Buried for 50 years, the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival is now recognized as an historic concert series, thanks to the recent film, which won the Grammy for Best Music Film and Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. The greatest soul, blues, and gospel artists performed in the context of the rising Black Power movement and social struggles, many that still exist. The music is riveting – and deeply moving.
The Chambers Brothers kick it off with a fierce “Uptown,” while B.B. King electrifies “Why I Sing the Blues” on a red ES-345. On the same day Apollo 11 landed on the moon, the Staple Singers played “It’s Been a Change.” Playing a Guild Starfire VI, Pop Staples’ driving country-blues licks are a revelation.
Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples steal the show with “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” but also dig Wayne Bennett’s blues vamping on an ES-330. Jazz flutist Herbie Mann leads “Hold On, I’m Comin’,” showcasing avant-guitarist Sonny Sharrock’s pure sonic meltdown. The thrilling finale comes from Sly & the Family Stone, with Freddie Stone’s advanced comping and Larry Graham’s pioneering funk bass.
Another miracle is the festival’s music was captured with just 15 microphones on a bare-bones stage. Now on CD and DVD, these performances remain just as powerful and relevant today.
This article originally appeared in VG’s June 2022 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.