Friday, December 30, 2022

April 14-15, 17, 1967 The Banana Grove, Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles, CA: Jefferson Airplane/Grateful Dead/Canned Heat (Might Have Been)


The signature of The Kaleidoscope was its circular posters, eminently collectable today. The venue was supposed to debut on the weekend of April 14-15, 1967, with Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead and Canned Heat. The venue was a former movie theater on 1228 Vine Street in Hollywood.
Soon after their first album was released in March, 1967 the Grateful Dead were booked for the debut of a hip new psychedelic ballroom in Los Angeles on the weekend of April 14-15, 1967. On April 17, the Monday following that weekend, the Dead were also booked for what was apparently a record company sponsored party at a ballroom in a prominent Los Angeles hotel. The show at the new venue got canceled, however, and instead the bands all played the hotel ballroom that weekend. It went well, and the idea was floated for the hotel to have a regular psychedelic ballroom of its own, this time, in a true hotel ballroom.

Los Angeles rock history might have been different. As usual, it's not what happened. But it's worthy of thinking about, however briefly.

April 14-15, 1967 The Kaleidoscope, Los Angeles, CA: Jefferson Airplane/Grateful Dead/Canned Heat Blues Band
After the Grateful Dead's first album was released on Warner Brothers in March, 1967, the Dead made some effort to "make it" in Los Angeles. Their first Los Angeles booking was at a nascent underground venue called The Kaleidoscope. The obscure venue is known today mainly for its unique, round posters (well, and my detailed history, too). The Kaleidoscope was a venture by Canned Heat's managers (Skip Taylor and John Hartmann) to open a Fillmore-style venue in Los Angeles.

With the Fillmore and Avalon providing the template, groovy little psychedelic venues popped up in all sorts of cities in 1967. One would have thought that fashion-conscious LA would have been on top of that trend. Taylor and Hartmann were both former talent agents at William Morris, and clearly knew a good idea when they saw one. With a new band to promote, they thought big and decided to create a venue, too. They leased a building at 1228 Vine Street in Hollywood (at La Mirada near Fountain), but still in the city of Los Angeles, and planned to have Jefferson Airplane and the Dead for their debut weekend. The actual venue had opened as the La Mirada Theatre in March 1926. On May 9, 1928 it was taken over by West Cloast Theatres and renamed Filmarte Theatre. Later it was operated by Fox West Coast Theatres.

For 1967, this was quite an inspired booking. Jefferson Airplane had just released Surrealistic Pillow and "Somebody To Love" was climbing the charts, while the Grateful Dead were underground legends who had just released their first album. Canned Heat were unknown to all but a few Los Angeles club goers, but they were an excellent live band.  A last second injunction stopped the event. The story in the Los Angeles Times was that the building was sublet without the knowledge of the owners (National General Corporation). Still, there was every reason to believe that the city of Los Angeles was looking to keep hippies out, using any excuse.This sort of meddling was exactly why all the cool 60s rock clubs were in then-unincorporated West Hollywood, out of range of the Los Angeles police.

Digby Diehl's review of Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead and Canned Heat at the Embassy Ballroom in Los Angeles, on April 14, 1967 (full text in Appendix 1 below)
April 14-15, 1967 Embassy Ballroom, Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles, CA: Jefferson Airplane/Grateful Dead/Canned Heat
For the weekend, the show was moved to the Embassy Ballroom in the Ambassador Hotel, at 3400 Wilshire Boulevard. The Ambassador, one of LA's pre-eminent luxury hotels, also housed the legendary Cocoanut Grove Ballroom. Performers at the Cocoanut Grove were at the apex of the Los Angeles celebrity pyramid, so the history of performers at Cocoanut Grove is a Who's Who of 20th century American entertainment. Per the LA Times article, the Embassy Ballroom was nicknamed "The Banana Grove" for the shows. 
Digby Diehl's review (see Appendix 1 below for the transcript) is somewhat patronizing, but it's notable that he has a sensible appreciation of what a live psychedelic rock show has to offer. The Embassy apparently fit in 1,300 patrons, pretty close to the capacity of San Francisco's Fillmore Auditorium. The audience at the show is young and hip, and in an entertainment town like Los Angeles, they are always on the lookout for the next big thing. Diehl, while no musical expert, compliments the singing of Marty Balin and Pigpen. He also describes the light show accurately, makes it seem like an enjoyable evening. He may have been patronizing, but like any good entertainment writer, he knows something is happening.

April 17 1967 Embassy Ballroom, Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles, CA: Grateful Dead
The Monday night event (April 17) appears to have been a sort of LA event for the release of the first Dead album, and that likely accounts for the hotel picking up the weekend shows. We don't know anything about the Monday night show. The previous month, however, Warner Brothers had held a record release in tiny Fugazi Hall in San Francisco. Ralph Gleason described the March 20 event (see Appendix 3 below) in the SF Chronicle.

