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James Alexander of the Bar-Kays on 50 years of the concert documentary 'Wattstax'

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SON OF SHAFT")

THE BAR-KAYS: I'm the son of a...

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Los Angeles, 1972. On the seventh anniversary of the Watts riots, the soul and funk label Stax Records staged an enormous concert at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. It was called Wattstax. The concert was filmed and turned into a movie of the same name, out 50 years ago this month. Stax's entire lineup at the time played, and let me be clear, this lineup was nothing short of incredible - The Staple Singers, Kim Weston, Carla Thomas, Albert King, Isaac Hayes and The Bar-Kays, which played their hit "Son Of Shaft," which you hear in the background. James Alexander was The Bar-Kays' bassist, and he joins us now from WKNO in Memphis, which is where Stax Records was based. Thanks for being here.

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

RASCOE: (Laughter) Well, we appreciate you getting out of bed for us. So the Reverend Jesse Jackson gave this opening speech at the festival. I think we've got a clip of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JESSE JACKSON: Today on this program, you will hear gospel and rhythm and blues and jazz. All those are just labels. We know that music is music. All of our people got a soul.

RASCOE: So what was the idea of Wattstax? Like, what was this concert all about?

ALEXANDER: Well, this concert was about just showing people that people can really have a good time without tearing up everything, you know, without having a riot and all of that stuff like that. And as you know, it was seven years after the Watts riots that this event took place. And would you believe that a hundred thousand people came together and there were no incidents?

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

ALEXANDER: Man, what do I remember about that day? First of all, I had butterflies, you know, because The Bar-Kays, like many others, had never played for a audience that big. But we had all these wild ideas. We had this idea of getting some horses and chariots and riding into the Los Angeles Coliseum on horses and chariots.

RASCOE: Wow.

ALEXANDER: But it would cause us - we would have to go across the field.

RASCOE: Yeah.

ALEXANDER: So they said, oh, no. Y'all are (inaudible) to mess everything up. So we had to go to Plan B.

RASCOE: Y'all were all in white, and then there was the person who - I don't know who that was - who had the big white afro. And y'all had gold chains. I mean, like, the outfits were out of this world.

ALEXANDER: You know, we wanted to really take over the show. You know, we wanted to be, you know, all that. So we couldn't ride the horses and chariots, so we had to come up with some outfits. So that's what we came up with. So when we walked out on stage, you know, for a few minutes, people were just saying ooh and ah.

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

ALEXANDER: Yeah. Oh, them guys sharp.

RASCOE: (Laughter) Yes. Did you watch any of the other performances when they were happening? Like, is there another performance, like, by a Stax artist that really stuck with you from that day?

ALEXANDER: Yeah, Rufus Thomas. You know, when he walked out on stage in those hot pants, did you notice that?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DO THE FUNKY CHICKEN")

RUFUS THOMAS: (Singing) Flap your wings. Your feet start kicking. Now you know you're doing the funky chicken.

RASCOE: And, I mean, to me - and then you have that point where everybody ran out on the field. And, like, all of that - like, that stood out to me. Like, that was...

ALEXANDER: Well, somebody came up on stage and told Rufus, you know, yeah, you told these people to come out on the field. You need to tell them to go back to their seats.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

THOMAS: We all going to have some fun, but you ain't supposed to have your fun on the ground. You're supposed to be in the stand. More power to the folks. Let's go to the stand.

RASCOE: You know, the concert, as we're talking about, it was turned into a movie. Like, were you thinking about that when you were performing, not only that you had this big audience, but that it was being filmed?

ALEXANDER: We didn't - look, the owners of Stax Records put us on an airplane, all of the artists, and just told us we were going to LA to do a concert. We didn't know about no filming or anything like that. But we were just glad to get out of town, you know what I mean?

RASCOE: Yeah.

ALEXANDER: A lot of people in our group had never been to Los Angeles before, so, you know, that was the farthest they ever been away from home, you know what I mean?

RASCOE: What did you think of the film when you first saw it?

ALEXANDER: I thought it was amazing, I mean, because actually, it was not a film as films go. You know, a lot of people think it was a lot of music, but if you think about it, it was a lot of talking in it.

RASCOE: It is. I mean, I felt like it was, like, a conversation for the Black community. Like, there are all these - between the music scenes, there are people talking about different issues, Black people talking about different issues.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: You know, I dig the natural. I think the natural is a beautiful, beautiful way of wearing your hair for all Black people.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: No, the Black woman has always been two steps ahead of her man. Always.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Hey, look, I'm not prejudiced because some of my best friends are colored, if you know what I'm talking about.

RASCOE: And it felt like so many of the conversations they were having are the same conversations we're having today - you know, police brutality, crime in the Black community, interracial relationships. Like, you - like, these are all conversations that I see on Twitter - Black Twitter - every day.

ALEXANDER: Right. I mean, it is really amazing that everything that you see on "Wattstax" is so relevant. It's just like it happened yesterday.

RASCOE: Moving on to something, I mean, very serious. Like, the story of the Bar-Kays is really unbelievable, right? Like, very sadly, most of your band had died in a plane crash, the plane crash that also killed Otis Redding, five years before this concert and you had to work to reconstitute the band. How did you manage that?

ALEXANDER: Well, almost immediately after the accident, the owners of Stax came to myself and Ben Cauley 'cause, you know, Ben Cauley was the only surviving member on the - you know, of the plane crash. They came to us and they said, look, what do you guys want to do about The Bar-Kays? Do y'all want to - you know, is this it, or do y'all want to, you know, carry on? And, of course, I said carry on. Ben Cauley was not - he didn't want to take the leadership position. So at that point, at a very early age, you know, I took the leadership position. I did not know what I was doing, but here we are. And FYI, 2024, The Bar-Kays will be celebrating its 60th anniversary.

RASCOE: Oh, wow. What do you think is the legacy of Wattstax, and what do you want people today to know about it?

ALEXANDER: Even back then, you know, definitely violence is not the answer. No matter how bad situations are, you should always think about trying to come to a peaceful solution, you know? And I know sometimes that's hard. You know, like, for instance, in Memphis right now - I'm pretty sure everybody's been saying this nationwide about the police brutality in Memphis, but it's happening all over the country, and we just have to come up with a peaceful solution. And the people that do all of this stuff need to be held accountable.

RASCOE: That's James Alexander, bassist of The Bar-Kays, one of the many acts in Wattstax. The documentary that brought the concert to theaters across America was released 50 years ago this month. Thank you for being with us.

ALEXANDER: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.