The notes shimmer as B.B. King, resplendent in a blue sport jacket, slides his fingers across his red Gibson. The crowd in Harlem’s Mount Morris Park sways, claps and smiles as he delivers a searing performance of “Why I Sing the Blues.” The footage is stunning, but what also stands out in Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s 2021 documentary, “Summer of Soul,” is the quality of the recording. This isn’t some lo-fi bootleg. In fact, the sound on those nearly 50-year-old tapes stunned Thompson, the Roots drummer and bandleader on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.”
“How do the Roots use 104 microphones and 104 outputs?” Thompson said. “This festival only used 15.”
This is just one of the magical mysteries surrounding the Harlem Cultural Festival, whose lineup, over six weekends during the summer of 1969, included King, the Staple Singers, Stevie Wonder, the 5th Dimension, and Sly and the Family Stone. Woodstock, taking place 100 miles away later that same summer, would become a generation definer with its top-grossing film and chart-topping soundtrack. But the Harlem Cultural Festival — with arguably superior performances — would be forgotten, the tapes unreleased and buried for decades.
Questlove’s film has helped reframe the narrative. “Summer of Soul (... Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” earned top honors at Sundance last year, played in theaters and is now airing on Hulu. And on Jan. 28, the film’s 17-track soundtrack will be released. Thompson and I spoke recently over Zoom about the influence of the festival and the surprises he found as he worked through the tapes. (This interview has been edited for clarity and space.)
Q: You’ve talked a lot about Black erasure. Last year, you said in interviews that maybe in 10 or 25 years we’ll see a longer version of “Summer of Soul.” Since then, we’ve seen the 462 minutes of the Beatles in “Get Back.” Has that made you reassess how long we’ll have to wait for more?
A: Yeah, we’ve heard you loud and clear. Not to jump and put the horse before the cart. But we’re definitely in serious talks right now about an expanded version or a complete version. What you witnessed wasn’t even 15 percent of the magic of the day.
Q: We can also think about the Harlem Cultural Festival in relation to Woodstock. There’s a 38-CD Woodstock box with virtually every recorded moment.
A: When I speak of Black erasure, I think oftentimes people go to the most extreme definition of it. Something like a book burning. In this particular case of Black erasure, it’s sort of like the casual way that this was dismissed and really not taken seriously … with a shrug like, “Okay, well, that’s cool, but it’s not something to write home about.” When I was doing this, Prince’s autobiography had come out. He spoke of how seeing Woodstock with his dad at 11 made a difference in his life, and that made me start wondering instantly. I think maybe the first thing that was musical that I saw in a movie theater might have been “The Wiz” in 1978. But if something of that importance were made into an event the same way, say, “War of the Worlds” or the last episode of “M.A.S.H.” or a Super Bowl event was, could that have made a difference?
It goes to show you that it’s important for people to see themselves as well. I’m not saying that the version of the Harlem Cultural Festival that we cut together would have been the same story that another director would have done in 1972, ’73 or ’74. But I’m certain that watching “Precious Lord” or watching Stevie Wonder do his concert could have had some sort of cultural impact that could have made a difference in people’s lives. But we’ll never know.
Q: How did this get recorded so beautifully?
A: Your guess is literally as good as mine. Really. What you’re listening to is a rough mix. I seriously doubt back then when they were setting the soundboard that they had the wherewithal to say, “Okay, I see a motion picture movie coming out, so let’s make this the best quality ever.” We gave it to [recording engineer] Jimmy Douglass and even with a half-inch reel, he can sweeten it up, make it sound good or whatever. Nothing sounded better than their rough mix. I can’t fathom how they had 15 microphones. You give six of them to two sets of drums, one of which you’re not even using — like Stevie’s drum set got used only once his whole set, so his drummer gets three mics. His basic guitar player is sharing one mic. Stevie’s keyboard gets one. Stevie gets a mic at the keyboard, Stevie gets one mic to stand up, and the remaining microphones go to the brass section. It sounds so pristine that for the life of me, it only confirms to me that less is more.
Q: Your soundtrack is only 17 songs. I imagine there’s some incredible stuff in the vaults that we should hear. How did you decide what to present?
