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Joni Mitchell ran offstage crying, Little Richard brought the house down: Why doesn’t anyone remember the Atlantic City Pop Festival?

Woodstock gets all the glory, but the Atlantic City Pop Festival, featuring Joni Mitchell, Little Richard, Frank Zappa and more deserves some glory as well.

Buddy Miles at the Atlantic City Pop Festival
Buddy Miles at the Atlantic City Pop FestivalRead

Fifty years ago this August, tens of thousands flocked to a makeshift concert site for three days of peace, love and their new music.

Uh-oh, is this another story about the Woodstock Art and Music Festival turning 50?

Not really.

We’re talking about the Atlantic City Pop Festival, a smaller but significant gathering of the hippie tribes at the Atlantic City Race Track in Mays Landing, N.J., held August 1-3, 1969. An event that predated that infamous upstate New York festival by two weeks and arguably influenced how the latter would come to pass and be remembered.

But A.C. Pop is rarely noted in the same breath as Woodstock.

Sadly, not a single note of the Jersey festival was professionally captured on film or tape, said Larry Magid, the Electric Factory Concerts principal who booked the show. Only shaky, amateur-shot 8mm silent-film clips are found on YouTube.

But you can get some sense of what happened in our backyard by watching Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock documentary. A goodly number of fresh-faced acts — Joe Cocker, Janis Joplin, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Canned Heat, Butterfield Blues Band, Santana and Jefferson Airplane — played both festivals, “with much better performances in A.C. by the Airplane and Santana than they gave at Woodstock,” said Bill Vitka, a longtime news anchor for CBS and Fox radio services (and before that WMMR news director), who sweet-talked his way into both festivals as a student journalist, ostensibly representing the University of Pennsylvania.

As another A.C. attendee, I would argue that the overall bill at our regional fest was more interesting, eclectic, sophisticated than the more famous festival. Our lineup boasted global stars like Afro-jazz legend Hugh Masekela and B.B. King. It delivered the roaring Buddy Rich Big Band, and likewise horn-flecked but poppy Chicago and Lighthouse groups, plus envelope-pushing Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention (serving a slab of “Uncle Meat”), soul-jamming Booker T. & the MGs and Buddy Miles, plus psychedelic sets by The Chambers Brothers, Lothar and the Hand People, Dr. John, Iron Butterfly, the Tex-Mex spiced Sir Douglas Quintet, quasi-classical Procol Harum and The Byrds.

And yeah, for sure, there were some psychedelics floating around this festival, too, and pot smoking that the local police pretty much ignored. Warnings weren’t issued from the stage to “stay away from the brown acid,” but concessionnaires were handed a note: “Don’t be surprised if customers are acting funny.”

The broodish folk/jazz poet Tim Buckley connected more fervently to the New Jersey crowd than did John Sebastian at Woodstock. And authentic blast from the past Little Richard, who closed the fest in flamboyant fashion, was much truer to the rebel rockin’ code than the parodistic Sha Na Na was at Woodstock (even though they got a TV show out of the film exposure).

Doomed by success

So how come our show is left in the historic dirt?

A.C. Pop didn’t suffer the indignities that made Woodstock fodder for instant fame – with headlines about overcrowding and TV news footage of Army rescue helicopters flying in talent and much-needed food.

The Atlantic City festival, which actually turned a profit, wasn’t over-hyped, as Woodstock was, with the persistent tease “Fingers crossed, our neighbor Bob Dylan is coming out of retirement to play here with The Band.” (He didn’t.) Only 40,000 A.C. tickets were sold each day at $6 per show or $15 for an “all-inclusive” admission, a drop in the bucket next to the other festival’s estimated 400,000 attendees, the majority of whom arrived without tickets and didn’t need any because gates were never built.

And while Woodstock became a mudfest, the heavy rains only came after midnight on Friday and Saturday in Hamilton Township, when most show-goers had departed.

“For most show-goers A.C. Pop was a suburban commuter festival. You went home, took a shower and slept in your own bed,“ said Vitka, who lucked out with a hotel room near the beach and a dream-come-true after-show party where he shared a schmooze and a joint with the Jefferson Airplane’s Jorma Kaukonen. (They’re still friends.) “At Woodstock, we abandoned our car 10 miles away and started marching to who knows where, not knowing where our next meal or bath or anything was coming from.”

