Everybody Is a Star: Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson on Making His Oscar-Winning Doc, Summer of Soul
This interview with Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson about his Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) appeared on the cover of our Summer, 2021 print edition and is being reposted following the film’s winning Best Documentary at last night’s 2022 Academy Awards. — Editor
On June 29, 1969, Sly and the Family Stone delivered an electrifying performance at Mount Morris Park in Harlem, New York. Fusing the revolutionary fervor of the Black Freedom movement with the collectivist spirit of West Coast counterculture, the iconic band wowed the audience with rousing renditions of “Everyday People,” “Sing a Simple Song” “You Can Make It If You Try,” “Dance to the Music” and “I Want to Take You Higher.” If there existed any doubts about the Black community’s deep love for Sly and the Family Stone, the crowd’s thunderous applause, piercing shrieks and shouts of approval that day erased them all.
Sly and the Family Stone’s riveting performance was part of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, a six-week concert series that drew more than 300,000 attendees. The brainchild of entertainer Tony Lawrence, the Harlem Cultural Festival was organized in 1967 with the goal of providing Black New Yorkers with the best entertainment possible.
With corporate sponsorship and savvy planning, the festival hit its stride in 1969. That year, the event brought together some of the biggest names in music: Stevie Wonder, B.B. King, Nina Simone, the 5th Dimension, Mahalia Jackson, Abbey Lincoln, Max Roach, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Hugh Masekela, David Ruffin, the Staple Singers and the Edwin Hawkins Singers, among others.
There were plans to release the festival’s footage as a film. And why not? The world beyond New York deserved to experience Black cultural unity on full display, to witness the materialization of what so many Black Arts writers and poets called “Spirit Music.”
Working in tandem with Lawrence, festival producer Hal Tulchin had filmed the concert series in its entirety. Unfortunately, neither the planned film nor most of the 40 hours of footage was released. Some footage did appear in a couple of television specials broadcast in New York in 1969 and in What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015). But only a select few have had the opportunity to witness the visual beauty and sonic power of the festival.
The newly released film brilliantly documents the 1969 Harlem Festival. Directed by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Summer of Soul captures some of the festival’s most iconic moments, as well as the political transformations that informed the music. Every performance, from Stevie Wonder’s drum solo to Mahalia Jackson’s and Mavis Staples’s soul-stirring duet, maps where Black music had been, where it was and where it was going.
There’s so much to admire about the film: the music, the deft storytelling of the participants (musicians and attendees), the beautiful shots of the audience and the director’s ability to situate the festival within a larger political framework without minimizing the singularity of the event.
In an hour-long interview, director Questlove discussed his involvement in the project, his vision for the film and how Summer of Soul complements his lifelong work as a creator, historian and curator of music.
Filmmaker: Congratulations on the brilliant film, Summer of Soul. It was a pleasure to watch. Every frame, every second seemed to lend credence to James Baldwin’s assertion that music is our witness and our ally.
Questlove: Whoa! I’ve got to steal that from you. Do I have your permission to?
Filmmaker: You do, you do.
Questlove: That’s a beautiful quote. I’d never even thought of it in those terms.
Filmmaker: I think it’s our good fortune that this film and this story was in your hands. Can you discuss the genesis of your involvement in the project? How did you learn about the festival and the footage?
Questlove: One of our two producers of the film, Robert Fyvolent or David Dinerstein, basically approached me about this mythical festival in Harlem. As someone whose very DNA is music and who is known as one of the biggest snobs of the culture, I’d never heard of it, so I wasn’t fully convinced of its existence in the first place. That’s a nice way of saying I thought these guys were just trying to game me into some free Tonight Show tickets. But then they showed me the footage a week later, and I was mind blown. So, this film chose me, I didn’t choose this film. I couldn’t fathom that Stevie Wonder or Sly and the Family Stone or the Staple Singers and B.B. King and all these pillars of music did a festival that [more than] 300,000 people witnessed and not a trace of it was documented online. So, I had to be involved.
