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Are you ready for the Summer of Soul?
In Questlove we trust
I pop the CD into the player and before hitting play, the running time is displayed: 80 minutes, 1 second. Every second of storage space used! Another reminder, as if one was really needed, that we are in good hands with Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson. You want a soundtrack to Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), well, here you are. As much music as possible at your fingertips chronicling the wide panorama of Black music performed during the six concerts that comprised the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. Another chapter in a cultural reclamation project, a bounty of riches not unlike the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb.
Last year’s release of the acclaimed documentary of the Festival directed by Questlove (its recent Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature is joyous news as is its upcoming telecast on ABC on Sunday, February 20) brought the Festival, held in East Harlem’s Mount Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park), into public consciousness. The music serves as an entree to weave together a powerful statement on Black culture in the late sixties and its relationship to society at large, as well as its resiliency, its refusal to be erased or silenced and I would argue, its exalted importance and need for us all to be aware of and well-versed in it.
The diversity of the music performed during the Festival is well captured on the soundtrack album, successfully navigating the tricky business of rights clearances. Sixteen performances are included with an additional recording, ‘Africa,’ featuring Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach, added to the edition available for streaming as well as a two-LP version to be released later this year. While it’s true that artists like Stevie Wonder, who opens the documentary, and Hugh Masekela are not included, their absence as well as the occasional squonk of feedback are not, and should not be, a deterrent to anyone’s enjoyment of the album. It is a seamless journey of sound, putting you in the crowd to bear witness that yes, the Harlem Cultural Festival happened. The music? It’s good. I mean, really good. At its best, it’s some of the most exciting sounds I have heard in a long while.
“For the first time in Harlem—Soulsville, USA—ladies and gentlemen, the 5th Dimension.”
Festival emcee Tony Lawrence
It’s been well documented how Summer of Soul has brought renewed interest in the 5th Dimension and proof of their profound connection to the Black community. They burn through a propulsive ‘Doncha’ Hear Me Callin’ to Ya,’ far more soulful than the jazzy studio version. It’s a prologue to the main event, their ingenious melding of ‘Aquarius’ and ‘Let the Sunshine In,’ from Hair, the former showcasing the varied timbres that the various combinations of group’s voices could conjure and the latter, a chance for de-facto lead singer Billy Davis, Jr. to preach from the stage-turned-pulpit. Several members of the audience-turned-congregation are invited up on stage (hear at least one concert goer joining in to sign “let the sunshine in”). The joy and love the 5th Dimension elicit and the crowd reciprocates is palpable and potent.
“And now, ladies and gentlemen, Motown moves to Soulsville here in Harlem in Mount Morris Park. One of the greatest song stylists of our time. He’s a superstar. He’s tall…dark…handsome. David…Ruffin.”
Festival emcee Tony Lawrence
It continues on with David Ruffin’s performance of ‘My Girl.’ David Ruffin: that voice, mixing sweetness with a granite-like edge, a falsetto that can strike you to the core, an attack that is laser focused on the beat, and showmanship cognizant of the collective brotherhood and sisterhood of those assembled. Ruffin sings Smokey Robinson’s anthem with total command, not surprising as it is forever identified with him. It eventually morphs into an ecstatic tag at the five-minute mark with shades of northern soul.
Summer of Soul’s music manages to be both old and new. Often-iconic songs appearing in brand-new contexts. This freshness is heightened by the fact that it languished undiscovered for over half-a-century. Perhaps that’s why it reaches and touches so deeply: We weren’t meant to hear it.
We could have continued on living without listening to the Edwin Hawkins Singers performing ‘Oh, Happy Day’ in Harlem, but that impoverished reality no longer needs to be faced. Hear the spine-tingling ad libs in the second verse by lead singer Dorothy Combs Morrison. Allow yourself to ponder how the choir’s response to Morrison’s call in the verse brings to mind nothing short of the laying of hands with the chorus the inevitable jubilation as another soul is saved. Permit this thought and please excuse if it verges on proselytizing—you can savour this song no matter your belief or if you have none to speak of, but if you do believe, the effect of this performance, at the right moment, can lead to transcendence. As do the gospel harmonies of the Chambers Brothers who root us in time and place with a extended workout on Betty Davis’ (R.I.P.) ‘Uptown.’
B.B. King reminds us of the racist origins of America in ‘Why I Sing the Blues.’ Ray Barretto puts his faith in the true brotherhood of man on ‘Together.’ Sly and the Family Stone show it on stage as does flautist Herbie Mann (his working band at the time boggles the mind: tenor saxophonist Steve Marcus, vibraphonist Roy Ayres, guitarist Sonny Sharrock (his solo on Mann’s cover of ‘Hold On, I’m Comin’’ is both soulful and bracingly avant-garde), bassist Miroslav Vitous and drummer Bruno Carr.). Gladys Knight holds court on ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine,’ with the Pips her faithful retinue of courtiers. We have the call of Herbie Hancock’s ‘Watermelon Man,’ care of Mongo Santamaria.
“We want Sister Mahalia, Mavis Staples and all of our groups together to prepare to do as our prayer today, ‘Precious Lord.’”
Rev. Jessie Jackson
The first of two emotional peaks of the Summer of Soul documentary occurs about halfway through. Mavis Staples, then emerging as the star lead singer of the Staple Singers and among the most divinely inspired singers of her generation, and Mahalia Jackson, the gospel singer of her generation and all that have come after, team up for ‘Precious Lord, Take My Hand’ each measure of it is another slow step towards the heavens. It all calls to mind Dr. King, who considered the hymn his favourite and which Jackson sang at his funeral in Atlanta just a year earlier. While it is true that hearing this performance as opposed to seeing it as well robs it of a bit of its power, it’s still a profoundly stirring eight minutes, especially once Jackson begins singing and even more so when she and Staples engage in a furious call and response. Fire, fury, brimstone and anger. It links to the documentary and the album’s closing act, Nina Simone.
Here is not the sweet soul of David Ruffin, the sunshine of the 5th Dimension, the inspiration of the Edwin Hawkins Singers or the utopia of Sly and the Family Stone. Here instead is the aftermath of the assassinations of Malcolm X and Dr. King, here lies the toll of the Vietnam War, here lies what those assembled in Mount Morris Park need to consider to transcend the societal structures designed to keep them forever secondary. It is all found in Simone’s confrontational, challenging call to arms. It is also a defiant answer to the erasure of the Harlem Cultural Festival from the history books that Questlove and others have reversed.
Are you ready to go to Harlem?
Are you ready for a Sunday in Mount Morris Park?
Are you ready to hear this music?
Are you ready to do your part to bring more Black history to light?
Are you ready?
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