Summer of Soul, the new documentary from Questlove, spotlights 1969’s Harlem Cultural Festival, a series of concerts that entertainer turned promoter Tony Lawrence presented in Harlem’s Mount Morris Park in the summer of 1969. But less than two months after the final HCF show that August, Lawrence set his eyes on an equally momentous event across the Hudson River: Newark, New Jersey’s “Love Festival.”
According to The Fixers, Julia Rabig’s history of post-war Newark, prominent local organizer Gus Heningburg had reached out to Lawrence to help host, promote, and attract sponsors for a concert he was planning in Newark. As president of the Greater Newark Urban Coalition, Heningburg hoped the festival would be “the biggest party this city has ever seen.”
On October 5th, tens of thousands of fans (attendance estimates vary wildly, between 35,000 and 100,000) crowded into Newark’s Weequahic Park for a day-long festival. According to the New York Amsterdam News, like Lawrence’s previous concert productions, the event was presented free of charge.
The lineup included Bobby “Blue” Bland and the Chambers Brothers, who had performed at Lawrence’s Harlem Cultural Festivals in 1968 and 1969, as well as the Supremes’ Ruth McFadden, gospel legend Alex Bradford, R&B group Carl Holmes and the Commanders, the actor Irwin C. Watson, and more.
The show was filmed by Hal Tulchin, who had also shot the Harlem Cultural Festival, and the footage aired as an hour-long local TV special in 1969. The 55-minute long broadcast can be viewed online in full as part of the University of Georgia’s Walter. J Brown Archives & Peabody Awards Collection. In the film, the Chambers Brothers’ perform their cover of the Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody,” Bland sings a stirring version of his ballad “Save Your Love for Me,” and Bradford delivers a revelatory three-song set.
“Although it was just a party,” Heninburg said of the event in The Fixers, the Love Festival had “serious political overtones.”
“It was indeed a beautiful sight to behold,” Ray Robinson, who covered the festival for the Amsterdam News, wrote of the day. “People spread for three and four hundred yards around the stage just enjoying themselves.”