In the summer of 1969, there was a massively successful music festival in New York State. No, I’m not talking about Woodstock.
The documentary Summer of Soul recounts the Harlem Cultural Festival, which took place on six weekends, drawing about 300,000 people. It had big-name artists such as Stevie Wonder, B.B. King, the Chambers Brothers, and David Ruffin, recently of The Temptations, wearing a too-warm suit. The festival film was directed by the late Hal Tulchin, but the reels sat in a vault for nearly half a century.
Questlove (Ahmir-Khalib Thompson) of the band The Roots learned about the footage. He edited down over 50 hours of film that tells the story about not only the festival but the context in which it took place, a year after MLK’s death and, in the case of one show, during the Apollo 11 moon landing.
These are extraordinary performances. Gladys Knight and the Pips reminding us about how well the late choreographer Cholly Atkins trained Motown acts. The 5th Dimension, tired of some folks finding their sound “too white”, letting Billy Davis Jr. “go to church” on Let The Sunshine In. Sly and the Family Stone confused the crowd initially with their mixed-race/mixed gender/funkily garbed presentation as they performed Higher, which they later performed at Woodstock.
The concert also features Mongo Santamaria, the Edwin Hawkins Singers, the Staple Singers, Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach, and even the salty Moms Mabley, among many others.
Two highlights: Nina Simone, looking as she often does like a black goddess that she was, performing an early version of the anthem I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free. And Mahalia Jackson asking Mavis Staples for assistance singing Precious Lord.
But perhaps the most fascinating parts of Summer of Soul are the interviews with some of the people who attended the festival. Clips from the event made them feel as though they weren’t crazy. This remarkable thing really did happen. It was as wonderful as they re-remembered it, even though the concerts seemed to have been forgotten by the world.
See the film, subtitled (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), if you can in a movie theater. My wife and I caught it at the Spectrum Theatre in Albany. It is also available presently on Hulu.