Questlove Revives 'Black Woodstock' In 'Summer Of Soul' Documentary
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, has made his directorial debut with the new documentary "Summer Of Soul." Questlove co-founded The Roots, which is, among other things, the house band for "The Tonight Show," where Questlove serves as the music director. He describes his new film as his chance to restore history.
The historic-but-forgotten event the film documents is the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, a series of six concerts held in Harlem's Mount Morris Park, which is now called Marcus Garvey Park. It was free and open to the public. And tens of thousands of people attended, mostly Black and brown. The roster of performers representing different strains of Black and Latino music included Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, Nina Simone, B.B. King, Gladys Knight and the Pips, The 5th Dimension, The Staple Singers, Mahalia Jackson, Ray Barretto, Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln. The festival was one year after the assassination of Martin Luther King, during the period of the Black Power movement.
The concerts spanned from June 29 to August 24, overlapping with both the Woodstock Festival and the first moonwalk. About 40 hours of performances were recorded on video by Hal Tulchin. A couple of hours were shown on local TV in New York. But Tulchin was unable to produce it into a film or TV series in spite of trying for years to attract funders. The tape sat in his basement for about 50 years.
Just before his death, he signed over the rights to two producers, who brought on Questlove to turn it into the film that is now "Summer Of Soul." Questlove wrote about the period in Black music just after the festival in his book about "Soul Train." He has a new book that will be published in the fall called "Music Is History," focusing on 1971 to the present.
Questlove, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Congratulations on the film.
QUESTLOVE: Thank you.
GROSS: It's so great to be able to see this. I mean, it really is a historic document. Now, I'd like to start with a clip of Gladys Knight performing at the festival. And I think this is one of the real standout performances in the movie. And so we'll also hear a little voice-over in this, too.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SUMMER OF SOUL")
GLADYS KNIGHT AND THE PIPS: (Singing) I bet you're wondering how I knew - baby, baby, baby - about your plan to make me blue with some other girl you knew before. Between the two of us girls, you know I love you more. It took me by surprise, I must say, when I found out yesterday. Don't you know that I heard it through the grapevine? Oh, I heard it through the grapevine. Not much longer would you be mine - not much longer would you be mine. Don't you know that I heard it through the grapevine? Oh, I heard it through the grapevine. And I'm just about, just about, just about to lose my mind. Whoa, yes I am. Whoa, yes I am. Whoa, yes I am. Whoa, yes I am. Baby, won't you listen to me? Boy, take a good look at these tears of mine. Baby, baby, these tears I can't hold inside. Losing you would end my life, you see, because you mean that much to me. You could've told me and said that you were loving somebody else. Instead I heard it through the grapevine. Whoa, I heard it through the grapevine. Oh, not much longer would you be mine.
QUESTLOVE: Gladys Knight was everything to us. She was the Queen of Soul. She gave it to us good. And the Pips were working.
GROSS: So, you know, Gladys Knight says in the film that she wasn't expecting such a big crowd. And she seems like so happy to be there. And I think really probably no one knew what to expect. And you probably didn't know what to expect when you started looking at the many hours of video. So when you first started watching these approximately 40 hours of concert footage, what did you find most surprising or most exciting?
QUESTLOVE: I would say probably the Sly and the Family Stone performance is probably the most shocking to watch at the time, because, you know, up until that point, Black entertainers were hyper-aware of their presence in the world, even if it was the professional sense. And so kind of rule No. 1 was always this sort of unspoken I come in peace, I'm not a threat kind of disposition that most Black people have to have in the workspace, especially during this time period. So oftentimes, Motown was especially known for, like, sending all their acts to charm school and whatnot. And their whole disposition was basically like, you know, you must wear a tuxedo all the time. And, you know, you look at David Ruffin's performance in this film, and he's wearing a wool tuxedo and a coat, like, scorching in the middle of July.
