In March of 1971, Aretha Franklin performed a three-night stand at the Fillmore West, promoter Bill Graham's legendary venue and home base of bands like the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. Franklin's band included saxophonist King Curtis as her musical director and Billy Preston on keyboards, fresh off his stint as the "fifth Beatle" and hard at work on his own breakthrough, I Wrote a Simple Song. Besides performing her own classics and some future pop standards, including Ashford & Simpson's "You're All I Need to Get By," Simon & Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and Diana Ross' signature "Reach Out and Touch," Franklin sought common ground with the so-called hippie crowd long associated with the Fillmore. Her covers of Bread's "Make It With You" and especially Stephen Stills' "Love the One You're With" resonated in the house, but it was her introduction of the "sanctified church" to that audience that revealed the cultural force of Black music in this moment.
With help from Ray Charles, who joined Franklin onstage the final night, she turned her four-minute song "Spirit in the Dark" into a nearly 30-minute dissertation on soul. You can hear the crowd, already in a frenzy, lose it completely when Charles takes hold of the keyboard, still learning the song — repeating "Can you feel it? Feel it in your soul?" Preston's later recollection that "the hippies flipped the f*** out" was not hyperbole.
In his book Never a Dull Moment: 1971 — The Year That Rock Exploded, writer David Hepworth makes the case for his subject as "the busiest, most creative, most innovative, most interesting, and longest-resounding year of that era." But even that may be an understatement when considered in the context of the extraordinary flowering of Black musical expression that year. Established veterans like The Temptations and The Isley Brothers were altering their sound, as exemplified in the Isleys' cover of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's "Ohio," a song written in response to the 1970 shootings at Kent State. Away from the pop charts, Miles Davis, The Chambers Brothers, Roberta Flack, The Last Poets and Alice Coltrane were unleashing a vision of Black music whose sound and form was every bit as political as the lyrics. The spirit of the '60s lingered, but the tone of Black protest had changed — and some artists, like many activists, were no longer invested in presenting their demands with the elixirs of decorum and civility.
Franklin, by this time, possessed such powerful cultural currency that it was not only her musical choices that carried heft: In 1970, she had offered to pay bail for indicted activist Angela Davis, famously stating, "Angela Davis must go free. Black people will be free." Though she had come of age adjacent to the civil rights movement, the recordings that became the spring 1971 release Live at Fillmore West were perhaps her most explicit cultural statement yet, and a portal to the more pronounced political presence that would emerge on Young, Gifted and Black and her legendary Amazing Grace live recording, both released the following year.
On the latter of those, the artist's era-defining gospel blockbuster, Franklin seems well aware of the changes afoot: She opened her sessions at Los Angeles' New Temple Missionary Baptist Church not with a traditional gospel song, but with a nod to the Black artist whose mark on this moment would be even more indelible than her own. "We can rock this earth's foundation," she sings, a light paraphrase of an exceptional lyric that Marvin Gaye had buried on the second side of What's Going On.
Gaye's album, released just two days after Fillmore on May 21, 1971, generated three singles: the introspective title track, with its famous wartime condolence, "Mother, mother, there's too many of you crying"; "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)," an early anthem of environmental justice; and "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)," a stark existential portrait of Black life. All three charted in the Top 10, and the title track sold over 2 million copies — a round rebuttal to Gaye's label head and brother-in-law Berry Gordy, who had lamented what a protest song might do to Motown's bottom line and the career of one of its most bankable stars.
Yet it was on the deep cut "Wholy Holy," a ballad co-written with Motown songwriter Al Cleveland and Obie Benson of The Four Tops, where the artist may have found his most militant voice. Gaye's line, "We can rock the world's foundation," at once acknowledges the power of Black music as a political force and anticipates that power rising to meet even greater challenges.
The losses, of course, had been mounting, and not only in Vietnam. In a little more than three years before What's Going On's release, Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert Kennedy had been assassinated, Black Panther Fred Hampton had become a victim of ongoing state-sanctioned violence against Black activists, and two Black students had been killed by police on the campus of Jackson State in Mississippi (though their shootings drew less attention than those of the four students killed by the National Guard at Kent State the same month).
Indeed, Aretha Franklin's offer to pay Angela Davis' bail was connected to the latter's disputed implication in a 1970 armed attempt to free the Soledad Brothers, three Black men accused of killing a guard at the California prison where they were jailed, and whose defense became a cause célèbre of the likes of Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda and Pete Seeger. The trio included activist George Jackson, whose letters from prison were published that year as the book Soledad Brother, and was still on the minds of many when Jackson was killed in prison in August 1971.
Just over two weeks after Jackson's death, tensions boiled over at Attica Correctional Facility in New York. More than half of the institution's 2,200 residents revolted, citing inhumane treatment and taking control of the prison for nearly a week. Twenty-nine incarcerated people and 10 staffers were killed when state troopers and other law enforcement officers retook the prison, bringing to an end what historian Heather Ann Thompson has called "one of the most important rebellions in American history." Musical tributes to the Soledad Brothers and the Attica uprising poured in — from John Lennon and Yoko Ono ("Attica State"), Gil Scott-Heron ("We Beg Your Pardon"), Charles Mingus ("Remember Rockefeller at Attica"), Archie Shepp ("Attica Blues") and Bob Dylan ("George Jackson").
Fifty years after its release, What's Going On remains the most elegant response to this tumultuous era, but at least a few of Gaye's peers were responding with equal gravitas, while adding a level of raw emotion that was never going to be sanctioned at Motown.