You know, in 1997 I was in Japan, and I unknowingly watched two minutes of that Sly and the Family Stone footage. [Japan’s] relationship with soul music and preserving history is way different than ours was. Now, YouTube has united the world, but before 2003, if I wanted to get some soul knowledge, chances are I could find more of it in Japan than I could in New York. So, I happened to be at a nightclub, and there’s two minutes of Sly and the Family Stone at some sort of outdoor concert. Naturally, I just thought this must be some Switzerland festival—Europe was big on preserving these moments in concerts. But I had no clue that that was the Harlem Cultural Festival or what a Harlem Cultural Festival was. So, I guess the longest version of it is, I thought these guys were fibbing, and they were like, “No. We got 40 hours of this.”
Filmmaker: I’m so glad that it came in full form and under your editorial control rather than piecemeal. I think it makes a huge difference. This may be selfish on my part to say, but I was happy Amazing Grace came out after Aretha Franklin died. It’s hard to explain, but it provided a certain level of closure that I think, if I had seen it in piece form, it would’ve been different.
Questlove: Here’s the weird thing. Sydney Pollack had been trying to get that film in festivals some 15 years before she died, and I happened to be maybe two degrees of separation from the film at the time. Both Lenny Kravitz and I had a mutual friend [who] had a copy of it, and he held it very close to the hip. So, at the time, he let me see 10 minutes of it. And, you know, my relationship with Aretha was begging her [to release it], almost to the point that after the seventh or eighth time, she already had her eyeroll ready, like, “Boy, don’t you come to me talking about that damn documentary no more.” “No, queen, you don’t understand. This could change lives and history.”
The very beginning of the process was like, how should we execute this film? What do you do with 40 hours of footage? And how do you tell compelling stories, especially when each artist had 45 minutes each? Do I take a Woodstock approach and make this a three-hour-plus film? Do we go straight to streaming and do six or seven miniature episodes and go day-by-day?
Then, I saw Amazing Grace and was really amazed at Pollack’s decision to not give you context but just to give you the performance. At the time when I saw it incomplete, I thought, “OK, just let you be a fly in the room.” But I had so many questions: Wow, The Rolling Stones were in the deacon’s pew? My god, there’s Chuck Rainey on bass, and there’s Bernard Purdie on drums, [guitarist] Cornell Dupree—the entire rhythm section of Aretha’s best work. You’d never seen them play together or any of those things. Not to mention, I’m trying to figure out the story behind her father coming in “fashionably late” with [gospel singer] Clara Ward on [his] arm. What’s really weird is right after the movie came out, which is right around the time this film fell into my lap, I got a chance to grill both Chuck Rainey and Bernard Purdie about their takes on recording it. And they had so many different stories about it. To me, I’m like, this is the most historic recording of all time. And to them, it was like, “No, that was the day that [gospel musician, the Rev.] James Cleveland cussed us out for using his parking spot.” And the other deacons were like, “Yo, we should not have The Rolling Stones sitting in the deacon’s pew.” Then, there’s this whole moment—you’re Aretha Franklin, you’re singing, you see your idol come in with your father, and there’s a whole underlying drama. Suddenly, I was like, “Wait a minute. There’s a lot of backstories to this that I wish I knew.” So, [in Summer of Soul], I was like, “OK, we’re just going to find 14 to 16 really compelling performances.” And then the music nerd or Easter egg discoverer in me wanted to explore further to see what was behind the story.
Filmmaker: One of the real strengths of the film is this judicious and innovative blend of concert footage and commentary—and I think “innovative” because the talking heads play a dual role of expert and spectator. So, I’m thinking, are you showing them the footage as you’re interviewing Gladys Knight, Marilyn McCoo, Billy Davis Jr.? 1
Questlove: I’m really glad you acknowledged the pain that it was to figure out. If there ever was a “which comes first, the chicken or the egg” thing—because the thing is, is none of our talking heads, none of our witnesses or artists have seen [this footage before]. You really want to catch them and their first reactions—like, Marilyn McCoo wouldn’t have started crying on the spot had she watched it beforehand. So, it was a little tricky in figuring out how to show them the footage in real time and have them talk to us without the sound blending. I had to have a separate crew strategically set up a film screen that’s obscured to the left or the right so that [the interviewees] could see it but [not have] the light shine on them. And the second they say something, it’s almost like having a DJ on standby—like, “Turn the volume down. Huh? What’d you say?” That sort of thing.