And so the fact that Sly the Family Stone is performing in their street clothes is such a shock to the audience. Like, to look at anyone over the age of 22, 23, they're looking at them like they're aliens, like wait, we've never seen an intersectional band. We've never seen women play the trumpet. We never seen - wait. Why is - like, a white guy is the drummer in a Black group? Like, how good is if he's that guy? And they're wearing these - they're not wearing suits. What's going on here?
And then suddenly, to watch them have more excitement than the kids at the end of the set, that, to me, is almost like - that should be taught in every university, like, on how to really engage and perform and really have a plan that's unmarked and unprecedented and really execute it to perfection.
GROSS: Had there been a concert series like this before with tens of thousands of people, Black people and people of color in a Black neighborhood, like Harlem, before?
QUESTLOVE: Besides the previous two Harlem Cultural Festival events, which wasn't hardly the size magnitude of the one that happened at Mount Morris Park, I believe that that answer would be no. I do know that there were jazz festivals previous to this, but not to this very specific level in the inner city for Black people.
GROSS: The festival seemed to mean a lot to the people performing at it. You know, like, Gladys Knight seems, like, so surprised that there's such a big crowd. And The 5th Dimension is featured there. And I want to play a little bit of that because, you know, Marilyn McCoo just seems - and she's like the lead singer of the group - she just seems - you film her watching the video of her performance then, and she talks about how important it was for them to perform in front of a Black audience. A lot of people thought they were white because they were considered very middle-of-the-road, songs like "Up, Up And Away."
So I want to play an excerpt of their performance - of The 5th Dimension's performance - at the Harlem Cultural Festival. And mixed in this will be a clip of of Marilyn McCoo watching The 5th Dimension perform in 1969.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
THE 5TH DIMENSION: (Singing) Let the sunshine, let the sunshine in. Let the sunshine, let it shine. Come on. Let the sunshine in. Let the sunshine in. Give you what you've been missing, yeah.
MARILYN MCCOO: Billy made all those wonderful gospel licks in his ad libs. Our producer said, OK, Billy, take them to church. Billy knew exactly what to do because Billy sang gospel in his teen years.
THE 5TH DIMENSION: You know, The 5th Dimension, we travel all over the world. And our main purpose for traveling is just to bring and spread a little love. Ain't nothing wrong with that, is there? Talk to me.
MCCOO: We were constantly being attacked because we weren't, quote-unquote, "Black enough." Sometimes we were called the Black group with the white sound. We didn't like that. We happened to be artists who are Black, and our voices sound the way they sound. And how do you color - that used to be one of our questions - how do you color a sound? That was one of the reasons why performing in Harlem was so important to us, because we wanted our people to know what we were about. And we were hoping that they would receive us.
THE 5TH DIMENSION: Come on.
GROSS: So that was Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis speaking over their performance - over The 5th Dimension's performance of "The Age Of Aquarius," which was a big hit for them. I had no idea that they had been confused for white, that they felt so bad about not getting recognition from Black audiences. It was very moving to see the significance that this had for her and for Billy Davis. And it just made me think about what it meant to the performers, you know, to be at the festival. Did you play the tape back for all the performers to get their reaction?
QUESTLOVE: Pretty much, you know, a lot of it was just to jog their memory. That particular moment that we just saw with Marilyn McCoo, I realized something. You know, it was sort of an unplanned question, and I guess when I saw an entry, I investigated further only because it's what I recognized in myself and my own career. I was commenting to Billy Davis that, you know, in all the performances I've seen of The 5th Dimension, I've never heard you use sort of your gospel growl, your James Brown sermon preacher (imitating James Brown) hey, dig it - you know, that sort of thing. And he was just joking, like, because I was happy. Like, we've never been in front of a crowd like this before. So it brought out my inner gospel preacher set thing.
And, you know, and I - in Marilyn McCoo - you know, it just opened the door because I realized that, oh, so this is sort of like when The Roots are performing and, you know, one night we're with Beck, the next night we're with Wu Tang Clan. One night we're with, you know, like, Soundgarden, the next night - or Rage Against the Machine. The next night we're with, you know, A Tribe Called Quest or the Fugees. And there's sort of again - code switching is sort of the overall theme for a lot of these Black performers, where you have to change your presentation to fit the situation that you're in to make the audience feel comfortable with you and for you to feel comfortable. And sometimes it's exhausting.
