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Stax Records Icon Al Bell and More Reflect on 50th Anniversary of ‘Wattstax’ 

todayFebruary 24, 2023

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Paying tribute to 1972’s momentous Wattstax Benefit Concert and Black History Month, Stax Records and Craft Recordings are issuing a series of releases today (2/24).

Leading the rollout are three new releases, starting with the 12-CD box set, Soul’d Out: The Complete Wattstax Collection. In addition to featuring the complete 1972 concert at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, the collection includes 31 previously unreleased tracks. It’s all accompanied by a 76-page book with an introduction by Wattstax creator and former Stax chief Al Bell and essays by music writers Rob Bowman and Scott Galloway.

Wattstax: The Complete Concert also boasts all of the event’s speeches and stage banter, including MC Rev. Jesse Jackson’s well-known “I Am Somebody” speech. Available on both six-CD and 10-LP formats (both of which come with the aforementioned 76-page book), there’s also the one-CD project The Best of Wattstax, which boasts a handpicked selection of 20 of the concert’s best musical performances starring a host of Stax luminaries — including Isaac Hayes, The Staple Singers, The Bar-Kays, Carla Thomas, the Emotions and Rufus Thomas.

Rounding out the Stax/Craft release series are reissues of the two original soundtrack albums: Wattstax: The Living Word and The Living Word: Wattstax 2. Newly cut from the original analog tapes and packaged in a 2-LP format, the albums feature highlights from the concert and the documentary film about the event. Speaking of Columbia Pictures’ Wattstax film, released in 1973 and celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, Sony Pictures is re-releasing the documentary in theaters today, and for a limited time at participating Alamo Drafthouse Cinema locations.

In honor of the Stax Records/Craft Recordings new release series and the re-release of Wattstax, the festival’s creator Al Bell and several other Stax Records principals spoke with Billboard about their recollections of the history-making festival.

Al Bell, former owner/chairman of Stax: One of the beautiful things I recall about the festival is interacting with all the good people at Stax and those in Southern California’s Watts community in putting the event together. It was all about us as a people coming together in one unified spirit to make it happen. I’ve never experienced anything as powerful. Remember, this was a period of time when, generally speaking, white people got nervous when they would see two Black people together. We were there at the festival for seven hours with 112,000 Black people in the audience, and not one single incident happened. Nothing. 

I wanted them [white people] to see us differently. And for us to see ourselves in a proud way. And it happened. When I stood onstage that day, looked up in the stands and saw all of our wonderful Black people in harmony, enjoying themselves and interacting with the performances … It was the happiest moment in my life. Just go and take a look at the documentary. Really see what you’re seeing. Hear what’s being said. Listen to the words and music of the songs. Because it all tells a complete story from the first song to the last song.  


The concert has since emerged as a symbol of the African American community’s resilience and strength, showcasing the transformative power of music in bringing people together and sparking cultural expression. As we mark this historic anniversary, let’s reflect on the profound impact of this landmark event and its ongoing relevance. The talented musicians who graced the stage were part of the Stax family, representing the diversity and richness of Black culture at the time and amplifying the voices and stories of the Black community.  

But let’s also recognize the ongoing struggle for racial equality, and the imperative will continue to progress in this area. Wattstax remains a beacon of hope, a symbol of the power of music to inspire, heal and bring people together. Its legacy and enduring message of community inclusivity and cultural expression must be embraced by new generations in their pursuit of positive change — and a better world.

Deanie Parker, former Stax vp of public affairs; retired founding president/CEO of the Soulsville Foundation: I can recall many remarkable moments, such as the picture-perfect L.A. weather; the most “colored” people ever crowded together and harmoniously enjoying Stax music; the way Rufus Thomas successfully piloted dancing fans off the Rams football field and getting them back to their seats … August 20, 1972 was a happy day indeed. Our persistent obstacle was the distance – Memphis to L.A. We worked so hard for months to plan every detail: travel and housing logistics, concert lineup, repertoire, preparing musical arrangements, procuring performance clearances, marketing/communication and on-site artist management.

But we were single-minded about our Wattstax mission. It mirrored Stax’s practice from the company’s inception: to always give back inclusively to the people that supported Stax. With help from Concord and our global supporters, the Stax philosophy and mission continue through the Stax Music Academy, Stax Museum of American Soul Music and The Soulsville Charter School. The Soulsville Foundation, which operates the three programs today, is [now the Stax] star.

David Porter, former Stax vp of A&R/talent; Grammy-nominated songwriter/producer: It was a spirit and an energy that I had never felt before — and haven’t since. Here was an L.A. stadium of more than 100,000 people who looked like me, bonding in unity and love, releasing a oneness that you felt nothing could break or separate. It didn’t matter if the songs were popular to the audience or not. The spirit sent back to every performer was one of gratefulness and love for them being there. To feel that from that many people that way was unimaginable. It was a unity message to the country.

The music was about uplifting and strengthening the self-esteem of Black people in this country. Stax had no idea that our music would be accepted the way it was by a different audience. It was felt that Black radio was the only platform that would give the continuous exposure our songs needed. So for us to give back to such a huge number of people at a time of racial unrest in the country was our way of not only saying we felt what they felt in the Watts riots, but of also our offering of a day to put the anger aside and enjoy just being together. The deep meanings in our songs and the music’s gospel, rhythmic feel was our way of giving back. The day before, we also did a parade through the Watts [L.A.] community to connect even more with people there.

The Emotions’ Wanda Hutchinson and Sheila Hutchinson, former Stax artists: 

Sheila: The lyrics of the songs being performed were intensified due to the cause attached to Wattstax. The songs were a motivation for people to think of what they could do, not just be angry. Being from Chicago, we weren’t super keen on what had occurred in Watts, but we knew we came to be a part of a positive community healing … [bringing] the power of positivity and love through music.

Wanda: That’s why the Staple Singers’ “Respect Yourself” was such a big song — because [Mavis Staples] wanted young Blacks to look at themselves as being equal to everyone else. And it didn’t look that way by how the police were treating people in the Black community, which we still see going on today. It always stood out to me how monumental it was to be performing at that big of a venue in L.A. with the top Black artists, appealing to folks from the Christian side, young teenagers and the R&B crowd. Everyone was learning about their self-worth.

I remember Mavis and Pops Staples talking about how much [the foul treatment that led to the Watts Riots] was deeply hurting the Black community. This was the way we could fight that hate. Wattstax was also important because Stax was a major Black record company. The concert sent a message to the world that Black people were aware of what had gone down in Watts; that communities around the country were affected.

Sheila: And that we were going to stand together. 

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todayFebruary 24, 2023

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