Two Documentary Producers Hope to Bring the Palm Beach Pop Festival Back From Obscurity
In mid-August 1969, a three-day rock event in a small upstate New York town tagged as the Woodstock Music & Art Fair made headlines around the world. Although it effectively overshadowed every other musical gathering that year, it wasn't the only one of significance. Here in Florida, away from the headlines, a multiday festival in Palm Beach took place over the following Thanksgiving weekend and became a little-known footnote in South Florida's formative musical trajectory.
Miami had hosted two similar events the year before, so the Palm Beach Pop Festival wasn't our area's first. Yet surprisingly, Palm Beach suffered through the same drama and turmoil that plagued Woodstock three months earlier. Inclement weather again cursed the concertgoers. Local opposition was immediate from Florida's Republican governor, Claude Kirk, and rumor had it that President Nixon's cronies were at work behind the scenes doing whatever they could to disrupt it.
Musically, the Palm Beach Pop Festival boasted a host of A-list artists. The Rolling Stones performed there the day after a Madison Square Garden gig immortalized on the group's live album Get Yer Ya Yas Out. Aside from the notorious Altamont imbroglio a month later, it was the Stones' only U.S. festival appearance that year.
Other notables included the Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, Johnny Winter, Spirit, the Byrds, Grand Funk Railroad, Iron Butterfly, Country Joe & the Fish, Chicago Transit Authority, the Chambers Brothers, Vanilla Fudge, King Crimson, Sly & the Family Stone, and the Moody Blues. Area leaders feared the hordes of hippies and itinerant outsiders would create a catastrophe and poison the minds of the local youth. Ironically, it took an underground people's minister from Los Angeles named the Rev. Arthur Blessitt, who made the trek at the behest of the promoter, to assuage those evangelicals.
Ken Davidoff remembers it all well. He and his father Bob, a Palm Beach society photographer who frequently took photos of the Kennedy clan, were assigned to the festival as official photographers. Ken had approached the festival's promoter, Dave Rupp, who also owned the Palm Beach International Raceway where the concert took place.
Having previously photographed Jimi Hendrix at the Miami Pop Festival, the Young Rascals, and other famous acts of the era, Davidoff convinced Rupp that they were well-qualified. "My father loved photographing celebrities," Davidoff recalls. "He turned up looking the part of a social photographer, and when a downpour late on the first day turned the site into a sea of mud, he promptly ruined his white Gucci loafers."
While Woodstock's wretched weather proved to be one of its crucial elements, Davidoff says nature was even harsher to the Palm Beach populace. "It had rained for about a week, leaving it very swampy on the edge of the Everglades. On the first day, late in the afternoon, just as Iron Butterfly hit the stage with 'In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,' a strong cold front moved in, sending torrents of rain from the sky. The temperatures plummeted down to near freezing. The local newspaper called it 'Woodstock South.' "
Still, Davidoff holds happy memories of the festival. "I was introduced to Janis Joplin by my father," he recalls fondly. "My brother Michael and I were standing on the stage the very first night of the festival. Dad was onstage, standing next to Janis, and when I looked at him he motioned for Michael and me to come over. 'Boys,' he said, 'I'd like you to meet Janis Joplin.' He said it like he had known her for years."
For various reasons, the Palm Beach Pop Festival never achieved the notoriety of other, more famous festivals of that era. For one thing, its 50,000 attendees was a miniscule number compared to the hordes that flocked to the other fests. For another, it didn't leave the kind of lingering impression that becomes the stuff of legend.
"I think one of the reasons that nobody knows about it is because there wasn't a website until 2008," Davidoff concedes. "My images were hidden away for over 40 years. Our friends had said they were at this festival in the Deep South in 1969, but no one really believed them. Now they had photographic proof."
Now, more than 41 years later, Davidoff and his co-producer on the project, Jack Connell, are trying to bring the festival some long overdue recognition. After Davidoff's images were posted on his website, www.oldrockphoto.com, the two longtime friends decided to attempt a documentary that would tell the festival's story.
"I always thought I would publish a book of my concert photos, but in this electronic age I decided to go the way of the web," Davidoff explains. Connell built separate sites for the 1968 Miami Pop Festival and the 1969 Palm Beach Pop Festival — both featuring photographs by Davidoff.
"By then it was becoming obvious we had to do documentaries about both of these festivals since we had the photographic record," he says. "So we chose to tackle the project and make it our own. Other than news footage, there's no known film of the festival, so the responsibility of the history was on our shoulders, and we ran with it. We used the stills my father and I took, and wanted to do interviews with the principals and attendees. It's taken time to do the research and make contact with all the parties involved, but Jack and I have spoken to people we never even dreamed of speaking with."
In fact, the progress on that particular front has been encouraging. Sam Cutler, the Rolling Stones road manager at the time, agreed to an interview recently when he was in New York to promote his new book, You Can't Always Get What You Want. Ironically, the cover photo was taken backstage at Palm Beach by Davidoff's father.
They also secured an interview with the festival's savior of sorts, Arthur Blessitt, and have other principals lined up as well — Wavy Gravy and Tom Law of the Hog Farm commune and sound and stage engineers Bill Hanley and Campbell Hair, all of whom previously worked on Woodstock. In addition, Davidoff name-drops many of the performers that participated, including Mark Andes of Spirit (who wrote and recorded a special song for the project that you can hear on the website), Barry "The Fish" Melton of Country Joe fame, and Vinnie Martell of Vanilla Fudge.
Still, assembling the project hasn't been easy, especially in this economic climate. "The main challenge is the race against time," Davidoff insists. "Most of the people who were there are now getting too old to remember clearly, or have passed on. [Bob Davidoff himself died in 2005.] We even contacted some of the festival's opposing forces, but most declined to go on camera. Writing the script came to us as we did the interviews and research. It started out as one big puzzle that is only now beginning to reveal itself."
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.