So when you see her cry, it's relief of finally being accepted by your own people, which is important. But it's also - it's very exhausting, you know. Like, it's juggling plates in the kitchen, like, 20 plates at a time. So I believe that when you see her crying, that's the exhaust feeling of a life of code switching sort of to make people comfortable.
GROSS: Questlove, for you, when you're playing for different audiences, you're doing that in part because you love so many different kinds of music. And you're so, like, musically knowledgeable and versatile. And people from all different kinds of music love you and want you to be on the same bill or to perform with you to back them up.
GROSS: So do you think of that as code switching or as just, like, being loved by different audiences?
QUESTLOVE: Yes, in my heart, at the age of 50, I could say that I genuinely love every type of music you ever present to me. But I knew early that my survival in whatever world that I create really depends on my education level of what I knew so that I could fit into that world. You know, if you're in second grade and a bunch of your - like your white musician friends are playing, like, "Smoke On The Water," yeah, I mean, I have to investigate and study that, you know. And that's the thing. Like, I don't think I would have naturally had come to - a great example is in order to watch "Billie Jean" on MTV, I had to sit through four hours of Def Leppard...
QUESTLOVE: ...Of Phil Collins or Thomas Dolby. You know, and I go through that in my book. Like, it's just sitting there just waiting for Michael Jackson to come on. And suddenly, all this other music is seeping into me. And after seven or eight times of it coming on, you know these songs. So now it's like, OK, well, let me get the Van Halen catalog. Let me study them since I know them so well now, you know.
So I think in my case, it was a matter of social survival on how to relate to my friends at school. But then once hip-hop came along, then it's like, oh, everything I learned, I'm just going to add in this this pot of stew I'm making. So, yeah, in a way it's genuine love, but in a lot of ways, it's survival. It's using everything I know to - I'm certain that if I didn't have this range of knowledge that I probably wouldn't have been chosen to be on "The Tonight Show."
GROSS: Oh, sure. Yeah, no, of course. Because you have to know so many different kinds of music to be...
QUESTLOVE: You have to know everything.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Questlove. The new documentary he directed is called "Summer Of Soul." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson. He co-founded the band The Roots, which is the house band for "The Tonight Show," where he serves as music director. He directed the new concert documentary, "The Summer Of Soul," which features performances from and interviews about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, which presented top performers including Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, Nina Simone, Gladys Knight and the Pips, B.B. King, Mahalia Jackson, the Staple Singers, Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln.
So Tony Lawrence, he was the host of the festival, but also the producer of it. And he's the one who got everybody to sign on. I'm wondering, like, how did he do that? I mean, he was not, like, a big-name producer. The previous couple of Harlem Cultural Festivals were pretty small. They were nothing like this. So how do you get B.B. King? How do you get Gladys Knight? How do you get Stevie Wonder to sign onto this? Like, what did he promised them? And did he deliver?
QUESTLOVE: Probably the most distinct way that I could describe it - if you're at all familiar with, like, Adam Sandler's character in "Uncut Gems," which is the bad version of this hustler, but it's almost like a person that will have to rob Peter to pay Paul, that sort of thing. Oftentimes, he would say that, you know, well, I talked to Stevie Wonder. And, you know, he's considering it, too. And of course, if you say that, then, you know, David Ruffin will say, wait, wait, Stevie's doing it? Well, hell yeah, I'm going to do it. And then, blammo (ph). Then you go to Gladys Knight - well, David Ruffin and Stevie Wonder is considering it. It's just adding on and adding on and adding on.
Of course, not having - like, it could have just started with I have the phone number of the Staple Singers. And somehow, he just managed and leveraged one promise on top of another based on the what we call FOMO - fear of missing out. Like, that was his friend. He's the original FOMO baiter. Like, you know, hey, Terry, if you want to do this thing that I'm doing next week, you know, the guys from Podcast America are doing it as well. Oh, yeah. I'll do it, Ahmir. So it's sort of - that was his level of negotiating. But really, it's just the audacity to dream.
