One struggles to fathom how all that amazing footage from 1969’s Third Annual Harlem Cultural Festival could have gathered dust for decades until Questlove and his team brought these stellar live performances back to life to inspire the rest of the world via 2021’s Summer of Soul documentary.
Q = Did you know that a theme song was released in 1969 to help promote the Festival?
Record World‘s July 5, 1969 edition posted the following news item, “Harlem Festival Theme Distributed by Calla on Lo Lo,” at the top of page 38:
Festival host and guiding light Tony Lawrence has joined with Lloyd Coward, a young businessman, President of the Wardo Realty Corp. and owner of Lo Lo Records, and Teddy Vann, co-producer and writer, to produce the single, “Harlem Cultural Festival.” Artist is Tony Lawrence and the Cultural Festival[s]. Lawrence, born in the West Indies, has studied music at Morgan State College and enjoyed a track career before entering the theater and sparking the Festival from inception.
The article concludes on a hopeful note that “the talent search of the Festival might unearth new names that could also be recorded by Lo Lo and distributed by Calla as follow-ups to the Festival theme single.“
Two weeks later, Record World published this review of the Festival’s new theme song in its July 19, 1969 issue —
“This is a groovin’ gritty instrumental with that live magic that will have the crowds responding.“
Curiously, despite the massive popularity of the Summer of Soul documentary, there is but a single YouTube streaming audio clip of “Harlem Cultural Festival” that has only 286 “views” to date:
“Harlem Cultural Festival“
Tony Lawrence & the Cultural Festivals (1969)
This advertisement [below] for the Third Annual Harlem Cultural Festival in the March 15, 1969 issue of Cash Box affirms that the “Summer of Soul” performances by Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, Gladys Knight and the Pips, David Ruffin, Mahalia Jackson, The Staple Singers, Ray Barretto, and the Fifth Dimension were not a single event – like Woodstock – but rather took place as a series of shows.
In the late summer of 1969, just weeks after the Woodstock Music & Art Fair, Cash Box‘s September 6, 1969 issue reports that Tony Lawrence “will host an ABC Network TV Special Sept. 16“ with gospel artists Mahalia Jackson, the Staples Singers, Clara Walker and the Mighty Mellotones that was originally taped at the Harlem Cultural “Gospel Festival” on July 13, 1969. Billboard‘s August 16, 1969 issue also reports that the 1969 Festival was given “network time“ in the form of a CBS Special featuring The Edwin Hawkins Singers and Fifth Dimension, among others and that furthermore, “[t]he Maxwell House Coffee Division of General Foods undertook sponsoring the entire cost of the festival (six shows, running over $100,000), as well as sponsoring the CBS Special.“ This same August 16, 1969 Billboard report states that Tony Lawrence had “also lined up major market television syndication for the other programs from the festival, beginning with the Gospel Show (Staple Singers) and Motown Sound (David Ruffin; Gladys Knight) in August.“
On the Wikipedia page for the Harlem Cultural Festival, you can find the lineup of talent for the six festival dates in 1969 — the August 10th date is not mentioned (perhaps it failed to materialize?) — with Tony Lawrence serving as host:
Jun 29 = The Fifth Dimension; Abbey Lincoln; The Edwin Hawkins Singers; George Kirby; Olatunji; Max Roach
Jul 13 = Mahalia Jackson; The Staple Singers; Herman Stevens & The Voices of Faith; Reverend Jesse Jackson & the Operation Breadbasket Band
Jul 20 = Stevie Wonder; David Ruffin; Chuck Jackson; Gladys Knight & the Pips; Lou Parks Dancers
Jul 27 = Mongo Santamaria; Ray Barretto; Cal Tjader; Herbie Mann; Harlem Festival Calypso Band
Aug 17 = Nina Simone; B.B. King; Hugh Masekela; Harlem Festival Jazz Band
Aug 24 = Miss Harlem Pageant; La Rocque Bey & Co.; Listen To My Brothers & Co.
By the time of the Fourth Annual Harlem Cultural Festival, the festival would go “international,” with other Festival sites set up in Bermuda, Los Angeles, Atlanta, San Francisco, Gary (Indiana), and Fayette, (Mississippi), as reported in Cash Box‘s March 28, 1970 issue. Additionally, 1970’s Harlem Cultural Festival would include musical performances at the Lincoln Center outdoor bandstand, as well as at Harlem’s Mt. Morris Park (now named Marcus Garvey Park). Cash Box reported earlier in its January 31, 1970 issue that “The Rolling Stones and B.B. King were originally scheduled to do the Fayette show, but rain-caused delays forced the groups to bow out due to previous commitments.“
May 16, 1970
“Tony Lawrence Cultural Festival Record Album, Live From Mt. Morris Park”
May 9, 1970
Did this “TV Record Album” ever see light of day?
May 9, 1970
Cash Box‘s May 16, 1970 issue reports that Tony Lawrence intended to release a concert album of Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm reading poems she had composed for the same Harlem Cultural Festival Mother’s Day event at Brooklyn’s Tompkins Park as advertised above.
Sole offering from Tony Lawrence and The Cultural Festivals.
To Go Further —
Check out Tony Gaunt’s deep dive into Tony Lawrence’s enigmatic history
May 16, 1970
Click here for a full color photo of the dazzling Harlem Cultural Festival stage backdrop