Fugazi Hall, at 678 Green Street, was too small for a real Grateful Dead concert even in early 1967. More recent SF residents may recognize it as the home for many decades of the show Beach Blanket Babylon. Following the record company protocol at the time, the invited guests would have been record company promotional staff, some disc jockeys and radio station employees, and a few band friends and lucky hippies. The Dead had played a set, in this case cut short when the power cut out unexpectedly. There's every reason to presume that the Embassy Ballroom event was the same, a shortish set for industry people and a few lucky folks. We have no eyewitnesses, however, because in LA, those sort of events happened every week, and good or not, there wouldn't have been anything memorable about it to the local record company and radio staff.

The empty Embassy Ballroom, in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles

What Might Have Been?
Los Angeles was one of the world entertainment capitals, and home to many record companies, both major and independent. It was a peculiar dynamic that the psychedelic rock explosion took place in San Francisco and other cities, and that Los Angeles was more of a consumer than a creator. The ultimate reason for this was that live rock bands playing original music couldn't really make a living in LA from 1966-68. Now, sure, many great bands from Southern California got signed by record companies, and many of them made great music, both live and studio. But the fact was, bands in LA were performing for record companies, hoping to get signed just so they could afford to eat. This was the opposite of the San Francisco model, where bands could make a living playing live--while living hand-to-mouth, sure--and figure out recording later.
Jefferson Airplane would have been fine if they had been living in Los Angeles, and Buffalo Springfield would have killed it at the Avalon if they had ended up in San Francisco. But The Byrds needed LA, just as the Grateful Dead needed San Francisco. So the absence of a viable LA ballroom skewed the history of live bands in Southern California, even if we don't know how. Were there gigs, for the likes of Kaleidoscope or Canned Heat? Sure. But they couldn't just tell the record companies to come back later.
The Magic Mushroom, out in the Valley at 11345 Ventura Boulevard in Studio City was a "teens only" nightclub. It had replaced the Cinnamon Cinder, a teen club run by KRLA-dj Bob Eubanks (also host of The Dating Game). The club was managed by Chesley Millikin at one point. This ad is from 1968.

There was a club called The Magic Mushroom out in Studio City, (formerly the Cinnamon Cinder) too small to make any money, and a place called The Blue Law in Torrance (which evolved into The Bank), which was backed by an enterprising dentist and never really viable. If there had been a downtown Los Angeles Fillmore, where bands could actually make a buck playing live, the locus of 60s music might have  shifted south from SF to LA.

The Ambassador, thanks to the Cocoanut Grove Ballroom, was locked in to the highest levels of the Los Angeles entertainment elite. Sure, the film and TV people looked down on rock music as "kid stuff," but the fact was that all the big studios--Columbia, Warners, MGM, ABC-Paramount--each had record labels. If the Ambassador Ballroom would have been a pipeline to the Next Big Thing, the Majors would have all accommodated it with ease. Cool bands could have played "The Banana Grove," made a few dollars, and their managers could have negotiated favorable deals with anyone in town. 

Why didn't it happen? All these things come down to money. Canned Heat's managers, John Hartmann and Skip Taylor, were both former William Morris agents, so they knew what was what. According to the LA Times article (below), "Kaleidoscope owners are considering continued use of the Embassy Room as a "total environment" until the use of the Vine St. location is resolved."
It's a great idea. The real issue, however, would have been who would have controlled the bar receipts. I am certain that the Ambassador would have happily hosted the Kaleidoscope, long-haired hippies and all, as long as they controlled the bar and any food income. Hartmann and Taylor would have taken the opposite position, so it was never going to happen.

The Kaleidoscope Theater at 6230 Sunset Boulevard, ca. 1968 (formerly the Earl Carroll Theater, then The Hullabaloo, and later The Aquarius)


  • Taylor and Hartmann continued to work on the Kaleidoscope concept, eventually taking over the Earl Carroll Theater at 6230 Sunset (I have written about that venue at length). The building  has a remarkable history in its own right, like a metaphor for Hollywood, and of course Alison Martino and VintageLA have the complete breakdown.
  • The Kaleidoscope, on Sunset, opened in Summer '68. It was inspired, but a year late. Canned Heat were influential, and sold a lot of records, but thanks to bad luck (and an unfortunate trip to Denver) never made the money they deserved. One of their road crew, Phil Hartmann—the younger brother of their manager--is now widely beloved for his entertainment career, and rightly so.
  • The Ambassador Hotel, central to the Los Angeles entertainment ecology, is now recalled as the site of Bobby Kennedy's tragic assassination on June 5, 1968. The hotel was sold in 1971, and closed to guests for safety reasons in 1989. The site was demolished in 2004. So it goes.
Appendix 1

Kaleidoscope Opens at Embassy Room by Digby Diehl (Los Angeles Times, April 18, 1967)
As the shaggy-haired boy in a checkered mod suit and his equally hirsute miniskirted companion approached the entrance to the Ambassador last weekend, you could almost imagine the doorman saying, 'Excuse me, I think you're in the wrong place." But he didn't.

