Six Weeks Before Woodstock, the First Atlanta International Pop Festival Brought a Similar (and Some Might Say Better) Experience to Georgia.
Bobby Moore Tracks Down Participants for a Fond Look Back
During his speech at the Tabernacle’s Jan. 9, 2016 memorial service for longtime business partner Alex Cooley, Atlanta-based concert promoter Peter Conlon made a comment about the first Atlanta International Pop Festival, hosted at the Atlanta Motor Speedway (then known as Atlanta International Raceway) in Hampton, Ga., that’s stuck with me since.
“He did 150,000 people the same year as Woodstock, he made money, and had no logistical problems,” Conlon said. “Woodstock was hailed as this great event when it fell apart and lost millions.”
Point being, events like Woodstock and Altamont became part of the culture, while the first Atlanta International Pop Festival seems like a footnote in local history despite avoiding the public health hazards and violence associated with better-known events.
Woodstock’s upcoming 50th anniversary victory lap reminded me of the Conlon quote, turning a passing curiosity into a multi-source and multi-month oral history project.
As it turns out, the sustained appeal of what happened in Atlanta goes well beyond tickets sold or money made. For the fans, crew members, and musicians in attendance, it remains a special experience that couldn’t be ruined by sweltering heat or lengthy porta-potty lines. For the rest of us, it represents a moment when outsiders had to admit that not everyone in the South was stuck in the past, allowing Cooley and others to solidify Atlanta’s reputation as a touring band destination in the coming decade.
Plus, the Atlanta lineup stacks up well against Woodstock’s, even without Jimi Hendrix or Joan Baez. While the more famous 1970 Atlanta International Pop Festival in Byron, Ga.’s lineup reads like a heavy rock who’s who, the inaugural event featured everyone from jazz giant Dave Brubeck and gospel and folk legends The Staple Singers to bubblegum pop icons Tommy James and the Shondells. Some bands on the trippy end of the spectrum brought more gender and racial diversity to rock, as represented by Janis Joplin and Sweetwater. This AM radio variety pack of performers introduced new music to youngsters itching to see Canned Heat at their commercial peak or investigate Jimmy Page from The Yardbirds’ new band, Led Zeppelin.
Read on to learn more about the magical weekend of July 4-5, 1969, from those who experienced Atlanta’s immersion into the hippie-era rock scene.
Before diving into memories about the festival, let’s address a common misconception. Despite a range of estimated figures that’ve grown over the past 50 years, there’s no legitimate way to establish the actual attendance.
“An accurate estimate is considered impossible. Atlantans are historically late in securing tickets for such events.” – The Atlanta Constitution on estimated pre-event figures (June 29, 1969)
“Nobody had any experience back then being in a big crowd that was not in a seated venue. Nobody knew how to count those numbers, even so-called officials. The estimates are not even just all over the map. They’re way off the map in both cases with the Atlanta festivals… Based on my own research, I think a credible range for the two-day 1969 festival is 80,000-100,000” – Bill Mankin, rock festival historian and Atlanta International Pop Festival employee
That’s not to downplay the number of hippies, weirdoes and curious onlookers drawn to an unprecedented event in the Deep South.
“I remember it as being a tremendous crowd, huge crowd. After Woodstock, there was quite a few festivals around the country, and we played some of them. The two that were really the biggest were Woodstock and the Atlanta Pop Festival.” – Tommy James of Tommy James and the Shondells
Cooley worked with a team of bookers and investors. Fellow event promoter Robin Conant points out that Cooley joined the team after festival preparations had begun. That shouldn’t shatter the popular narrative, as it’s believable that Cooley hatched a similar plan as his fellow promoters after attending the Miami Pop Festival in December 1968.
