Stax Records’ Biographer Rob Bowman about the festival
Iremember my first visit to the Porretta Soul Festival as if it was yesterday. It was 1998 and that particular festival was headlined by Solomon Burke, the Bar-Kays and the incomparable Swamp Dogg. Porretta seemed like a magical place. Nestled halfway between Bologna and Florence, it was as if God had sprinkled fairy dust over this tiny hamlet and turned it into soul heaven for the weekend. Walking along the town’s quiet streets during the day time, there were posters for the festival everywhere. As I bought my second or third gelato of the day, I’d run into one or another of the artists, members of their backing bands or festival regulars whose faces and names I slowly came to know. Everybody was constantly smiling, full of joy and magnanimity, basking in the warmth of the Italian sun, the music from the night before swirling in their inner ear. That’s what soul music will do to you and, for many of us, this was as close to soul heaven as one could ever get.
That was nine years ago. It is hard to believe but this year the festival celebrates its twentieth year. As has been the case so often in the history of the Porretta Soul Festival, once again the lineup is geared around the great sounds of Memphis’ fabled Stax Records as featured artists include Booker T. and the MG’s, Eddie Floyd, Memphis Horn member Wayne Jackson, Sir Mack Rice and blues great Jimmy McCracklin. One of the great strengths of the festival is that artistic director Graziano Uliani generally manages to weave together a program that juxtaposes bonafide box office stars such as Isaac Hayes, Sam Moore and Mavis Staples with much more obscure but nonetheless great artists the likes of Ollie Nightingale, Betty Harris, Howard Tate and Bettye LaVette. Those who live in the area around Poretta are unbelievably lucky. Those who journey across Europe or on occasion across the Atlantic Ocean, are equally fortunate that such an event occurs year in and year out.
I started off talking about the first time I came to Porretta. I would like to conclude with my memory of the first time I ever heard of the Porretta Soul Festival. As many of you might know, the late Rufus Thomas was a regular at Porretta during its earliest years and, of course, the town has its very own Rufus Thomas Park. Rufus was a man who had been around the world more than once. He had come of age during the height of the Jim Crow apartheid era in the United States, had been one of the first black disc jockeys in that country, had the first hit for Sun Records and, alongside his daughter Carla, also had the first hit on what became Stax Records. He had witnessed first hand the great accomplishments of the Civil Rights era, in his fifties he recorded a string of incredible funk hits including “Do The Funky Chicken,” “(Do The) Push and Pull” and “The Breakdown” and turned out to be the star of Wattstax, the greatest soul festival in American music history. By the late 1980s there wasn’t a whole lot that could impress Rufus Thomas. Yet, in 1988 when he came back from the first Porretta Soul Festival he was full of wonderment, overwhelmed by the way he was venerated in a place so far and so different from Memphis, Tennessee. The fact that a park was named in his honor simply blew his mind.
The fact that Rufus Thomas Park even exists speaks volumes about Graziano Uliani in particular and the people of Porretta in general. I know that Rufus would agree with me and I am sure that it his spirit that continues to hover over Poretta every year continuing to insure that it remains such a magically imbued space. May the soul be with you.
Toronto, July 1, 2007
Rob Bowman – author of the award winning Soulsville U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records.