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"Summer of Soul": Rescuing a historic Harlem music festival

In the summer of 1969, four-year-old Musa Jackson and 19-year-old Darryl Lewis attended a music festival. "Even now, when I think about it, I'm a little emotional about it, because it's something that I've had in my heart, in my head since I was four years old," Jackson said.

"There were some that thought I made it up!" laughed Lewis.

But he did not; he and Jackson were part of the crowd that gathered at Mount Morris Park in Harlem. "It really was like a sea of people," Jackson said.

They weren't at that other music festival in upstate New York: "I didn't see Woodstock; my parents would not let me go!" Lewis laughed.

It's said Woodstock defined a generation. But that summer's Harlem Cultural Festival, featuring stars like Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and the Fifth Dimension, and attended by approximately 300,000 people, was left out of the history books. 

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The Fifth Dimension performing at the Harlem Cultural Festival.  Mass Distraction Media

"This mythical, magical festival thrown in 1969, with all these great names, and I never heard about it?" said Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson. "When it was shown to me, I got humbled real quick!"

For Thompson, leader of "The Tonight Show" house band The Roots, that magical festival is now the basis of his documentary, "Summer of Soul," which opens this week. "This is not about just me having my first directorial debut," he said. "I've been given the responsibility to correct history, which, who'd a thought, you know?"

The festival, organized and hosted by singer Tony Lawrence, was filmed by television producer Hal Tulchin, but the 40 hours of footage remained largely unseen.

"Sunday Morning" contributor Hua Hsu asked, "What happened to it? Why hadn't we heard of this festival?"

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Roots band leader Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, director of "Summer of Soul." CBS News

"The #1 question I always had was, like, 'Wait a minute, you're trying to tell me that, for 50 years, no one was interested?'" Thompson said. "I know that Hal Tulchin tried very hard to find any and every one. Nobody would take it."

Until Thompson, who couldn't take his eyes off the footage. "I just pretty much kept this on constantly for five months in a row, no matter where I was in the world, like, on the plane watching my phone, in the bathroom, in the shower."

"What were you looking for?" Hsu asked. "What were the moments that would force you to sit down and take a note?"

"If I could find something shocking and jarring to someone visually, that would be my beginning," he replied.

A 19-year-old Stevie Wonder playing drums is pretty hard to forget. "He's really coming into his own," Hsu said.

Thompson said, "Yeah, he's no longer little Stevie Wonder. And this performance here is him realizing his powers."

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Stevie Wonder performs at the 1969 Harlem Cultural festival.  Mass Distraction Media

Singer Marilyn McCoo, of The Fifth Dimenson, mesmerized young Musa Jackson: "I was in love!"

The festival, which ran throughout the summer, shows a community in transition. "Dashikis and sideburns and sunglasses," noted Jackson.

Sly and the Family Stone sang their counterculture anthem, "Everyday People," and wore styles to match. "They're some of the first groups that dressed like hippies!" said Lewis.

Thompson said, "The younger generation, people under, like, 23, are, like, losing their collective mind. Sly and the Family Stone were performing with a kind of freedom that you never saw before."

Others, like David Ruffin, who'd just left the Temptations, stuck with Motown standards – and weathered the record label's requisite buttoned-up look. "It's the middle of August, and David Ruffin has on a wool tuxedo and a coat!" Thompson said. "You know, you could clearly see the Motown charm school still coming to play. He could have had that same magic in his regular street clothes. But back then, you had to cross your T's and dot your I's to not upset or make, like, White people feel afraid."

That summer, Musa Jackson said, Harlem was a close-knit neighborhood ("Everybody was your mom, everybody was your dad. You felt really safe"), and in some ways it was excluded from history being made elsewhere.

Thompson said, "We did a lot of research, and at the time when Stevie's performing, that's when the actual Moon landing is happening, when Stevie's performing. And we were watching the footage and I was, like, 'Wait: Was that boos? Are they booing?'"

Apollo 11 landed on the Moon, but residents of Harlem had bigger concerns here on Earth. One concertgoer told CBS News' Bill Plante, "Gas gets wasted, as far as I'm concerned, in getting to the Moon. Could have been used to feed more Black people in Harlem and all over the place, all over this country."

Thompson said, "Pretty much everyone just expressed disdain for it, which I didn't realize it was that universal."

The previous year saw the Civil Rights Act expanded, but it came on the heels of unrest following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

Hsu said, "It's a film about music, but it's also a film about history."

"1969 was a paradigm shift, especially for Black people, you know, coming off the tail end of the civil rights period," Thompson said. "That was the first year that we referred to ourselves as Black. That's the first year that, you know, we acknowledged that Black is beautiful."

At a time when there's, again, a reckoning on race in America, Thompson said this film is important for what it doesn't contain. When asked what he hopes will resonate with audiences today, Thompson replied, It's Black joy. What I worry about is that there is a generation that just thinks that our history is being bashed on the head with billy clubs, or being sprayed with firehoses. But there's all also different facets to our lives that need to be shown as well."

For Musa Jackson and Darryl Lewis, it's about time.

"This is what I remember," Jackson said, "and to be validated, almost to, like, the letter. Like, to the letter!"

"In my memory, Woodstock is actually the White Harlem Cultural Festival," Lewis said.

Recently, Ahmir Questlove Thompson DJ'd a set at a celebration of his documentary with Harlem residents, including some of the same people, in the same park, where the Harlem Cultural Festival happened 50 years ago.

Questlove's "Summer Of Soul" Screening & Live Concert
Billy Davis and Marilyn McCoo perform during Questlove's "Summer Of Soul" screening and live concert, at Marcus Garvey Park, June 19, 2021 in Harlem.  Roy Rochlin/Getty Images

Hsu asked, "What do you think it would've been like had this [footage] actually been given this life at the time?"

"This film could have defined a generation as well," Thompson said. "We'll never get to know the answer, what the effect would have been. But I do believe that, even 50 years later, this is still as potent and powerful as Woodstock was, and can still work its magic for another generation."

To watch a trailer for "Summer of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)" click on the video player below:

SUMMER OF SOUL | Official Teaser by SearchlightPictures on YouTube

     
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Story produced by Mary Raffalli. Editor: Carol Ross. 

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