At the time, I thought, “Well, the biggest obstacle is time, because it’s 50 years ago. If you find anyone really of age [who was at the concert], like anyone 20 or 30, chances are they’re not living right now at 90 years old. And even if we found anyone who was in their 20s, I don’t know the level of their recollection.” So, the sweet spot for us was to find young teenagers, anyone who was 15 to 20 years old during that time period. Hence, both Gladys and Stevie Wonder—Gladys and Marilyn McCoo I think were 25 at the time, and Stevie Wonder was just 19 years old. The oldest of the kids that we found was our very first interview, Musa Jackson, and he was five years old. Even then, it was sort of risky, like, “Well, what insight is a five-year-old going to give us?” But the thing he said to us was, ”This was my very first memory of life.”
Questlove: And he just started spewing everything that he remembers of his first memory of life, describing things that have been sitting in the basement for five decades. He was actively describing the 5th Dimension costume, [and that] was the thing that [made us say], “OK, we‘ll give you a shot. Come on in next Tuesday.” He started describing their outfits and how he remembered everything they wore. And he knew the song lineup, too, because they were his favorite group. And what was jackpot about his moment was that—and I wasn’t expecting it at all—he started to cry because it was sort of like, you think you remember it, you don’t know. He’s 57 now, but it’s like, “Did I remember that? Did I not remember that?” All of his shiny, fuzzy, sentimental childhood memories are wrapped up in this one festival. People have a good times file and a bad times file, but this is prime for him. So, once he did that, then it was almost, like, OK for everyone to do the same thing: Show the footage to them live on the spot to get their reaction to it. It was a risky thing to do.
Filmmaker: It doesn’t give them the opportunity to editorialize.
Filmmaker: I thought that was such a smart directorial decision. It makes the film different from anything else that’s out there. I feel like so many documentaries live in the shadows of Eyes on the Prize, even when you don’t want to. Did the footage challenge or reinforce any ideas you had about music in 1969?
Questlove: Questlove: There’[re] historical facts that I was obsessed with getting correct just for the sake of history because Black erasure is real out here. For any fear or trepidation that I had about my abilities to tell a story through film—like, I’ve written books, I’ve curated shows and art installations, but I’ve never directed a film before. And I was trying to figure out, how do I even begin to tell this story?
As a musician, I was gobsmacked by the fact that the sound was pristine. The sound that you heard, we did not even do two percent sweetening. It’s almost like the music came mixed on its own. We didn’t have to do much more to the post edit for the sound. And that to me was the most amazing thing because there were only 16 microphones. The first thing I did was call my own production manager for The Roots. I was like, “Yo, on our rider, what’s our output situation when the whole band’s performing, all 11 of us?” And he’s like, “Oh, we need, hands down, 107 outputs.” And I was like, “Wait a minute, 107 microphones and outputs are needed for a Roots concert to happen, but back in Harlem, there were only 16 microphones?” Mind you, like in the case of the 5th Dimension, only three mics were vocals. Each singer didn’t have a microphone. The Pips had to share one mic. You can either hear the drums or hear [singer] Bubba Knight alone without music. They made the most out of a minimum, and the sound is pristine—the best sound I ever heard.
