Listen to audio version of this story below:
In October 1969, the writer Raymond Robinson took to the pages of the New York Amsterdam News, the city’s leading black newspaper, to pose a question. That previous summer, Harlem’s Mount Morris Park had hosted a series of free Sunday afternoon concerts, known collectively as the Harlem Cultural Festival, which featured a startling roster of artists, including Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, B.B. King, the Staple Singers, the 5th Dimension, and Gladys Knight and the Pips.
“The 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival was, indeed, a meaningful entity,” Robinson wrote, “but was it fully appreciated?”
The series had been an unprecedented success, with combined attendance numbers (roughly 300,000) that nearly rivaled those of that summer’s other unexpected musical phenomenon, Woodstock, which took place 100 miles north. As was the case with Woodstock, a filmmaker — Hal Tulchin — had captured the entirety of that year’s Harlem Cultural Festival, confident that the combination of the music (Nina and Stevie) and the setting (a post-’68 Harlem reeling from the assassination of MLK) would add up to a feature-length film that could cement the series of uptown Manhattan concerts as generation-defining events.
Robinson couldn’t have predicted that the summer concert series would cease to exist after the summer of 1969, and that, unlike the upstate New York rock festival, the legend of the Harlem Cultural Festival — sometimes referred to in later years, at Tulchin’s urging, as “Black Woodstock” — would become a largely forgotten historical footnote. The next summer, the fest was announced but never happened, with the founder later claiming that the event had been subject to millions of dollars of fraud by his white investors and that the mafia had been hired to kill him.
But in October of ’69, Robinson was already hinting at the inevitable: The world would lionize Woodstock, and forget about Harlem. “The only time the white press concerns itself with the black community is during a riot or major disturbance,” he wrote of the shows, which had taken place during an eight-week period without a single report of violence. “Hopefully,” he wrote of the festival’s then-uncertain future, “[it] will continue to grow.”
The Harlem Cultural Festival began in 1967, when a 30-something local entertainer named Tony Lawrence was hired by the city’s Parks Department to organize summertime programming in the neighborhood. During the next three summers, it grew into a vital crossroads of black music, culture, and politics. White politicians with national aspirations (RFK, New York mayor John Lindsay) and black community organizers and civil rights leaders (Jesse Jackson, Marcus Garvey Jr.) all felt compelled to appear at the festival.
It was a space where the era’s hitmakers, like the teenaged Stevie Wonder and the pop group the 5th Dimension, would perform the most popular songs in the country; it was also a space that bore witness to torch-passing moments in American music, such as when gospel legend Mahalia Jackson beckoned her mentee Mavis Staples to help her sing MLK’s favorite song, the iconic “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” less than three years before her death.
“The festival was a way to offset the pain we all felt after MLK,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who spoke at the festival in 1969, recalls to Rolling Stone. “The artists tried to express the tensions of the time, a fierce pain and a fierce joy.”
Fifty years after the Harlem Cultural Festival’s 1969 apex, its legacy, and the story of its unlikely origins, its momentous success, and, finally, its strange, devastating demise, has finally begun to resurface. This month, the city of New York is revisiting its own history with a week of panel discussions on the festival, culminating in a 50th-anniversary concert in Harlem on August 17th featuring Sly and the Family Stone guitarist/co-founder Freddie Stone, Talib Kweli, and Igmar Thomas. Last year, British journalist Stuart Cosgrove published Harlem 69, a history of the neighborhood’s transformational year that includes the most comprehensive account of the festival to date. And next year, a long-awaited documentary featuring Tulchin’s never-before-seen musical footage is finally slated to be released, after years of failed deals and broken-down negotiations.
“This is a part of American history that deserves its own spotlight, and it’s crazy it hasn’t happened before.” says Angela Gil, a concert producer who’s teaming up with the SummerStage concert’s primary curator and co-producer Neal Ludevig to put together the 50th-anniversary event. As film director Jessica Edwards once told the writer Bryan Greene, the Harlem Cultural Festival likely holds the distinction of “the most popular music festival you’ve never heard of.”
Tony Lawrence had a big idea. Born in St. Kitts, the aspiring entertainer had spent his twenties working as a performer in music and television after moving with his family to Virginia as a child and later settling in New York. By the early Sixties, he was being referred to in the press as the “Continental Dreamboat,” singing a blend of Calypso, R&B, and soul ballads in a variety of languages. He recorded a series of forgotten singles between 1960 and 1962 for the obscure New York label Jude Records. “Tony’s biggest aim is to become a movie star,” wrote one newspaper in 1961, “which is probably the only career that can eventually support his expensive appetite for flashy sports cars, sleek motor boats, and extensive world-wide travel.”