GROSS: Yeah. You're a dreamer when it works out, you're a hustler when it doesn't (laughter). So...
QUESTLOVE: Exact - you're perfect.
GROSS: Do you know if he delivered on his promises? Did he pay people on time?
QUESTLOVE: He totally did. Looking at the contracts, I was really shocked at what life was back in 1969. Like, who knew that you could get Sly and the Family Stone for just $2,500 back then (laughter).
GROSS: No. Really?
QUESTLOVE: I'm like, I wouldn't even pay that to my opening DJ set. But, yeah. OK. Yes. I realize that the inflation, you know, is different.
GROSS: Oh, still (laughter).
QUESTLOVE: Still. But, yeah, Mahalia Jackson was the most - she was the highest paid at 10,000.
GROSS: So you were unable to interview Tony Lawrence. And my impression is...
QUESTLOVE: Or find him (laughter).
GROSS: Or find him, yeah. So do you have any clues? Because he's such an important figure in all of this. Like we were saying, like, he's the person who got the commitments from everyone and made the promises and did the deals.
QUESTLOVE: I will say that...
GROSS: And he hosted it. So we see him a bunch of times, wearing a different outfit each time. Yeah.
QUESTLOVE: Yeah. We had a kind of a paper trail. We were, like, looking, you know? And somehow, like, we just lost track of him in 1982. We know that he had one son and that's it, and only because of, like - I believe, like, you know, he was also trying to establish himself as a singer and a recording career. I'm still hoping to this day that this somehow reaches him or a family member, somebody.
GROSS: Well, look. If he is alive any place in the world, I think he'll know that this film exists and will want to reach out to you. I can't imagine him not.
QUESTLOVE: Well, yeah, every day I'm getting a new revelation. Like, probably the best thing about this film is the amount of people that are reaching out to me saying that, oh, my God, my great-grandmother is 19 years old. We see her. There's one person who's never had a photo of their brother who died. I believe he had to go to Vietnam. They never had a photo of him. And somehow, we had a close-up of him for, like, six seconds. And that's their only view of somebody they have not seen in 50 years. So that was really emotional for them to see him as a 19-year-old. So every day, this is happening. People are getting their memories back.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here because it's time for another break. My guest is Questlove. His new documentary is called "Summer Of Soul." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF STEVIE WONDER'S "SHOO-BE-DOO-BE-DOO-DA-DAY")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Let's get back to my interview with Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson. He directed the new film "Summer Of Soul," which features performances from and interviews about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, a series of six free concerts at Mount Morris Park in Harlem between June and August of 1969. Tens of thousands of people attended, and some of the most important names in music performed, including Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, Nina Simone and B.B. King. About 40 hours of video were shot at the festival by Hal Tulchin with the intention of turning it into a TV series or film, but he was unable to attract interest, and the tape sat in his basement for about 50 years until "Summer Of Soul" was produced. Questlove is also the co-founder of the band The Roots, which is the house band of "The Tonight Show," where Questlove is music director. He's also an author, and his new book, "Music Is History" - focusing on 1971 to the present - will be published in the fall.
GROSS: The festival represented different strains of Black music - you know, jazz, rhythm and blues, soul, Latin music. Nina Simone is one of the real standout performers in it. And unfortunately, we can't play her performance. We don't have the rights to play her performance. But she introduced the song "To Be Young, Gifted And Black," which was inspired by the off-Broadway show of the same name. And she and her music director wrote the song. She read a poem by David Nelson of The Last Poets, which was a pretty radical poem about being ready to smash things. Are you ready to smash things and burn buildings? And are you ready to listen to all of the beautiful Black voices? And she sang...
QUESTLOVE: Oh, "Mister Backlash" (ph).
GROSS: Yeah, she sang "Mister Backlash," which is also just a very political song. Were you already a big Nina Simone fan? Does she figure into, like, your musical life significantly?
