What’s ‘Wattstax’? Here’s the Answer

I grew up in the 1970s, and in the early part of that decade that meant listening to AM radio. In those days before market segmentation, pop radio played music from across the spectrum. That meant that I was as well-versed in country and soul and funk as I was in easy listening and rock. Not because I was musically adventurous; simply because that’s what they played on the stations.

That meant that I was quite familiar with the music of Stax Records artists. Even if I didn’t know their names (or much anything else), I knew the songs. And my point here is that I wasn’t unique. Memphis-based Stax was a major force in those days. And at the apex of the label’s run, Stax organized a concert designed to benefit the community and nonprofits of Watts. Seven years earlier, Watts had been the site of rioting; the frustration of the urban Black community boiled over. And people were still hurting.

Wattstax was meant as a way for Black-owned and -operated Stax Records to help in its own way. Gathering nearly the entire roster of artists, Stax presented a marathon concert, pricing tickets at a mere $1 and giving a significant chunk of those tickets away for free. Headlined by Isaac Hayes – fresh from landing Grammy and Academy Awards – the event known as Wattstax was a major event, with more than 110,000 persons in attendance. The whole thing was simulcast on multiple radio stations as well.

And it was filmed. The motion picture Wattstax was released to theatres in 1973, and it too was a major success.

Here we are 50 years later. Boxed sets of the entire concert are being released, and the film is being re-released. And I’m proud to be hosting a special one-night-only screening of Wattstax here in Asheville, with a discussion to follow. And I’m thrilled that my friend Sidney Barnes will be co-hosting the discussion. Sid was a key player in the soul music of that era; a Motown staff writer and solo artist, he was also a member of psychedelic soul band Rotary Connection.

If you’re in or near Asheville on Monday, February 13, don’t miss the screening of Wattstax. It’s the latest in my ongoing series of Music Movie Mondays, hosted by Grail Moviehouse and sponsored by our friends at AshevilleFM 103.3.

More details here. And tickets here. Word to the wise: This event is likely to sell out.