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    James Alexander of the Bar-Kays on 50 years of the live performance documentary ‘Wattstax’ : NPR


    THE BAR-KAYS: I am the son of a…


    Los Angeles, 1972. On the seventh anniversary of the Watts riots, the soul and funk label Stax Data staged an infinite live performance on the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. It was known as Wattstax. The live performance was filmed and was a film of the identical identify, out 50 years in the past this month. Stax’s whole lineup on the time performed, and let me be clear, this lineup was nothing in need of unbelievable – The Staple Singers, Kim Weston, Carla Thomas, Albert King, Isaac Hayes and The Bar-Kays, which performed their hit “Son Of Shaft,” which you hear within the background. James Alexander was The Bar-Kays’ bassist, and he joins us now from WKNO in Memphis, which is the place Stax Data was primarily based. Thanks for being right here.

    JAMES ALEXANDER: Hey, thanks for having me. And thanks for making me rise up so early to do that, OK? Yeah.

    RASCOE: (Laughter) Effectively, we respect you getting off the bed for us. So the Reverend Jesse Jackson gave this opening speech on the pageant. I believe we have got a clip of it.


    JESSE JACKSON: Right this moment on this program, you’ll hear gospel and rhythm and blues and jazz. All these are simply labels. We all know that music is music. All of our folks obtained a soul.

    RASCOE: So what was the thought of Wattstax? Like, what was this live performance all about?

    ALEXANDER: Effectively, this live performance was about simply displaying folks that individuals can actually have an excellent time with out tearing up every part, you realize, with out having a riot and all of that stuff like that. And as you realize, it was seven years after the Watts riots that this occasion came about. And would you imagine {that a} hundred thousand folks got here collectively and there have been no incidents?

    RASCOE: What do you bear in mind about that day? It was August 20, 1972.

    ALEXANDER: Man, what do I bear in mind about that day? Initially, I had butterflies, you realize, as a result of The Bar-Kays, like many others, had by no means performed for a viewers that large. However we had all these wild concepts. We had this concept of getting some horses and chariots and using into the Los Angeles Coliseum on horses and chariots.

    RASCOE: Wow.

    ALEXANDER: However it might trigger us – we must go throughout the sector.

    RASCOE: Yeah.

    ALEXANDER: So that they mentioned, oh, no. Y’all are (inaudible) to mess every part up. So we needed to go to Plan B.

    RASCOE: Y’all have been all in white, after which there was the one who – I do not know who that was – who had the large white afro. And y’all had gold chains. I imply, like, the outfits have been out of this world.

    ALEXANDER: You already know, we wished to essentially take over the present. You already know, we wished to be, you realize, all that. So we could not journey the horses and chariots, so we needed to provide you with some outfits. So that is what we got here up with. So once we walked out on stage, you realize, for a couple of minutes, folks have been simply saying ooh and ah.

    RASCOE: Yeah, it stood out. It positively stood out.

    ALEXANDER: Yeah. Oh, them guys sharp.

    RASCOE: (Laughter) Sure. Did you watch any of the opposite performances once they have been occurring? Like, is there one other efficiency, like, by a Stax artist that basically caught with you from that day?

    ALEXANDER: Yeah, Rufus Thomas. You already know, when he walked out on stage in these scorching pants, did you discover that?


    RUFUS THOMAS: (Singing) Flap your wings. Your toes begin kicking. Now you realize you are doing the funky rooster.

    RASCOE: And, I imply, to me – after which you’ve got that time the place all people ran out on the sector. And, like, all of that – like, that stood out to me. Like, that was…

    ALEXANDER: Effectively, anyone got here up on stage and instructed Rufus, you realize, yeah, you instructed these folks to return out on the sector. You could inform them to return to their seats.


    THOMAS: All of us going to have some enjoyable, however you ain’t speculated to have your enjoyable on the bottom. You are speculated to be within the stand. Extra energy to the parents. Let’s go to the stand.

    RASCOE: You already know, the live performance, as we’re speaking about, it was was a film. Like, have been you eager about that while you have been performing, not solely that you just had this large viewers, however that it was being filmed?

    ALEXANDER: We did not – look, the homeowners of Stax Data put us on an airplane, the entire artists, and simply instructed us we have been going to LA to do a live performance. We did not learn about no filming or something like that. However we have been simply glad to get out of city, you realize what I imply?

    RASCOE: Yeah.

    ALEXANDER: Lots of people in our group had by no means been to Los Angeles earlier than, so, you realize, that was the farthest they ever been away from dwelling, you realize what I imply?

    RASCOE: What did you consider the movie while you first noticed it?

    ALEXANDER: I believed it was superb, I imply, as a result of really, it was not a movie as movies go. You already know, lots of people suppose it was plenty of music, but when you consider it, it was plenty of speaking in it.

    RASCOE: It’s. I imply, I felt prefer it was, like, a dialog for the Black group. Like, there are all these – between the music scenes, there are folks speaking about totally different points, Black folks speaking about totally different points.


    UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: You already know, I dig the pure. I believe the pure is an exquisite, lovely means of carrying your hair for all Black folks.

    UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: No, the Black lady has at all times been two steps forward of her man. All the time.

    UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Hey, look, I am not prejudiced as a result of a few of my finest buddies are coloured, if you realize what I am speaking about.

    RASCOE: And it felt like so lots of the conversations they have been having are the identical conversations we’re having as we speak – you realize, police brutality, crime within the Black group, interracial relationships. Like, you – like, these are all conversations that I see on Twitter – Black Twitter – every single day.

    ALEXANDER: Proper. I imply, it’s actually superb that every part that you just see on “Wattstax” is so related. It is identical to it occurred yesterday.

    RASCOE: Transferring on to one thing, I imply, very critical. Like, the story of the Bar-Kays is de facto unbelievable, proper? Like, very sadly, most of your band had died in a airplane crash, the airplane crash that additionally killed Otis Redding, 5 years earlier than this live performance and also you needed to work to reconstitute the band. How did you handle that?

    ALEXANDER: Effectively, virtually instantly after the accident, the homeowners of Stax got here to myself and Ben Cauley ‘trigger, you realize, Ben Cauley was the one surviving member on the – you realize, of the airplane crash. They got here to us and so they mentioned, look, what do you guys need to do about The Bar-Kays? Do y’all need to – you realize, is that this it, or do y’all need to, you realize, stick with it? And, in fact, I mentioned stick with it. Ben Cauley was not – he did not need to take the management place. So at that time, at a really early age, you realize, I took the management place. I didn’t know what I used to be doing, however right here we’re. And FYI, 2024, The Bar-Kays will probably be celebrating its sixtieth anniversary.

    RASCOE: Oh, wow. What do you suppose is the legacy of Wattstax, and what would you like folks as we speak to learn about it?

    ALEXANDER: Even again then, you realize, positively violence just isn’t the reply. Irrespective of how dangerous conditions are, you must at all times take into consideration attempting to return to a peaceable answer, you realize? And I do know generally that is laborious. You already know, like, as an illustration, in Memphis proper now – I am fairly positive all people’s been saying this nationwide concerning the police brutality in Memphis, however it’s occurring everywhere in the nation, and we simply need to provide you with a peaceable answer. And the people who do all of these items should be held accountable.

    RASCOE: That is James Alexander, bassist of The Bar-Kays, one of many many acts in Wattstax. The documentary that introduced the live performance to theaters throughout America was launched 50 years in the past this month. Thanks for being with us.

    ALEXANDER: Thanks for having me.

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