As far as putting it together: I came from an era where you put 23 songs on a record. Roots albums were super bloated—you put everything in but the kitchen sink. You know, idolizing Prince, who leaves this earth with [more than] 7,000 songs completed in his vault. Whereas as a music historian, a lot of the albums that we deem classic are short statements. Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions is just nine songs and under 42 minutes. Thriller by Michael Jackson is also nine songs and under 42 minutes. Nas’s Illmatic, at the time, went against the grain—it was only 10 songs, whereas De La Soul Is Dead is 27 songs. So, this taught me the power of editing, something I’ve never done before in my professional career. My first cut of the film was closer to three hours and 30 minutes, and my producers were like, “It’s good, but we guarantee you if you make this a tight two hours, you’ll have a masterpiece on your hands.” So, what 90 minutes do I take away from this film? That was the hardest thing. It wasn’t a problem of lack of abundance or lack of witnesses or lack of stories or lack of performances. It was about what to take away.
Filmmaker: 1969 was a transformative year in gospel, with the success of Edwin Hawkins’s “Oh Happy Day” and so many other things—I think Shirley Caesar’s “Don’t Drive Your Mama Away” was a million seller. Clara Ward made this album [Soul and Inspiration] with Capitol. And this film captures those seismic shifts and that transition. You’re watching Walter Hawkins sing in the background in the choir, which is always so weird to me.
Questlove: Or watching Walter sing with his brother or Tramaine next to him.2 If there ever was a moment where I dreaded throwing something away from the edit—the song that Tramaine and Walter did together was probably the showstopper, but “Oh Happy Day” was the hit. Sometimes, the best performance wasn’t the big hit, it was the song you didn’t know. So, to see Tramaine Hawkins dueting with her husband would’ve been magic to see. I knew gospel experts, especially of my age, would’ve eaten that up tremendously, but that’s one of the many sacrifices I had to make.
Filmmaker: Well, it’s good to know that it’s out there, though.
Questlove: Oh, it’s out there, and I’m certain that we’ll figure out expanded editions and all those things.
Filmmaker: One of the things that I appreciated, and I’m not sure another director would’ve done this, was the attention you gave to gospel from Hawkins, Mahalia Jackson and the Staple Singers. And even that scene with Ben Branch—like, I just only associate him with the Cannonball [Adderley] album [Country Preacher, where Branch’s work with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Operation Breadbasket program is mentioned on the opening track]. It was just amazing. Can you talk about that?
Questlove: Two things had to happen at the beginning of this film once I accepted the mission. The first thing was taking this 40 hours of footage—transferred to DVD—and living with it for five months. I took that footage and used it as a screensaver or just, like, my aquarium—one loop constantly for five months, no television. Every television in the house just played it constantly from the master computer—in my bathroom, my living room, my bedroom, my office. It wasn’t like, “On Sunday, I’m going to sit down and watch.” I wanted it to hit me organically. So, for five months, I would just take notes on everything, and occasionally, different generations of people would be around me, and I’d see what they’d take note of. And the one thing that was always a perceived comic highlight was whenever the gospel parts would come on and anyone slightly younger than me—anyone who was millennial or Gen Z, people born after ’94 to even people like my girlfriend’s kids’ age, who are slightly younger—[would watch]. They live in .gif and meme culture, so to them, without any context, watching these people catch the spirit is humorous. Like, “Yo, look at the girl over there. Oh, she’s about to fall out”—that sort of thing. I mean, I get where they’re coming from because I was that seven-year-old kid waiting for Sister Felicia in the third row to start running up and down having a fit in the pew. Then, the deacon brothers come in and try to calm her down.
What I’m trying to do with these series of films I’m working on is to add a human element that is never, ever discussed in any of these documentaries I see about any of our stories. You see the pain, and I think people often mistake seeing the pain as, “Oh, that makes you empathetic.” But for me, I knew that inherently because our ancestors are African. We have a relationship with getting into the spirit that’s often not discussed. Like, you just think, “Oh, she’s just acting crazy today,” and I’ve wanted people to frame this in terms of, “No, that was cathartic.” Today, you’re starting to hear folks of color, Black people, speak of taking care of their mental health and whatnot. But we never discussed that back then. We put all of our eggs in one basket, and that was the church.
