlem Cultural Festival, though, she was in full-on activist mode, having been motivated by the murder of Medgar Evers (“Mississippi Goddam”) six years earlier and the assassinations of more recent years. The pain and defiance in her voice was apparent and certainly understandable.
Nowhere was this more exemplified than in her reading of the poem by David Nelson of the Last Poets, “Are You Ready to Burn Things and Smash Buildings?,” which caps Nina’s performance in the film. At this point, it was clear that Simone was less a musician who protested than an activist who sang – a transition that no doubt contributed to her career demise as the decades ensued.
Eight. The number of future Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees at the event was astounding.
Rock and roll as a defined genre was only about 14 years old at the time of the Harlem Cultural Festival. It would be another 17 years before the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame became a reality in Cleveland in 1986. Notably, the number of future inductees who performed at the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969 was a whopping eight!
They included Stevie Wonder, B. B. King, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Mahalia Jackson, The Staples Singers, David Ruffin (as a member of the Temptations), Sly & the Family Stone, and Nina Simone…just eight of the more than 100 Black musicians to have been inducted to the RRHOF since its opening.
Nine. Soul, definitely, but love and peace, too!
Even for an event that came on the heels of some of the most horrific losses of the Civil Rights era and in the wake of some of nation’s most violent rioting, the largely self-policed crowd at the Harlem Cultural Festival appeared to be mostly well-behaved and without much incident, aside from the occasional pushing and shoving captured onscreen.
It was a true testimony to the policing – not by the reluctant NYPD – but by the Black Panther Party, whose presence no doubt went a long way towards keeping the peace at a hot, crowded outdoor venue that had all the ingredients and potential for a much different outcome.
Ten. Woodstock? Moon landing? Nah, just Soul!
The more famous Woodstock festival happened in mid-August on a farm just 100 miles from where the Harlem Cultural Festival was simultaneously taking place. One of Woodstock’s dates coincided with the final concert weekend of the Harlem festival.
Also happening simultaneously with the festival was the first Apollo moon-landing, which happened on July 20, 1969 – on the same day that the most prominent A-listers (Motown’s Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight & the Pips, and David Ruffin) were performing.
To the surprise of no one and despite all of the chart-topping artists at Harlem, Woodstock got all the publicity. And to the apparent “surprise” of white news establishments covering the events, Black people in attendance at the Harlem festival were somewhat apathetic towards the moon-landing, noting that there were many more pressing economic matters here on earth – specifically in Harlem – that demanded attention.
Indeed, a disenfranchised race of people whose most fundamental needs weren’t being addressed had good reason not to be fazed by a multi-billion dollar lunar landing. It’s the same dynamic that exists even today – 52 years later – as space flight has expanded beyond NASA-sponsored projects to privately owned or funded endeavors, including a couple scheduled for launch this month.
The bigger shame arguably lies in the fact that – even with all of its A-list talent and attempts to market it as “Black Woodstock” – footage of the Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969 remained hidden for half a century, even during more recent periods when Black culture was being more embraced by mainstream.
The film’s subtitle couldn’t have been more appropriate, as it was clearly a revolutionary event that stood little chance of being televised…until now.
DJRob (he/him) is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.
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