QUESTLOVE: Absolutely. Nina Simone probably - like, at least for my generation, growing up, the artists that we saw evolve the most in that way was Prince. But Nina Simone was there way before he was, you know, from her beginnings as just like sort of a lounge singer singing Broadway standards and jazz songs and whatnot, love songs and to watch her total transformation into a political artist, like, using her voice to really express how she feels.
This document is also amazing for the fact that - capturing a lot of artists sort of at the crossroads of their beginning and to the next phase of their life and - besides Stevie Wonder and Gladys Knight and The Staple Singers who become, like, household names in the '70s. But Nina Simone especially, having just really a transformation in her life into using her political voice, which is really unheard of at the time. And, you know, it was also risky. I mean, there are plenty of artists that got blackballed or dealt with for speaking out their political views. And she could have easily been one of them. But yes, you're witnessing Nina Simone at the very beginning of what is her realizing her magic powers and political activism through music.
GROSS: There's gospel music presented at the concert, including by, you know, one of the greatest, Mahalia Jackson. And then Mavis Staples had sang with her family, The Staple Singers. But right before Mahalia Jackson went on stage, she asked Mavis Staples for a favor. Do you want to describe?
QUESTLOVE: Actually, one small factoid that I left out the film - which there was plenty - was actually the person that was supposed to perform with Mahalia was another protege of hers, Aretha Franklin.
GROSS: No, really?
QUESTLOVE: Yeah. Aretha was sort of an 11th-hour cancellation in less than 48 hours. So The Staple Singers was gracious enough to do two weeks of performances to sort of make up for that - make up for Aretha's absence. And so that, you know, precious lord summit meeting that I call it really wasn't planned. But, you know, it's just beautiful to see that, you know, two generations singing together and Mahalia representing traditional gospel and Mavis representing gospel but really morphing into what they would call message music.
And that's another thing, like, with the gospel portion, a lot of gospel acts were catching fire because the church felt like it was sinful for them to sing in that style but not sing about just the lord. And Mavis was like, well, we, you know, we want to protest, and this is how we protest. And the same for Edwin Hawkins Singers, "Oh Happy Day" being so popular that they would do it in concert, in nightclubs and whatnot. And the church, you know, really wanted to, again, blackball them because it was as controversial - I mean, the same way that we look at Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B's "WAP" - that's how controversial the church felt that gospel singers singing in secular environments was, like, it was a sin against God. So, yeah, it was even risky for those well-loved gospel acts that we know.
GROSS: So why don't we hear the Edwin Hawkins Singers doing "Oh Happy Day"? And this is really a terrific performance. They had a big hit record. And as you've said, their church, the Penteostal Church, was very sorry that they were going commercial like this.
QUESTLOVE: Yes. Yes.
GROSS: And Edwin Hawkins says in the movie, like, no, this is our way of taking the message to the people. Not everybody's going to church. And the singer, you know, the singer has so much spirit, the lead singer. And she's just standing almost perfectly still (laughter). It's really interesting to watch that.
QUESTLOVE: She's channeling magic through God, yes, absolutely.
GROSS: Yeah. So let's hear the Edwin Hawkins Singers doing "Oh Happy Day" from the film "Summer Of Soul."
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SUMMER OF SOUL")
THE EDWIN HAWKINS SINGERS: (Singing) Oh, happy day. Oh, happy day, when Jesus washed, when Jesus washed, when he washed, when Jesus washed, he washed all my sins away. Oh, happy day. He taught me how - oh, he taught me how, oh, yeah - to watch, fight and pray. Oh, yeah, good God, oh, yes. Happy day. Oh, happy day. Oh, happy day. Oh, happy day. Oh, happy day. Oh, happy day. When I get to heaven - oh, happy day - I'm gonna spread the news - oh, happy day. Don't tell me not to...
GROSS: That's the Edwin Hawkins Singers performing at the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969, featured in the new documentary about that festival. The documentary is called "Summer Of Soul," and my guest, Questlove, directed it. I want to talk for a second about where gospel music fits into your life. The last time you were on our show, we talked about how your grandfather, William Beachy Thompson, was a singer in the famous gospel group The Dixie Hummingbirds. And you didn't even know that that was for sure true until 2015 or so.