I felt this is important to explain. Any time someone would laugh at James Brown screaming the way he does, the perceived primitive, exotic way that our music was presented—like, “Why do you guys look so disheveled when you scream and drop to your knees and all that? Is that just show business or is that real?”—I wanted people to see that there’s a relationship with gospel and catharsis, even with free jazz. It was really, really important to me that I show that music was often the only outlet. The way that music helped us escape slavery, music was also the outlet through which we got these feelings out. It’s not just like, “Sonny Sharrock is making a guitar face.” No, that’s him letting out whatever anger or feelings or emotions he had in the last three weeks and had no other way to express except through that guitar. It was important to me to really frame it as that was: therapy.
Filmmaker: The film is so ecumenical: There’s blues, jazz, gospel, free jazz. A fan who only likes Stevie Wonder or Sly, they’re going to get a lot more. To me, that’s reflective of that moment, of what Amiri Baraka was trying to do when he talked about unity music, bringing all of this together. I was also blown away by the ecumenical nature of the lineup, and that you stuck with that.
Questlove: I was highly impressed. As a person [who] throws his own festival with The Roots Picnic, I took my cues, well before I even knew who Tony Lawrence was, from Bill Graham and the West Coast. Seeing these weird poster lineups of Miles Davis and the Grateful Dead, [I was like] how does that work?
I found out that Jimi Hendrix actually had a desire to play this festival. It’s weird that Sonny Sharrock got through, but of course he got through via Herbie Mann as a side guy. But Jimi Hendrix is sort of like, “Eh, we don’t know. Your group might be over our head.” Unfortunately, what the festival organizers didn’t know was that Hendrix was changing as well. He’d just disbanded the Experience. He had formed together a band of gypsies, an all-Black band because Jimi himself was going through his—I’m about to quote Paul Mooney—“‘brother’ wakeup call.” So, Jimi wound up doing, at least for three weeks, a tour of Harlem. He would play these blues clubs during the summer, sometimes after the show let out and sometimes shows with Albert King and whatnot—kind of the official afterparty, but no one knows about it. But he himself was on his sort of soul-searching mission to return to his blues roots.
Probably the most telling performance was definitely watching camera four of Sly and the Family Stone. When I was just watching it in the privacy of my home, I’d explained to people that as a hip hop head that grew up late ’80s, early ’90s, it would be like if an unknown Migos got a chance to perform at a Wu-Tang Clan concert back in 1995. Now, if they were advertised, it might’ve been a different situation. But Sly and the Family Stone kind of used this as a dress rehearsal for Woodstock, so they weren’t advertised. Only a few people knew they were coming. And to watch the audience’s look[s] on their face[s]—if you’re under the age of 24, you’re like, “I can’t believe this is happening right now.” If you’re an adult, this is the first time you’re seeing a band onstage that’s not in tuxedos. They’re not trying to take the Copa route. Everyone is doing their best to make their presentations ready for the Copa because, it’s like, if you can get into Copa, you can get anywhere. That’s why the Temptations were so debonair and all those things, like nightgowns and suits. David Ruffin, did you see that tux he had on? It’s the middle of August, and he had a winter coat on. It’s being professional above anything else.
[Audiences had] never seen an intersectional, interracial band that wore their street clothes before. Women playing real instruments, not just playing the tambourine and singing background—this was something to behold. And to watch that audience for that 45 minutes, especially the old people, go from, “I don’t know, this looks heathen-ish,” to losing it, to watch [the band] single-handedly transform that audience to be on their side—that, to me, was the victory of the whole thing because everyone was there for Stevie Wonder. There’s an endearing thing about Stevie Wonder—no matter what he’s doing, you’re always cheering for him inherently. Whereas Sly and the Family Stone, it was like, “Uh-uh, prove this to me.” And so, there’s a lot that I learned just based on the line-up, especially with the inclusion of Spanish Harlem, which people often forget—they speak of Harlem, they just think of 125th Street, Sylvia’s, what happens on the West Side. But there’s a whole other story on the East Side of Harlem that people often forget. Our Latinx brothers and sisters were also trying to identify and exist and express themselves, as well. So, I just love the openness of it all. When Sonny Sharrock took that solo and I watched that fourth camera, nobody cringed. They were like, “Dig it. That’s something I’m not up on yet.” They were open to that. It’s crazy.