In 1962, Lawrence traveled to Jamaica to perform at the country’s independence celebration. “At one of his outdoor performances for 1500 people,” read one review of a show in Jamaica, “the management had to ask him to change his tempo or stop singing because the swinging audience was demolishing the grandstands and getting out of control.”
By the mid-Sixties, Lawrence’s nightclub act had earned him a regional fan base on the East Coast. “One of Tony Lawrence’s greatest fans, Sammy Davis Jr., considers him a lad with a great deal of personality and first-rate singing versatility,” read one account of the singer from that time.
Lawrence had began juggling his showbiz career with community-minded work in Harlem, where he began working as the Youth Director of a local church. In 1965, he used his minor celebrity to help raise funds for a playground and institute a Head Start program in the area.
In 1967, Lawrence’s civic-minded work in Harlem led him to his most important job yet: working for New York’s Parks Department. That May, Lawrence and Parks Commissioner August Heckscher announced their plans for a new summer event series called the Harlem Cultural Festival.
The festival, Lawrence said, is “about where the negro lives, physically and spiritually.”
The Harlem Cultural Festival came just 16 months after the arrival of the city’s new mayor, John Lindsay, a progressive Republican who took a measured, hands-on approach to the city’s mounting racial tensions. “The Lindsay administration was both dedicated to civil rights,” says Allen Zerkin, a professor at NYU who worked in the Parks Department in 1967, “and also concerned about the risks of rioting.”
The Parks Department, under leadership from Lindsay, made efforts to appease the city’s aggrieved black population, reaching out to community leaders in neighborhoods like Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, to offer up summer Parks Department jobs that had previously been handed out to relatives and friends of the department.
“The Harlem Cultural Festival has to be seen in that context,” says Zerkin, who speculates that the Lawrence-run concert series was another Lindsay-era initiative intended to quell a growing fear of uptown riots. “I was not privy to any conversations where that would have been made explicit, but it was clear to me that that’s what that festival was.”
“It seemed appropriate at that time,” Heckscher would later write of the festival, “to give emphasis to a black community.”
In its first two summers, the Harlem Cultural Festival immediately became a formidable local event, attracting artists like Count Basie, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Tito Puente, and Mahalia Jackson despite its tiny operating budget. By ‘68, many of the summer festival’s Sunday evening shows, such as the “Gospel Festival” and the “Soul Festival,” were drawing 25,000 fans per night. “The Festival is a showcase for Harlem,” Lawrence said in 1967, “but talent and audience will come from all over New York, all over the Americas, and all over the world.”
After the summer of ‘68, Lawrence spent the off-season negotiating with various lawyers, businesses, and agencies in an effort to secure funding that would enable him to turn the ‘69 festival into the biggest yet. Lawrence lined up a corporate sponsor, and the 1969 festival was set to be filmed for a series of national television broadcasts. A large, multi-colored stage was built in Mount Morris Park for filming purposes. “Since I had no money for lights,” Hal Tulchin, who filmed the ‘69 shows, would later write, “I built the stage facing west so I would have light all afternoon.”
With an increased budget and a growing reputation, the festival attracted an unprecedented level of talent for the 1969 season. “The 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival was one of the most exciting things that happened in Harlem,” says former congressman and Harlem native Charles Rangel. “And I know damn well that a whole lot of entertainers wanted to be part of the Harlem Festival.”
“Every type of music was represented:,” says Ava Seavey, Tulchin’s daughter, who attended the festival as a young girl. “Gospel, blues pop, rock, everything.”
It was “hotter than hell” at Sly and the Family Stone’s July performance, according to the band’s saxophonist Jerry Martini, who can still vividly recall specifics of that afternoon: The band’s drummer, Greg Errico, performed with the flu, and the Harlem crowd did not immediately take to the band’s funk-rock fusion. “They were a tough audience,” says Martini. “We didn’t go over real well in the beginning. People weren’t real familiar with our style in 1969. We weren’t a conventional Harlem soul band or anything like that. We really had to work for it that day.”
Leaked footage of the band’s set shows an apathetic crowd standing motionless as the band performs songs like “M’ Lady” and “Sing a Simple Song.” But by the time the band reached its hits like their Number One record “Everyday People,” “Dance to the Music,” and “I Want to Take You Higher,” the crowd was fully cutting loose. “We had ‘em going,” Martini says.
In addition to showcasing the lineages of jazz, blues, and gospel, 1969’s Harlem Cultural Festival was a gathering of many of the era’s most popular artists. The 5th Dimension performed “The Age of Aquarius,” the biggest song in the country that spring; Gladys Knight and the Pips sang a searing rendition of their Number Two hit “Heard It Through the Grapevine”; and the Edwin Hawkins Singers delivered their international smash “Oh Happy Day.”