A: Initially, I wanted to break protocol with the movie and put more on the record than what was in the movie. But there was such a demand for us to — “How could you release a musical movie without a soundtrack? I want to listen to this in the car. Yadda, yadda, yadda.” So we decided that if we were going to go off grid and do more songs, it would have taken a long time for these songs to clear. Even to clear what we have now, it took a lot of kissing babies and handshaking. So in terms of efficiency and time, we decided to roll with the songs that have been cleared already in the movie, and similar to our deluxe version of the movie that will eventually come out with more songs, I’m certain we will have way more songs to choose from that will be cleared in time for people.
Q: Obviously, it’s hard not to notice there’s no Stevie on the soundtrack.
A: In my mind, we were sort of gunning for Christmas, and it would have taken way too much time spent clearing with Mr. Wonder’s estate. So hopefully if we do a deluxe version, he will be included, but you know, his inclusion in the film and a lot of the artists that we’ve had reach with, a lot of it is just due to personal relationships I have. But these are legacy artists now. So it’s not like I can casually do a soundtrack and hit up Ed Sheeran to do a song real quick.
Q: You can’t call Stevie on the phone and just say, “Hey, can we get permission to put this out?”
A: Actually, that’s how we got Stevie in the movie. Like, I had to call Stevie on the phone. We’re dealing with legacy songs. So, you know, for instance, there was … speaking of the “Get Back” documentary, there were a ton of Beatles covers [performed during the Harlem festival]. I think between Beatles covers and the Doors’ “Light My Fire” and “Knock on Wood” by Eddie Floyd, those were like the most covered, established songs. The producers were like, “You can forget about any Beatles covers, no way that they’ll get cleared in time or we don’t have enough budget for the Beatles.”
Q: To get back to the idea of Black erasure and the way history has been defined, you have this incredible segment on the moon landing in 1969. It takes place during the festival. We’re used to seeing the landing celebrated. Instead, you show us how for some of Black America, the moon landing was viewed differently. You have this incredible footage from CBS and Walter Cronkite with interviews from the festival where people are complaining. They are asking, ‘Why are we spending all that money on space when our neighborhoods and schools and kids could use some support?’
A: Now here’s a tip that I haven’t let out much. We wanted to find out people’s opinions on the moon landing. And we discovered that CBS and Walter Cronkite had sent a camera crew to our festival. When it came time to clear the footage, and this leads me back to the whole importance of making sure that history gets corrected … CBS had initially denied us use of that footage because they said our protocol is if it made it on the air, then you’re allowed to use it for research purposes. So basically, we accidentally sent you that footage. “Sorry about that, but you can’t use it.”
Q: So you’re saying that segment never aired on CBS. Because it would have been a bummer back then, when everybody was celebrating the moon landing, to have actual reality enter the conversation.
A: Yes, and to get it, it took about maybe three or four carefully worded emails about the importance of telling history. Now wonder what else is there that we don’t know about that’s never gotten aired that’s just as important. At the last minute, I think just to get us off their case, they finally cleared it. But that almost, that literally almost didn’t make it.
[Editor’s note: After publication, retired CBS News reporter Bill Plante wrote to clarify that his interviews were broadcast during the network’s all-day coverage. “And after the segment was aired, Cronkite was indeed annoyed,” Plante said. “He didn’t like anyone raining on the space parade.”]
Q: Here we go again about who makes the history. When it came to getting the footage, did it help that we are in a moment with the New York Times’ 1619 project and voices reshaping history who will say, “Oh, CBS, you don’t want to tell that story?”
A: At the time when we were editing this, this was heavy into the summer of 2020 and identical to the exact conditions that were happening that made the Harlem Cultural Festival exist in the first place. There was political unrest. George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. So I think, we kind of had to remind these people that, look, we’re doing a film about history and this could help. Had this been 2018, 2019, I think that we would have probably gotten just “Look, rules are rules, we can’t break the rules for you guys.”
Q: In the film, I love how you mix Walter Cronkite and the new reports with the sound of the Staple Singers. Any chance we get the 12-inch someday?
A: I didn’t even think of including that as audio. I don’t know. I think we live in an age where you need visual aid with audio. So I’m even shocked. … Because even in the beginning, we were like, “Does this need a soundtrack?” And it’s weird for a guy with 200,000 records and even this being my debut film, I guess you would think I would want a soundtrack to go with my movie. But I guess in my mind, I was just like, “Oh, you know, I think people would just rather watch the movie than listen to a soundtrack.” Oh, how wrong I was.