Filmmaker: Politics. How did you manage to make a film that was so politically engaged but not didactic? I never got bored, I never felt as if I was hearing the same story. Could you talk about the balance between the art and the politics? We know they’re all connected.
Questlove: When facing this two-hour cylinder that I had to frame the story in, one of my challenges was discussing with the producers, “How much should I rehash of what we already know versus what we haven’t seen yet? We haven’t seen these performances, but we already know what happened.” And it’s so weird that even in terms of stories that I already knew [there were new details]. Like, I didn’t specifically ask Jesse [Jackson] about April 4th, but of course, in talking about Ben Branch, he had to frame the story in a proper way. And even in telling that story, for starters, we kept my voice out of it, which was important. I didn’t want to frame myself too much in the film. But he gave us a factoid that absolutely blew my mind: Five minutes before Martin Luther King was assassinated, he was having a pillow fight. I can’t even fathom. He’s like, “Yo, we were having the time of our lives, joking”: Jesse, Martin, Abernathy, Andrew Young. They were making fun of the fact that whenever they would get fed dinner, Martin required everyone to be dressed to the nines, to always have suits ready like they were going to some awards ceremony or something. And Jesse was like, “Can we just go casual? It’s a warm spring day. We got to wear a tie and a suit? It’s hot down here.” And somehow, that resulted into a brief game of the dozens and then to a full-blown pillow fight. Then, the other carload of guys arrives, and one of them has Ben Branch. And of course, Martin comes out on the balcony, then history starts.
I was mind-blown because I personally never heard that story. I started thinking, “Anyone born after me might not know this story, so I might have to reframe it because there’s other people not born in in the ’70s.” Like, my parents made me watch Eyes on the Prize and all these documentaries and whatnot. But yeah, I felt it was important to frame it. And then, what really solidified it was, we were 70 percent done right when the pandemic started. And that period between March and June of 2020, so much happened and changed the film. And I was wondering, “Should I reframe it because the exact situations that are happening right now were happening 50 years ago? The reason why this concert had to be organized in the first place was the same exact circumstances that’s happening to us right now. Should I include modern footage and protests?” But we made the decision to trust our audience, that they could put two and two together without me having to spell anything out for them. It’s very obvious that nothing has changed in 50 years almost, and we’re back at square one. And people got that.
Filmmaker: Yeah, and the inclusion of Jesse is just so powerful, to hear him tell that story and reconnect it to King and his death. And then, there’s a way in which, when he’s watching Mavis Staples and Mahalia Jackson perform—and Mahalia Jackson, her illnesses were well reported in Jet, so people knew—to watch his response. It was like he took us all the way back to Pilgrim Baptist Church in the 1930s in Chicago, and Thomas Dorsey and Mahalia Jackson.3 And to have that on tape, and to have it narrated and connected that way was really, really powerful.
You have 15 jobs, so what’s next with the film?
Questlove: Once this thing became a reality, probably the biggest lesson that I’ve learned was being comfortable and adjusting to my pivot. There was no doubt that I was extremely nervous about taking on the responsibility of something of this historical significance. In the beginning, I felt like I just got my permit and already I’m being asked to drive this 18-wheeler for the first time ever. However, I would say that I have a weird way of manifesting, because I’m a guy that will go on iTunes or Apple TV or Netflix or Amazon, whatever my streaming services are, and I’ll take 45 minutes, like, “There has to be some sort of music documentary I don’t know about. How come people won’t make movies for me?” Then I realized, I had to be the person that makes these movies for me.
