‘Summer Of Soul’ No Shows: Hendrix, Franklin, Last Poets & Vandross Were That Close To Playing 1969’s Harlem Cultural Festival

A Burning Desire:
Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images
– A Burning Desire:
Jimi Hendrix, circa 1969, the same year he played Woodstock. He reportedly had wanted to play the Harlem Cultural Festival.

As incredible as the performances were at 1969’s Harlem Cultural Festival (HCF), it’s tantalizing to consider who else could have also taken the stage had the stars and planets aligned just slightly differently. 

Part of that is because the famed Woodstock Festival was running the same summer only 100 miles north of Harlem in Bethel, N.Y., with an estimated attendance of 400,000.  Though that event was far more chaotic and unmanageable, but with similarly great performances, it received instant national and international attention and has remained firmly affixed to our national psyche 50 years later. That, in part, is due to the subsequent Woodstock film and soundtrack. 
Meanwhile, the similarly incredible Harlem Cultural Festival performances, until this year, remained in near total obscurity. Hal Tulchin, who filmed the festival, couldn’t get it funded, produced or widely distributed in his lifetime (he died in 2017). In fact, he coined the event’s nickname, “The Black Woodstock,” perhaps to better package the film.
According to the polymath that is film director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, at least one group may have played the Harlem Cultural Festival in part because they were playing Woodstock. “I’m now realizing that Sly & the Family Stone was more like a dress rehearsal for Woodstock because they weren’t even advertised,” he says. Indeed, Sly & The Family Stone played one of the best Woodstock sets in the wee hours of Aug. 17, 1969, much as they did in Harlem. 
They weren’t the only artist with a Harlem-Woodstock connection.
“I also learned another person wanted to do a dress rehearsal as well, and they could not accommodate him,” Questlove continues. “And that was James Marshall Hendrix. Jimi Hendrix had a burning desire to play in Harlem.” 
Though he didn’t play the festival, he did play Harlem that summer, according to Questlove. “So this is what winds up happening. He does not do the Harlem Cultural Festival, but for three weeks, Jimi Hendrix winds up being kind of the official afterparty. So when the show is over, Jimi Hendrix and blues great Freddie King would do these shows in Harlem nightclubs.”
Hendrix wasn’t the only legend to miss out on Harlem festival. “We discovered that Aretha Franklin was also an 11th-hour cancellation,” Questlove says. “It was Aretha Franklin that was supposed to sing with Mahalia Jackson.” In one of the doc’s pivotal and most touching scenes Jackson performs a soul-stirring rendition of “Precious Lord,” one of Martin Luther King’s favorite songs, in which she symbolically passes the Gospel torch to the wonderful Mavis Staples. The original torch bearer, it turns out, was very nearly Aretha Franklin, who unfortunately didn’t make it to Mt. Morris Park, which meant Staples stepped in at the 11th hour. 
Another no-show, according to Questlove, were The Last Poets, who emerged from the late 1960s with the rise of Black nationalism in the wake of the civil rights movement and slain leaders including Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. The Original Poets, which included, Abiodun Oyewole, Gylan Kain and David Nelson, before they became the Last Poets, were scheduled to read a poem with the great Nina Simone which she reads in the film. 
“Simone was in a new place in her life where she was done with singing show tunes and Broadway, and she really wanted to do activism,” Questlove says. “When she’s reading the poem, she had just met and discovered The Last Poets. I think they were caught in traffic or something like that. They were supposed to do ‘Are You Ready’ with her.”  
The last superstar not to make “Summer of Soul” played the Harlem Cultural Festival but a new kid’s TV program got in the way of filming. “Hal Tulchin could only film five of the six weeks because his camera crew was contracted to shoot a pilot for a brand-new television show that they weren’t able to back out of,” Questlove says. “And the name of that show, ‘Sesame Street.’”
“What Hal Tulchen and (promoter) Tony Lawrence decided, ‘Okay, what we’ll do is put our heavy hitters on the first five weeks, and then we’ll do the local nobodies for the sixth week.’ So they did the Miss Harlem Pageant, and had this teenager who was a singer that was a local guy but he was a nobody so they just threw him on the last week and put all the big stars on the first five weeks. And by the way, that unknown nobody, was a 17-year-old named Luther Vandross.”