“The race track had turnstiles, fencing, even private security guys on horses, guarding the perimeter,” said Herb Spivak, the senior partner of Electric Factory Concerts (now part of the Live Nation empire), who shepherded the project and cooled out potential incidents.

“When a gang of Hell’s Angels-style cyclists loudly stormed the place, I calmly showed them where to safely park their bikes,” Spivak said. “But I didn’t let them in for free.”

The worst of it was on the second day, which was hot and sunny. A “couple hundred” kids lingering in an adjacent campsite pushed fencing down and ran across the field, revved up by a steaming Butterfield Blues Band. Many tore off their clothes and dived into a lake in the middle of the track. “At the time it seemed very funny,” said Spivak.

The Atlantic City Press also reported an after-hours looting of a crafts bazaar set up under the stands, with about $20,000 in merchandise disappearing.

Some city fathers were so put off by the trippy, hippie fun fest tarnishing their town’s name that they would pass laws afterward banning any more multi-day events at the track.

Electric Factory Concerts tried to put on another music festival in the Poconos the following summer, but was booted out of two sites and gave up. Clearly, the rock-fueled disorder at Woodstock, followed at year’s end by the violent events at California’s Altamont Speedway, had left a bad impression.

Five summers post-A.C. Pop, the promoters did manage to score a one-day return pass to the race course for a show with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Santana, and the Youngbloods.

It rained like hell.

Off to the races

While Electric Factory Concerts, like other regional promoters) had been shopping for a festival site “ever since Monterey Pop in ‘67” had jump-started the new counterculture rock revolution, Spivak said the original hook-up with the Atlantic City Race Track was almost accidental.

“I was driving down the White Horse Pike in January or February of ’69 to look for a summer rental property for the family, saw the track, and just spontaneously drove in. I found the office and asked, ‘Is the owner around?’ As it happened, Bob Levy was there. I said, ‘I have an idea for your track, can you help me?’ then explained who we were — our history with the [jazz club] Showboat, [rock hall] Electric Factory, and a few multi-artist jazz and rock shows we’d done at the Spectrum and Convention Hall. We made a handshake deal for the three-day festival, there and then, with the same terms we used to rent the Spectrum.”

In truth, there were lots of other pop fests that followed in the wake of Monterey Pop, and also beat Woodstock to the gate — including two named Newport in California, two in Miami, a tear gas-“tamed” disaster in Denver, a show in Toronto and then two just before ours in Atlanta and Laurel, Md.

But of the bunch it’s been said that A.C. Pop was the best organized and least stressful. The concert ran on time, from 1 p.m. each day, with fast changeovers between acts. The Factory production team had built the stage with a rotating turntable “pulled by guys with attached ropes, like some vision of ancient Egyptians hauling rocks for the pyramids,” said Spivak. The circular stage allowed one band to set up on the back half while another band did its show on the front side. Then rotate, plug-in guitars and start again.

“The turntable worked great the first two days, broke down the third,“ said show photographer Peter Stupar, who, as a 17-year-old, had hitchhiked from Baltimore without informing his parents, and talked his way into the press pit with a rented Nikon dangling from his neck, declaring, “I’m from Rolling Stone.” While soaked every night in the post-show storms (he slept on the ground) and “grounded for a year” after he returned home, “it was worth it. The music was great, people were kind and I scored the best pictures, kick-starting my adult life.”

Woodstock in Bethel also had a turntable embedded in its hastily constructed stage, but never got it going. “That made for interminable delays and music running around the clock,” said Vitka.

There were no giant video screens at shows in those days, but the Atlantic City track did have a closed-circuit monitor system so patrons could view the acts (if not hear well). The other interesting production feature of the festival was an airy, geodesic structure looming over the stage, designed by Penn architecture professor Buckminster Fuller, which held stage lights and semi-shielded Janis Joplin and the festival-capping Little Richard from the rain that fell earlier on Sunday night.