“All these artists felt the need to come to Harlem,” says Jesse Jackson. The festival’s location was central to the entire premise of the series. As opposed to the growing spate of youth-oriented music festivals like Monterey, Newport, and Woodstock, the Harlem Cultural Festival drew a cross section of fans — families, schoolkids, churchgoers — who had happened upon Mount Morris Park (“a real big center of Harlem at that time,” says New York jazz saxophonist Tyrone Birkett, who attended the festival as a child) on a given Sunday afternoon.
“It was a timely lesson in racial stereotyping” writes Stuart Cosgrove, speaking of the contrast between Woodstock and the Harlem Cultural Festival in Harlem 69. “The young wealthy white entrepreneurs made a monumental hash of planning while a black-run public event, running over six Sundays, smoothly came together with no significant trouble, no arrests and no record of public inconvenience.”
The concerts often served as a space to vocalize the growing tensions and differing sentiments of late Sixties Harlem. When the July 20th, 1969, soul-themed show featuring Stevie Wonder and Gladys Knight was interrupted to announce that the United States had landed on the moon, the crowd erupted into an overwhelming chorus of boos. “Yesterday, the moon,” ran an Amsterdam News editorial that week. “Tomorrow, maybe us.”
The next month, on August 17th, Tony Lawrence invited onstage some of the 200 men and women who had protested the construction of a state government office building in Harlem that summer, arguing in the Times that Harlem “needed a high school, not a state office building.”
On that same day, Nina Simone ended her incendiary set with the recitation of a black nationalist poem by David Nelson. “Are you ready to smash white things, to burn buildings? … Are you ready to build black things?” Simone asked the crowd, to enthusiastic applause. “Are you ready to kill if necessary?” Simone’s provocations stood in contrast to the more conciliatory post-MLK proclamations posed by Reverend Jackson. “We can demand what we want. Isn’t that right?” he preached to the crowd that summer, “So go to school, children, and learn all you can. And who knows? … You may be president of the United States one day.”
“We really needed a shot in the arm,” says Rangel. “There wasn’t open protest, but there was a sense of bringing us all together for a great sense of pride. White folks might have a county fair, but we didn’t have cows, things like that. We had the greatest jazz musicians in the world.”
Tony Lawrence had an even bigger idea. The 1969 festival had drawn hundreds of thousands of fans, but the rest of the country hadn’t taken notice. The Harlem Cultural Festival was a concept, he thought, that could be expanded, adopted elsewhere, made national. In the fall of ‘69, Lawrence brought the idea to Newark, New Jersey, where he staged the “Love Festival,” featuring Bobby “Blue” Bland and the Chambers Brothers, an event that drew more than 60,000 fans. He made plans to bring the Harlem Cultural Festival to Fayette, Mississippi, where he would host a concert with B.B. King and the Staple Singers in honor of the city’s first black mayor. By 1970, Lawrence was trying to turn the Harlem Cultural Festival into an international touring enterprise that would travel to the South, the West Coast, even Bermuda.
But by the time the summer of 1970 had arrived, it became clear that almost none of Lawrence’s plans would come to fruition. Plans for the fest to tour nationally never materialized. After vague attempts to bring the Harlem Cultural Festival to Lincoln Center in 1970 were aborted, it was announced that the event was canceled due to “a lack of private funds.”
Little was heard from Lawrence until 1972, when the Amsterdam News ran a series of stories in which he made incendiary, unfounded allegations about his former business partners in the Harlem Cultural Festival. “Lawrence is now suing his former white partners in promoting the festival for $100 million for fraud,” wrote the paper. Implicating a series of sponsors, New York banks, and television stations in his allegations, Lawrence claimed that his lawyers and business partners, Jerrold Kushnick and Harold Beldock, had stolen several hundreds of thousands of dollars from the festival’s fund. (When contacted by the Amsterdam News at the time, all of the parties implicated in Lawrence’s allegations denied any wrongdoing. Contacted by Rolling Stone, several lawyers associated with the case in the newspaper say they have no memory of the man. Reached by telephone, Beldock says that the Harlem Cultural Festival was “not something I was involved with at all,” stating that his partner Jerrold Kushnick had worked with Lawrence exclusively. “He accused me and Kushnick of fraud?” he says. “That’s outrageous.” Kushnick died in 1989).
Lawrence went further, claiming in the newspaper that his life was under threat from a “mafia enforcer.” According to Lawrence in the New York Amsterdam News, after visiting his friend Sidney Poitier in Pleasantville, New York, in May of 1970, his car blew up in an attempted murder. (The Pleasantville police department did not have any documentation of the alleged crime and the local newspaper made no mention of such an event at the time. Reached for comment, a representative for Poitier says that the actor has “no recollection of Mr. Lawrence”).