“Alex Cooley put together a team of investors for the first, but all of these guys, with the exception of two people, were in their 20s. They were all young, and they had never done anything like this before, ever. It was the wild, wild west. There was no corporate sponsorship. It wasn’t tightly managed. There weren’t $6 bottles of water. It had this do-it-yourself feel about to it. Alex Cooley himself said the reason they felt like they had the nerve to pull it off was because they didn’t know it was impossible.” – Dr. Gary Sprayberry, Columbus State University professor and pop culture scholar
“Monterey had set that standard (for outdoor festival lineups), and then they tried to carry that on at Miami Pop. Alex was trying to do the same thing: introduce people to other acts that he liked and appreciated and to throw a little diversity in there.” – Patrick Edmondson of the Strip Project website
It took a small army of investors before the days of corporate sponsorships to afford talents the caliber of Janis Joplin, Led Zeppelin and other touring acts.
“I remember when we got the Led Zeppelin album and said, ‘We’ve got to have them.’ They played for us, and I think they got paid $3,500 for the first festival. We had to pay Blood, Sweat, & Tears a lot of money because they were real big then. They had a new group out of Chicago called Chicago Transit Authority we ended up having to pay $6,000 or something like that because there were so many of them.” – Conant
As if the lineup isn’t amazing enough in retrospect, at least one big fish eluded promoters.
“The ’69 promoters invited The Doors to perform at the festival. I was extremely lucky to be in the room when that occurred. I was in the office one day, down on Peachtree, and the last person in the office besides me just coincidentally was one of the promoters, named Tom Kurrus. He said, ‘Hey Bill, I’m leaving. I’m going over to the film festival to grab Jim Morrison and ask him if we can get The Doors to come to the festival.’ What he meant was there was an Atlanta Film Festival at that moment going on over at the High Museum of Art, and Morrison was in town helping to present one of his films. I don’t know if Tom Kurrus had already made contact with Morrison or not, but he said he was going to go over to do that and asked if I wanted to come along. Fortunately, I had the presence of mind to say yes. So, Tom and I went over there and caught Morrison and a friend of his named Frank Lisciandro who was traveling with him. I don’t recall quite what was said, but Morrison said, ‘Why don’t you meet us at our hotel? We’ll meet you over there in a few minutes.’ So, we all drove separately to the Hyatt Regency and went up to Morrison’s room.
“There was a conversation between Tom and Jim to bring The Doors to the Atlanta Pop Festival. Morrison declined. He said, ‘We don’t like and we don’t do outdoor gigs.’ Of course, they did a few, but evidently Morrison thought the ambience of outdoors was harder to control, and he preferred indoor gigs where things could be really in hand in terms of how The Doors presented themselves and came across.” – Mankin
In the pre-internet days, music fans relied on word-of-mouth in addition to television and radio promotion. Of course, hippies networked for more than just concert news.
“In 1969 in Georgia, the hippie community, quote unquote, as it was called kind of had a network, and there was the hippy movement going on that probably started in ’67 and carried on through in Atlanta. Ground zero for that was around Peachtree and 10th Street here in Atlanta. I lived down south in Macon. In various spots in Georgia, there were these little hippy communities. If anybody needed weed, you pretty much had to go to Atlanta to get it, so pretty much everyone was knowledgeable about what was going on in that particular scene.” – Billy Ratliff, Atlanta musician
The crowd, however large it may have been, included more than every misfit from every rural Georgia town. One crew of long-haired Louisianans experienced a far-out encounter, of sorts, during their trek to Atlanta.
“We had a unique experience on the way there. We had an ice chest full of beer and wine. If you’re from the day, you might remember Boone’s Farm and Ripple. We had a variety of different wines that were popular back then. In New Orleans, drinking was lax. You had out windows at restaurants around town where you could put money on the counter ledge and get a six-pack of beer. We had very little restrictions drinking unless your parents would really crack down on you.
“So, we had this ice chest, and we we’re going through Mississippi on our way to Atlanta. This Mississippi state trooper pulls us over, and he says, ‘What’s in the cooler there?’ He said, ‘You know, boys, this is a dry county.’ We kind of looked around at each other as if to ask, ‘What’s a dry county?’ We’d never heard of dry counties. We don’t have counties in Louisiana. We have parishes. He said he’d have to take us in, but for $100, he wouldn’t take us in. We didn’t have $100, so he took our wine chest.” – Henry Artigue, a Louisiana native and the owner of rare video footage from the festival (look up his YouTube channel)
Continue to Part 2