Magid — who took over as emcee after hired host Biff Rose fell “ill” under the influence — studied the crowd hard that weekend and came to a major revelation. Namely that “50% of concert going is about the music, the other 50% is being with your friends.” Which is why “bigger shows can be better,” he concluded. That “a-ha” moment at A.C. Pop, he said, is when the live music business started shifting gears, “first by us in the Northeast region. We’d move from club-based shows to a theater, large arena and amphitheater-focused operation.”

Spivak borrowed $50,000 from his lawyer’s father to jump-start the A.C. Pop Festival. Doesn’t seem like much when you learn that festival headliners Jefferson Airplane and Janis Joplin would each earn in the $20,000-$25,000 range, with Joplin’s “favored nation” contract clause stipulating no one else should be paid more than her. Maybe that’s why Jimi Hendrix, then demanding $50,000 a show, “wasn’t available”? Maybe it also explains why Creedence Clearwater Revival, red hot that summer with radio hits but making less dough, weren’t happy. Frontman John Fogerty kicked in a stage monitor “that then caused lots of problems for the Airplane, who followed,” said Vitka.

Janis Joplin, on the other hand, couldn’t have been nicer. In online remembrances, A.C. Pop attendees have cited close encounters with her on the grounds. And this then-kid reporter witnessed Joplin and Philadelphia Inquirer music critic Jack Lloyd sharing jokes and a bottle of Southern Comfort in the race track’s press box. They were getting along famously until Lloyd let it slip he was a journalist. Joplin skedaddled.

While he wasn’t sure the young festival audience would even remember the true rock original Little Richard, Larry Magid wound up slating the soul shouter to close the 10 p.m. curfew-pressed Sunday finale and said it couldn’t have gone better.

“Richard was electric, had the crowd in the palm of his hands from the first a whop-bop-a-lu” Magid said. “He jumped off his piano. He stripped off his spangly shirt. He went down on his knees to pray.”

“One of the best performances I’ve ever seen,” said Spivak.

Another high point, both promoters admit with glee, was a bargain West Coast newcomer act — Latin, jazz, rock and blues-infused — booked for a mere $750 as a “favor” to promoter/manager Bill Graham. Santana burned the house down, then two weeks later scorched Woodstock planet, too.

Jilted Joni

Not all went according to plan. The Moody Blues had visa problems and didn’t get there. Brand new supergroup-in-training Crosby, Stills and Nash weren’t ready for their closeup. They needed more rehearsals, and canceled. Johnny Winter was booked for an afternoon gig by an agent who didn’t know the Texas bluesman couldn’t play in the sunlight (he was born with albinism). Winter showed up late Sunday and never got on.

Worst was the abbreviated, painful set Friday afternoon by sensitive folkie Joni Mitchell. The solo guitar-strumming artist freaked out when people wouldn’t stop talking, a beach ball kept flying around in front of her, and no one bothered to shout out during song four (“Cactus Tree”) that “you just repeated a verse.”

Had it been a test? Mitchell ran off stage mid-song in tears. Then two weeks later, so the story goes, she nobly gave up her seat on the helicopter to Woodstock, and a chance to play there, so her buddies Crosby, Stills & Nash could ride together and make their delayed debut at that festival with sometime-collaborator Neil Young. Coincidence? Or once bitten, twice shy?

At least we all scored Joni Mitchell’s empowering paean to the “half-a-million strong” Woodstock Nation out of the deal. Her “Woodstock” ballad became a huge hit and generational anthem. If Mitchell had actually gone to Max Yasgur’s Upstate New York muddy farm instead of writing off TV news clips and secondhand tales, she might not have romanticized the moment: “We are stardust. We are golden. And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.”

Magid also pointed to inspiration that Woodstock mastermind Michael Lang took from the three-day packaging of the Atlantic City fest. “It’s referenced in his book, The Road to Woodstock. We were out there with our talent lineup and flyers [spread all over the East Coast, even into Canada] and generating ticket sales before they were. Lang’s original plan was a two day ‘Music and Art Fair‘ with folk acts on the first day, rock acts on the second. But then, fearing we’d steal his thunder, he added a third day and pumped up the lineup. That may in part explain how Woodstock grew so big and out of control, too much for concert-promoting novices who really didn’t know what they were doing.”

But at A.C. Pop, everything was Tutti Frutti, oh Rudy!