Hi everyone. Hope you are all well and continue to stay that way during this global health crisis we are facing. But in addition to protecting your physical wellness, what are you doing to stay mentally healthy today?
(Image found online. Original source unknown.)
I know we are still facing a serious situation but a new year gives us hope for the new days, seasons, opportunities & moments ahead. Still, music is something that will never change for me. It is my refuge, the most comforting part of my life & the one thing I consistently count on. So until a more normal semblance of life returns, I am going to share a song I listen to that helps me escape the current state of things, if only for a few minutes each day. And if this helps anyone else, even better.
In 1969 a series of concerts took place in New York City. Dubbed “The Harlem Cultural Festival” and held at what is now Marcus Garvey Park, it featured so many of my favorite performers from the Motown soul & gospel genres. These concerts were held over a six week period & most of the shows were recorded. But at the time there was no interest in buying them for a film Those involved did not know if that was because another music festival-Woodstock-was taking place that August or because black music was still considered secondary in the summer of 1969.
Whatever the reason, the tapes of the Harlem shows were left in a basement for 50 years until 2019. At that time they came to the attention of a producer who purchased them & turned them into a film that was released this year. Unbelievable, right? Another shocking aspect to this story? I KNEW NOTHING ABOUT THE CONCERTS OR THE MOVIE UNTIL LAST WEEK!!!
I uncovered the film about seven days ago when I went to Hulu for my weekly “Lost” re-watch. Instead I saw the ad for the movie, aptly titled “Summer Of Soul”. It premiered at The Sundance Film Festival in January and in theatres & on Hulu in June. My jaw dropped as I read the info about the film. It spotlights the performances of the incredible artists who were there interwoven with present day interviews with them and others involved in the festival itself.
How could something so incredible like a concert series of this magnitude get shelved for five decades? I am a native New Yorker, not to mention a profound fan of music, yet I lived all these years without even knowing this festival took place??? I cannot help but hang my head in extreme shame.
The film marks the directorial debut of Questlove, the co-frontman & drummer of Jimmy Fallon’s “Tonight Show” band, The Roots. In addition to being a musician and songwriter, Questlove has also made a name for himself as a producer, music journalist, author, disc jockey and now film director.
Discovering that an event like this took place but was never a matter of record matches my shock & amazement from the first time I saw “Hidden Figures”. To discover how important women-black women, especially-were assisting the U.S. Space Program & that was left out of the history books we read as kids is astounding. How many young girls might have had different dreams if they knew intelligent groundbreaking women were busting through glass ceilings half a century before? And how many aspiring musicians would have been inspired by this concert series?
But there is so much more to enjoy about this movie than the music. It is a time capsule to revisit the past. A look back at what are now vintage images of the culture at that time, the fashion, the style, the city store fronts and the people is simply hypnotic. The same goes for the clips of archived vintage footage from national news programs regarding the current events of the day like the Vietnam War & the Apollo landing which occurred the same summer. Those were interspersed with local stories about the heroin epidemic, the poverty level & the downward spiral of Harlem in general.
We also get a look at the city’s mayor at the time-John V. Lindsay-as well as a 27 year old minister, Reverend Jesse Jackson, who lead the crowd in a spiritual moment while he gave them his first hand account of watching Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King get shot. Undeniably powerful stuff.
My favorite moments include a newly solo David Ruffin singing “My Girl” sans The Temptations & hitting those high notes in such a remarkable effortless way; Stevie Wonder exhibiting his numerous talents from behind a microphone, a keyboard and a drum set; Sly Stone, the original poster boy for diversity not only as a black performer with white band members but with female ones as well. And they were not just back-up singers, either. They both sang & played instruments like the keyboards & the trumpet. The Family Stone performed three songs “Sing A Simple Song”, “Everyday People” & “Higher” which played as the credits began to roll.
Then there was Nina Simone captivating the audience with her powerful voice as she slammed the piano keys throughout her fierce performance. Gladys Knight & The Pips were on fire as were the gospel numbers, especially The Edwin Hawkins Singers rousing performance of “Oh Happy Day”. One of the women interviewed in the present who attended the show as a teenager summed it up best when she said: “Those artists crossed genres. They were trying to reunite people with music”. I have never been without music but I am just thrilled to be united with this movie. It is that good.
Another group that performed on what was called the festival’s “gospel day” was The Staple Singers. They were a family group comprised of Roebuck “Pops” Staples & his children: son Pervis & daughters Cleotha, Yvonne & Mavis, who turned 82 years young yesterday In addition to singing with her family, Mavis also sang a gospel song with Mahalia Jackson on “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” after Jackson’s stirring speech about and in honor of Rev. King’s favorite church song. It was nothing short of sublime.
In the present interview as the clip of the two women played, Mavis revealed that she still considers that moment her biggest honor and the experience “the time of my life”. She was born July 10, 1939 in Illinois. She & her family moved from gospel to secular music in the mid 1960’s. In 1968 they were signed to Stax Records. By June 1972, they had the #1 song in the country for one week with today’s track. It may be her birthday but it is her audience that receives a gift every time she sings.
Happy birthday, Mavis & here’s to 100 more. And a ginormous thank you to everyone who put this festival together, all the artists who performed there & the people who gave us the movie showcasing it all. It is an astounding treasure.
“I know a place
Ain’t nobody cryin’
Ain’t nobody worried
Ain’t no smilin’ faces“.
Top: The movie poster for 2021’s “Summer Of Soul”. Bottom: Mavis Staples (L) and Mahalia Jackson (R) in a still from the film. (Images found online. Original sources unknown.)
The Staples Singers: “I’ll Take You There” (1972, written by Al Bell).
I do not own the rights to anything. I am just sharing what I love and how I am coping with you.