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From the Archives: Wattstax, 1972

"Wattstax: Giving Something Back to the Community"

"Wattstax: Giving Something Back to the Community"

The LA Times, August 20, 1972

The official name of today's Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum concert spectacle starring Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers and a dozen more Stax recording artists is "Wattstax '72," by some of those associated with the ambitious project are already speaking of it as a sort of "Blackstock."

Not only does the concert -- the highlight of this year's Watts Summer Festival -- carry the spirit of community cooperation that characterized rock music's Woodstock, but plans are already under way in the tradition of Woodstock, to make a film and album out of it. The concert begins at 3 p.m.

And this time, a share of the film-concert-album proceeds -- a figure that could run into the millions -- will be channeled directly to the Watts community.

"We're involved because we feel our company has a responsibility to the person who buys our records," says Forrest Hamilton, West Coast director of Stax, the Memphis-based, soul music-oriented record company that is joining with the Joseph Schlitz Brewing Co. to sponsor Wattstax '72.

Phone Orders From Utah

"Stax feels that when someone buys a Stax record, we have an obligation to that person that goes above and beyond the quality of the music on the record," Hamilton continued. "We feel we have to give something back to the community. We have been wanting to do something on the largest scale possible. That's why we became involved in Wattstax."

Besides a large measure of financial stability, the concert -- with all tickets $! -- has brought more attention, prestige and excitement to the Watts Summer Festival than any other even in its seven-year history.

"We've had phone orders from as far away as Utah from people who want to see the concert," said Tommy Jacquette, the 28-year-old executive director of the festival.

From Jacquette's enthusiasm and the hectic pace of his staff in the festival's Florence Ave. headquarters, it was easy to see that things were a far cry from the days in which the festival committee literally went begging for funds to stage its week-long series of events, and held its first concerts in the Jordan High School gym.

Music has always played a large role in the festival, which was started in 1966 to build community spirit after the riots of the year before. Concerts have always provided much of the operating expenses for the festival, but nothing has matched the scope and potential of Wattstax.

That concert is the big difference this year. "One of the big problems in the past was that we did not have the money to attract the stars and superstars who would draw big crowds," said Jacquette.

Last June, something coincidental happened that changed the whole character of the concerts, and the scope of the Watts Summer Festival in the process. Jim Taylor and Richard Dedeaux of Mafundi Institute in Watts contacted Stax's Forrest Hamilton about the possibility of sponsoring a concert in Will Rogers Park for the institute.

This led to the proposal by Stax to have Isaac Hayes serve as grand marshal of the festival parade.

"Grass-Roots Level"

Hamilton recalls: "We were quite interested from a corporate point of view in having Hayes participate. He's very much involved on the grass-roots level with the people, so it was natural. We even proposed having him perform in a free concert at Will Rogers, but when we got to looking into that, it represented a tremendous amount of problems. If 100,000 people came down there, the energy level would be so high that it would be a very volatile situation.
"From there we discussed putting together another type of concert," Hamilton went on. "We talked to the Schlitz Brewing Co., which had been participating in the festival over the past few years in community relations projects. When we came in with the plan to join forces and do something really meaningful this year, they agreed to help underwrite the concert."

The idea of taking the concert to the Coliseum is multifaceted, as Hamilton was quick to indicate.

"First off, the Coliseum is geared to handle approximately 100,000 people, with ample facilities for food, drinking water, and adequate security. Stax then contacted its artists and with representatives from Schlitz and the festival committee began planning the event."

The two companies are underwriting a great deal of the concert expenses and are slated to turn all gate receipts over to the festival committee.

"If only one person steps through those turnstiles, it represents $1 of profits to the festival committee," Hamilton said.

The committee will use the money for both charity groups and for their own operating expenses.

In addition, the companies have hired new attorneys and accountants for the committee and have made their publicists available to Jacquette and his staff. Moreover, Stax will record the event. It has also procured the services of documentarian David Wolper for a 35mm picture. The firm has hired Melvin Van Peebles, the black filmmaker whose "Sweet Sweetback" recently became the highest-grossing independent film in history, to do concert staging. The Rev. Jesse Jackson will serve as MC and will read poetry. He, too, is a Stax artist.

Work on the concert has gone smoothly. With the addition of the business firms to the festival committee efforts, doors that were less receptive in the past have swung open widely. According to concert director Gary Holmes, the committee has received more than enough public service radio time. In addition, the committee has been airing Spanish-language promos.

Pleased With Look

Jacquette is pleased with the new look of the festival, feeling that something significant will come of the partnership. "Stax's involvement, in terms of the concert, has been overwhelming and we have picked up a great deal of business expertise from them. They seem to know everything they are doing all along the line.

"An agreement has been reacked between Stax and the Watts Summer Festival that will give us a three-to-five year relationship with one another, so we're planning for the future even now. We hope one day to buy our own festival grounds, where we will be able to house everything in one area," he indicated. "It's a long way from the Jordan High School gym."

--Lance Williams

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