Sly and the Family Stone had been a potent, if formulaic, crossover act, which in its multi-racial and multi-genre makeup pushed against the industry's norms. The group's 1969 album Stand! is among a handful of soul recordings from that era that truly broke style boundaries, courtesy of tracks like "Everyday People," "Sing a Simple Song," the transcendent "I Want to Take You Higher" and the title track, all of which the group performed as part of its Woodstock set that summer. As Miles Marshall Lewis writes in his 33 ⅓ book on the group, "Stand! embodies everything Sly and the Family Stone brought to the table in the late sixties ... that we can all make beautiful music together if we follow the ideals of the growing counterculture — peace, love, and understanding; sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll."
But Stone, like Gaye, was railing against a label's constraints — in his case, CBS Records and executive Clive Davis, who wanted a new album with hit singles in 1970. Stone gave Davis just three songs, among them the iconic "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)," which ended up on a greatest hits package that remains their biggest seller. When he finally turned in the full-length follow-up to Stand!, it was clear that crossover appeal was not the first thing on Stone's mind at the moment. There's a Riot Goin' On (originally titled Africa Talks to You), released in November 1971, sounded nothing like the group's previous work. Even its big hit, "Family Affair" — recorded with Stone's sister Rose on vocals, Billy Preston on keyboards and Bobby Womack on guitar — was a pop outlier, built around the unfamiliar pulse of the Maestro Rhythm King MRK-2, an early drum machine.
In Never a Dull Moment, Hepworth writes that upon its release, There's a Riot Goin' On sounded to many "like a collection of demos with placeholder vocal parts and riffs that often trailed off into incoherence." And that may have been Stone's point. If Gil Scott-Heron, who had released the definitive version of "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" that spring, was asserting that Black revolt would exist beyond the gaze of mass media, Sly Stone seemed to coyly suggest that it might not be heard on radio airwaves either — hence the title track, four seconds of stony silence. By his watch, the political realities of the moment demanded that Black artists resist the indulgences of artistic perfection, while also producing music that in its openness could be a blueprint for what was to come next.
Befitting this singular year, what was next was already happening. In March of 1971, Melvin Van Peebles premiered Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, a film he wrote, financed, directed and starred in. Though the guerilla production was hailed by none other than Black Panther Party co-founder Huey P. Newton for its depiction of one Black man's transformation into the revolutionary vanguard, it quickly eased into cult status. Gordon Parks, the legendary photographer and filmmaker, followed that summer with Shaft, a Hollywood affair with a less radical edge but just as much style. The two Blaxploitation touchstones, like the wave of films that came in their wake, had a limited cultural footprint at the time. But both made a lasting impact on Black entertainment going forward, not least because of how they sounded.
Shaft featured a score written and produced by Isaac Hayes, Stax Records' most prominent star, and anchored by the single "Theme from Shaft," which topped the pop charts and earned Hayes a best original song Oscar the following year. More than that, the album's success pointed to a lane where other Black musicians might succeed as well, the soundtrack format a vessel for aesthetic risks they couldn't take elsewhere. In 1972, Curtis Mayfield pushed the form forward with Super Fly (directed by Parks' son, Gordon Parks Jr.), the first of several soundtracks he would produce throughout the 1970s. Even Marvin Gaye got in on the action with his largely instrumental Trouble Man, also released in '72.
As for Sweetback, the auteurist Van Peebles composed its score himself — but the music was performed by a then-unknown Earth, Wind & Fire, who also released its eponymous debut and The Need of Love that same year. Maurice White's kaleidoscopic ensemble, more than anyone, personified a middle ground between Gaye and Stone's approaches. Within a few years, the group secured a spot in the pop mainstream with a catalog of Black cultural nationalism shrouded in uplift themes ("Devotion," "Keep Your Head to the Sky," "That's the Way of the World,") and a lush use of brass and strings that was greatly indebted to What's Going On.
White and company weren't the only ones paying attention to the business as well as the music: You could see the same instincts at play as struggling songwriter/producers Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff finally got the financial backing they needed, courtesy of Clive Davis and CBS, to launch their own label that year. Philadelphia International Records' roster would eventually include soul powerhouses The O'Jays, Harold Melvin & the Bluenotes, MFSB, The Three Degrees, Lou Rawls, The Jones Girls and Teddy Pendergrass — all under an abiding claim that "The message is in the music." The label's dominance throughout the 1970s guaranteed that the Black musical revolt of 1971 would keep on reverberating.
There's a scene in the 1963 film Lilies of the Field where Sidney Poitier, who earned his first Oscar for his performance, painstakingly teaches a group of German nuns the song "Amen." It's almost comical the way he plays it, but the metaphor is effective. Songs like "Amen," "If I Had a Hammer," "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me 'Round" and "We Shall Overcome" soundtracked the protests of the 1960s civil rights movement, and became part of the lexicon through which white America began to understand Black America. The affable Poitier is here the trusted interlocutor, literally trying to get the nuns to understand the feelings of the song, not just its form.
Offscreen, Black musicians across the country were doing the same — facing the challenge of getting white Americans to hear the foundations of Black protest, to feel the aspirations in the music. A few years later, a critical mass of them would find the means to take control of the conversation, and make the case on their own terms.
Mark Anthony Neal is a James B. Duke Professor of African and African American Studies at Duke University and the author of several books, including the forthcoming Black Ephemera: The Crisis and Challenge of the Musical Archive (NYU Press).