Lawrence also alleged several instances of the use of the n-word amongst the corporate entities and white business partners involved with the festival. And while Lawrence’s account provided an explanation of what had become of the festival, his story ultimately could not be corroborated, leaving the Amsterdam News, the only publication to print the allegations, to conclude that “attempts to substantiate Lawrence’s charges against the parties mentioned … proved inconclusive.” According to the New York Amsterdam News, at the urging of congressional representatives Charles Rangel and Shirley Chisholm, Lawrence’s case was brought to the New York District Attorney’s Office, but the case was eventually dropped.
Afterwards Lawrence would try to revive the Harlem Cultural Festival yet again. In 1974, he tried to rebrand the festival as the International Harlem Cultural Festival, but the concerts never took place.
Throughout his life, Tony Lawrence remained a private enigma, a mystery to even those who worked closely with him. “We would say, ‘Where is Tony? We haven’t seen Tony in weeks. Where is he?’ ” says Zerkin, who worked as Lawrence’s assistant at the Parks Department in 1967. “And then he would just show up, and you never knew where he had been or what he had been up to.”
In the Eighties, Lawrence occasionally appeared in local nightclubs and acted in local productions of plays like Mama, I Want to Sing! before disappearing from public life. Although several people once associated with the festival seem to think Lawrence has passed away, Rolling Stone was not able to find any confirmation of Lawrence’s death nor any records of his whereabouts.
Despite being the primary driving force and organizer responsible for the Harlem Cultural Festival, Lawrence made enemies with many of the others involved with the series. “[My father] did not refer to [Lawrence] in a favorable light,” says Ava Seavey, daughter of Hal Tulchin.
Tulchin’s proposed film suffered much the same fate as Lawrence’s festival. After a few local television specials aired portions of the Harlem Cultural Festival’s musical programming in the late Sixties, Tulchin, who created a copyright for a motion picture by the name of Harlem Festival in July of 1969, failed to secure any larger deal for a documentary. For several decades, the tape reels remained in the basement of the Tulchin family home in Westchester. Then, towards the end of his life, Tulchin considered a series of offers with acclaimed filmmakers like Alex Gibney and Robert Gordon. But for a variety of financial, creative, and personal reasons, Tulchin, to the frustration of everyone around him, backed out of the deals at the last minute.
Tulchin’s Harlem Cultural Festival footage, filmed in color on high-resolution two-inch tape, has become a holy grail of sorts, with extraordinary excerpts leaking over the years. (In 2005, Sony released a portion of Simone’s historic set, including renditions of her not-yet-released standout “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black”). “I didn’t have to show the footage to many people before I got a deal going,” says Seavey, who, at one point, came close to securing a film deal for her father’s tape. “Anyone who’s seen this footage has flipped out over it. I really hope it sees the light of day.”
Now, more than 50 years after the Harlem Cultural Festival, a feature-length concert film on the Harlem Cultural Festival is finally in the works for release next year. Before Tulchin died, he made a deal that handed over the ownership of his treasured footage to an entertainment lawyer named Robert Fyvolent, who is in the process of putting together the footage into feature-length film slated for 2020.
Meanwhile, the Talib Kweli-hosted tribute show taking place in Harlem this month will shine a spotlight on the political underpinnings of the ’69 festival. “The show is about promoting the type of pride and unity in the black community that was promoted in 1969,” says Igmar Thomas, the show’s musical director, who has worked with Lauryn Hill, Nas, and Kamasi Washington. “That can definitely be promoted again right now, given the climate, whether you want to speak about activism surrounding law enforcement, or the literal concentration camps at the border, or abortion. We want to come together to say that we outnumber them.”
Concert producer Angela Gil, who is working on conjunction with Neal Ludevig, the 50th anniversary Black Woodstock curator and co-producer, to ensure that Lawrence’s original dream of taking the Harlem Cultural Festival nationwide finally comes to fruition. The SummerStage show, which will take place at Marcus Garvey Park, near the concert’s original site, will serve as the launching of Future x Sounds, a national tour that merges art and activism, hosted by artists like Lalah Hathaway and James Poyser in each of the cities the tour visits.
Gil, Thomas and Ludevig are all responding, in a sense, to the same urgency once posed by the Amsterdam News’ Raymond Robinson. In his October ‘69 column, Robinson had asked if the festival would ever receive proper mainstream recognition. “It is the hope of this reviewer,” he wrote, “as well as the hundreds of thousands of Blacks in the country that this type of Black enterprise will continue to grow and multiply, so that the Black man can attain his place in the economic structure of the entertainment industry of this Nation.”