When Freddie Stone, Sly’s brother, played the Harlem Cultural Festival as guitarist and co-founder of Sly and the Family Stone in the summer of 1969, it was not yet known as the “Black Woodstock,” as it would be christened in later years.
“We didn’t know that it was going to turn out to be the ‘Black Woodstock,’ ” says Stone, 72, of the concert series, which featured an array of black music stars, from Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson and B.B. King to Stevie Wonder, the 5th Dimension and Gladys Knight and the Pips. “I’m so glad that it turned out to be what it was. The songs that we played, the musicians that we met, the camaraderie — everything was sweet.”
The free series — which took place at Harlem’s Mount Morris Park on Sundays during the same summer as the more heralded Woodstock festival in Bethel, NY — will be celebrating its 50th anniversary on Saturday with another free concert at the same spot, since renamed Marcus Garvey Park. Artists on the bill include rapper Talib Kweli, singer Alice Smith and guitarist Stone, back for a return engagement a half century later.
“It was a very historic moment, such a huge gathering of people,” says Neal Ludevig, curator and co-producer of the Black Woodstock 50th anniversary commemoration, which began with panels earlier this week. “The event was about brotherhood. It was a peaceful gathering about love, empowerment and activism.”
Indeed, the Black Panthers stepped in when the police refused to provide security for Sly and the Family Stone’s performance. Still, the group had to deal with those tough Harlem crowds.
“The crowd seemed to receive us good,” says Stone, who still performs every Sunday as pastor at Evangelist Temple Fellowship Center in his hometown of Vallejo, Calif. “In fact, I was told that if they didn’t receive you good, they would throw something at you. But they opened up their arms.”
Sly and the Family Stone holds the distinction of being the only act to perform at both Black Woodstock and the upstate Woodstock, which took place Aug. 15 – 18, 1969.
“We got there at 11 o’clock at night, and then we didn’t play until about 4 in the morning,” recalls Stone of their set on the second night of the giant upstate festival. But after watching “Janis Joplin doing a wonderful job” right before them, Stone says that his band was taken higher by “all that adrenaline and excitement — and all the people.”
Former Jimi Hendrix percussionist Juma Sultan says the Woodstock crowd was “overwhelmed” by the late guitar god’s performance — including a psychedelic version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” — that closed the festival.
“It was Monday morning about 6 or 7 o’clock [when] we went on,” says the Kingston, NY-based Sultan, 77, who appeared on a Black Woodstock panel on Thursday. “And we were supposed to go on at midnight, so we had waited all night long. People had been there for three or four days — they had to go. Food, everything was gone. So half the crowd was gone, but it was still amazing.”
‘The event was about brotherhood. It was a peaceful gathering about love, empowerment and activism.’
Recalling his role in Hendrix’s band, Gypsy Sun and Rainbows, Sultan says he played a key part beyond the music: “Even in those days, you could give me a thousand micrograms of acid, and I’d be spaced-out, but I would be the steady one, always on the watch. We didn’t have bodyguards, so as thin as I was, I was a bodyguard.”
Unfortunately, Stone says that there’s no chance that his reclusive brother Sly will make a surprise appearance with him on Saturday. “No, he’s not gonna come. I wish he would,” says Stone, who talks to Sly almost every week: “He’s doing all right, as far as I know.”
Sly and the Family Stone are among the artists getting special recognition for their activism, specifically in civil rights, at Black Woodstock’s 50th anniversary celebration.
“The issues that are prevalent today were as prevalent and pressing in ’69,” says Ludevig. “We are facing issues on civil rights, on gender rights, on racial inequality. There’s issues on police profiling and police brutality . . . I’m really hoping that this can inspire and light an internal fire for people to embrace their inner activist.”
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