QUESTLOVE: Yeah. You want to know something even weirder?
GROSS: Yeah. Absolutely.
QUESTLOVE: OK. So, again, the whole family knew of this fact. But, you know, as the story with most African Americans in this country really not knowing their genealogy or the history they came from. So, of course, in 2018, 2019, I believe, I did Henry Louis Gates' "Finding Your Roots."
GROSS: "Finding Your Roots," yeah.
QUESTLOVE: And so I had a nice little tradeoff. Of course, in the history of that show, only two people can trace their slave ship and the country and sort of the area from which they came from. The other person being Wanda Sykes. I'm also the fortunate person because, you know, technically, my great-great-great grandfather was the last person on the Clotilda. But at the end, he was also like, yes, and I know that you're wondering about the history of your grandfather. And he broke the news to me that I - even though we have the same last name, I was not related to Beachy Thompson of The Dixie Hummingbirds. So, you know...
GROSS: That's so funny because you had suspected - you didn't believe it when people told you 'cause your father had never confirmed it. But he confirmed it when he was near death. And now you're finding out it's not even true.
QUESTLOVE: Yeah. He didn't even know. So I'm sure he knows now that he's in the afterlife. But yeah, that's one of the biggest mysteries of the family. And even after that episode came out, my family was still like, we don't care what he says. He's our grandfather. So, OK, great.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson. And his new documentary is called "Summer Of Soul." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson. He co-founded the band The Roots, which is the house band for "The Tonight Show," where he serves as music director. And he directed the new concert documentary, "The Summer Of Soul," which features performances from and interviews about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival.
In watching the film, I thought about something that I've thought about a lot before, which is how much, like, music choreography has changed over the decades. Because the coolest thing in the '60s and early '70s was watching the performers do steps, you know. And it's like - it's hand gestures and, like, steps to the side, synchronized. But it's nothing compared to today, where there's teams of dancers doing, like, acrobatic kind of dancing. And some people started to dismiss Motown-style choreography as being too showbizzy (ph). And when you think of what choreography is like now, it's like - it's amazingly showbizzy. Even though it could be very hip-hop, it's still just, like, so elaborate and staged. Have you thought about how music choreography has changed and how expectations have changed about what you're going to see on stage?
QUESTLOVE: Yeah, it's evolved now. I guess we can kind of blame Michael Jackson for this, for like turning it up a notch, you know. And that's because he grew up watching like old, you know, Fred Astaire and Broadway musicals as a kid. And he just brought that to life in his videos, but...
GROSS: And probably Jackie Wilson.
GROSS: Yeah. Well, yeah, also watching James Brown and Jackie Wilson and whatnot. Yes. Even though choreography has totally 100% sort of went into overdrive throughout the years, I marvel at the simplicity. Like, I'm a person that believes that, you know, less is more. And in the case of the Gladys Knight and the Pips performance, first of all, they're doing it on one microphone. So that's even unprecedented, because I'm used to, like, each background singer having their own microphone. And, you know, but again, you're only dealing with 16 channels. So they have to share a microphone, which means that they also have to - like, what they're doing with their arms. I'm wondering, like, how are they not punching each other with their arms and their - like, all their limbs are being utilized. So I wish I had an answer. It was just more magic to me when less is more.
GROSS: So you can still appreciate, like, the simple choreography - not simplistic, but just, you know, simple choreography, which seemed so - it seemed so elaborate at the time (laughter) you know.
QUESTLOVE: It's still elaborate to me because when you're watching the Pips perform, you're not seeing like traditional one, two, three, four. Like, they're doing like it's almost like interpretive body movement. Like, I'm still trying to figure out, like, where their one is. How are they all doing this at the same time without an actual, like, rhythmic step? Like, they're doing - it's almost like watching yoga to rhythm.