It’s so weird. As I was doing the Sly footage, knowing that Woodstock was right around the corner and that his most powerful, darkest statement was a year and a half away, which was There’s a Riot Goin’ On, in my mind I kept saying, “I really wish in the 50-year anniversary of it all somebody will come up with a documentary of Sly’s darkest record. Right after Woodstock, he could’ve had a victory lap, and instead, he threw it in the trash. Why did he do that?” And just randomly, Common calls and says that his production company, Freedom Road, has the rights to the Sly and the Family Stone documentary, and would I be interested in directing it? And then it was like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. Wait, am I a director now?” And now that this film is done, I have to. Now I am, with an exclamation point. So, I’m directing the Sly and the Family Stone documentary. There are four other projects down the road that I’m not allowed to talk about yet, but let’s just say that now that this is done, people are kind of lining up around the block. So, yeah, I’m telling stories about my favorite music of all time in the next five years.
Filmmaker: Well, thank you so much. And I hope that one day we’re all in a theater—for me, it would be preferably BlackStar—and everybody is screaming and talking with Summer of Soul. BlackStar Film Festival is such an experience in person.
Questlove: Trust me, I specifically have BlackStar in mind. That was my first thing, like, when it’s done, like, “Where do we show it? We’ve got to do it in BlackStar.” That’s what I had in mind—not Cannes, but BlackStar.
1. Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr., were founding members of the popular group the 5th Dimension. Known for their beautiful blend of pop, gospel and soul harmonies, the 5th Dimension topped the charts in 1969 with their hit medley, “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In.”↩
2. Revered in the gospel world, the Hawkins Family gained international attention in 1969 with their crossover gospel hit, “Oh Happy Day.” With its funky backbeat, inspiring vocals from Dorothy Morrison and Edwin Hawkins’s innovative arrangement, “Oh Happy Day” appeared on the gospel, R&B/soul, and pop charts. Within months of its release, “Oh Happy Day” was in regular rotation at Top 40 pop stations across the nation. It climbed Billboard’s singles charts, peaking at the no. 4 position. Not just popular in the United States, “Oh Happy Day” was a no. 1 hit in Holland, France and Germany. The song’s fans ranged from pop-crazed teenagers enamored with the song’s uplifting lyrics and irresistible chorus to the Beatles’ George Harrison, who identified the tune as an inspiration for his 1970 song “My Sweet Lord.” Of course, the Hawkins Family’s success extended into the 1970s and 1980s. A giant in the gospel world, Walter Hawkins gained international recognition for his arranging and production skills, songwriting gifts and amazing vocals. His broad compositional style ranged from the majestic “Be Grateful” to the gutbucket, bass-and-drum funk of “Until I Found the Lord.” In the 1970s, his Love Alive album series sold in the hundreds of thousands, an indication of his popularity among Black gospel music lovers. These albums featured his then-wife, gospel powerhouse Tramaine Hawkins. Tramaine, one of the most celebrated singers in gospel music history, met the Hawkins family at Ephesian Church of God in Christ, where her grandfather E. E. Cleveland, served as pastor. Some of her hit songs include “Goin’ Up Yonder,” “Changed,” “In the Morning Time” and the crossover hit “Fall Down.”↩
3. Chicago was the birthplace of gospel music, and both Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples had deep connections to the Windy City. A native of New Orleans, Jackson moved to Chicago in 1927 and eventually became a part of the gospel music scene. At the center of that scene were several institutions, most notably Pilgrim Baptist Church. Located at 3301 S. Indiana Avenue in Chicago, Pilgrim Baptist Church played a critical role in the growth and popularity of gospel music. This was largely due to its choir director, Thomas Dorsey, the “Father of Gospel Music.” Over the course of his storied career, Dorsey wrote such classic songs as “If You See My Savior,” “The Lord Will Make a Way Somehow,” “Peace in the Valley” and “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” Jackson and Staples perform the latter song during the film. Gospel legend James Cleveland attended Pilgrim as a child and honed his talents as a musician there.↩