GROSS: So the festival was held in Harlem at a park there. And the security was provided - at least a lot of the security was provided by the Black Panthers. And it says in the movie that some of them were wearing, like, the Black Panther uniform of the beret and the, you know, black lapel leather jacket and everything, so you can recognize them as Panthers. But some of them were just wearing plain clothes. There were also some police there. Did you get to interview any of the Panthers who were there?
QUESTLOVE: Yeah, the Panther known as Bullwhip. He was, at the time, I believe, a young teenager. And he explained to us that at the very beginning, the police didn't want to provide security for the festival, basically, because of what had happened the year before. You know, of all the cities that sort of went into turmoil during the aftermath of Martin Luther King's assassination, Harlem probably got hit the hardest of all, as far as rioting is concerned. And so in their minds, they were sort of like, you guys are absolutely crazy to - you know, this is like a keg of dynamite. Like, why would you guys even entertain this thought? So their response was basically like, we don't want to be anywhere near this because it's - we're going to be outnumbered and that sort of thing.
But I believe that as the weeks went on, by the second week, then they realized, like, OK, well - OK, we'll provide security. And as a result, there was absolutely no incidents whatsoever, which, you know, I hate to say this, but, you know, in comparing it to that other festival, I was going to say that if even 5% of the things that happened at Woodstock happened at the Harlem Cultural Festival, then there is a possibility that you would have heard of this festival but sort of painted in that Altamont light, you know, the position that Altamont has with the Rolling Stones being the tragic version...
GROSS: There was a killing, yeah.
QUESTLOVE: ...Being the tragic version of what happens at a festival. You would have probably heard about the Harlem Cultural Festival. But, yeah, 300,000 people over that summer in '69, and it was not one incident.
GROSS: Yeah. There's one moment in the film when the crowd is pushing.
QUESTLOVE: Oh, with Sly and the Family Stone.
GROSS: Sly, yeah. And he's saying, you know, basically telling him to stop. And so that was it. That was the big drama.
QUESTLOVE: There's excitement because, like, Sly wasn't even supposed to be on the bill. So it was sort of like, hey, people, Jesus Christ is here right now, you know, that sort of thing. So, yeah. Sly was the the one act that wasn't billed to be on the festival. I also found out that Jimi Hendrix tried to get on the festival as well and wasn't able to do it.
GROSS: Why not?
GROSS: That remains up in the air. My guess is maybe the perception of Jimi might have been a little bit too radical. But unfortunately, what the festival organizers didn't know was that Jimi himself was going through his own transformative period, of which by the end of '69, in the last eight months of his life, he was kind of tired of being the novelty act of like this wild guy that sets his guitars on fire and does all the novelty things that made his initial audiences, like, marvel at him. And he wanted to be more serious and really, truthfully, just return to his Black roots, which was the blues. And so he didn't let that deter him. Instead, he did his only three Harlem performances in Harlem nightclubs with blues master Freddie King. And he had gotten rid of The Experience. And he was working with the Band of Gypsys, which is...
GROSS: Buddy Miles.
QUESTLOVE: Buddy Miles and Billy Cox. So, yeah, it would have been great to see Buddy Miles, Billy Cox and Freddie King and Jimi Hendrix as the Band of Gypsys perform at the Harlem Cultural Festival. But, you know, what didn't happen at the festival sort of also floored me as well, like with Aretha Franklin canceling and Jimi Hendrix and Luther Vandross.
GROSS: Congratulations on the movie. It's just been great to talk with you again.
QUESTLOVE: Well, I thank you for having me, and I really enjoy doing your show all the time. Thank you.
GROSS: Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson directed the new documentary "Summer Of Soul," which is streaming on Hulu. Tomorrow through Labor Day, we'll hear interviews from our archive with some of the musicians who performed at the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival and are featured in the documentary. We'll hear from Gladys Knight, Mavis Staples, B.B. King, Hugh Masekela, Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln. After we take a short break, Justin Chang will review the new film "Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings." It's Marvel's first movie to feature an Asian superhero. This is FRESH AIR.
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