The couple continued into the hotel lobby, mixing with the expensively attired guests from the the Cocoanut Grove, strolled under the elegant chandeliers and and turned in at the ornate doorway of the Embassy Room. There, amidst a whirl of colored spots, strobe light, far-out films and floor shaking rock bands, 1,300 other teeny-hippies gyrated joyously in the celebration of International Kaleidoscope's opening.

More than just a stipples victory in social integration, the Kaleidoscope's presence in the Embassy Room foiled an injunction against the club's intended residence at 1228 Vine St. by the building owner, National General Corp. A supoena served last Thursday before the announced opening, prevented all persons from entering Los Angeles' second psychedelic ballroom. 

Electronic Vibrations
By setting up the psychedelia in the Ambassador, Kaleidoscope managers Skip Taylor, John Hartmann, Gary Essert and Walter Williams were able to provide a sample of the latest in the art of the freak-out dancehall. 

The Ambassador's new Banana Grove, as some dubbed the room, featured the electronic vibrations of Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead and the Canned Heat Blues Band. All three rock groups were happily received.

Particularly effective was Airplane leader Marty Balin's version of "This Is My Life," which seemed to voice a popular existential stance in the audience. Pigpen, of the Grareful Dead, who looks like Jerry Colonna in drag, was a vocal success with his modern interpretation of screaming' blues.

In, Out of Focus
Inventive use of the baroque Embassy Room's crystal lighting fixtures and mirrored walls was made by lighting director Bill Kerby. In back of the bandstand, a series of multi-color pattern backgrounds flashed in and out of the focus while the silhouette of a girl dancing was superimposed over the projection.

On the sides of the room, film clips of the love-ins, psychedelic body paintings, Gov. Reagan's speeches and sundry other materials were bounced off mirrors, and mixed in bizarre juxtaposition with pattern slides. Phosphorescent and stroboscopic lights played over the bobbing heads on the dance floor. 

Representatives of the Ambassador claimed to be satisfied with the behavior of the clientele. Kaleidoscope owners are considering continued use of the Embassy Room as a "total environment" until the use of the Vine St. location is resolved. 

Appendix 2

March 20, 1967 Fugazi Hall, San Francisco, CA: Warner Brothers Record Release Party for The Grateful Dead Debut Album

Ralph Gleason's SF Chronicle column from March 22, 1967

It had been established for some time that Warner Brothers Records had an album release party for the Grateful Dead's first album at a North Beach venue called Fugazi Hall, at 678 Green Street. Up until this time, I had been unable to uncover any other information about it. However, Ralph Gleason of the San Francisco Chronicle attended the Monday night party, and wrote about it in his March 22, 1967 column:
In Antonioni's Blow-Up there's a wonderful moment in a rock club scene when guitarist Jeff Beck first belts the amplifier and then wrecks his guitar at the frustration at the problems of electronics. 
Monday night's part [sic] for the Grateful Dead was aborted when the power failed and the set was chopped short. So everything you see in the movies isn't fantasy.
Whatever the cultural dynamics of the 1967 Grateful Dead playing in a tiny hall for a weird mixture of record company promotional staff and a few lucky hippies might have been, it seems to have been cut short.

Appendix 3
The Cocoanut Ballroom in The Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles, CA
Formerly located at 3400 Wilshire Boulevard, between Catalina Street and Mariposa Avenue in present-day Koreatown, the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles was built as part of the Ambassador Hotels System. At the time the hotel opened in January 1921, the chain consisted of the Ambassador Los Angeles, the Hotel Alexandria in Los Angeles, the Ambassador Santa Barbara, the Ambassador Atlantic City and the Ambassador New York. The Santa Barbara property burned down soon after on April 13, 1921, and the Alexandria left the chain in 1925, while the Ambassador Palm Beach joined in 1929. The Schine Family owned the Ambassador from its opening in 1921 until 1971; it was set back from Wilshire Boulevard on 24 acres, which included the main hotel, a garage and several detached bungalows.

The Ambassador Hotel was frequented by celebrities, some of whom, such as Pola Negri, resided there. From 1930 to 1943, six Academy Awards ceremonies were hosted at the hotel. Perhaps as many as seven U.S. presidents stayed at the Ambassador, from Hoover to Nixon, along with chiefs of state from around the world. For decades, the hotel's famed Cocoanut Grove nightclub hosted well-known entertainers, such as Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Judy Garland, Lena Horne, Nancy Wilson, Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, Liza Minnelli, Martin and Lewis, The Supremes, Merv Griffin, Dorothy Dandridge, Vikki Carr, Evelyn Knight, Vivian Vance, Dick Haymes, Sergio Franchi, Perry Como, Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Goodman, Sammy Davis Jr., Little Richard, Liberace, Natalie Cole, Richard Pryor and Shirley Bassey. 
Sadly, the Ambassador Hotel is most famous for being the site of Robert F. Kennedy's assassination on June 5, 1968. For safety reasons, the hotel was closed to guests in 1989. The building was demolished in 2004.

Friday, September 23, 2022

March 7, 1982 The Saddle Rack, San Jose, CA: Jerry Garcia Band KFAT Fat Fry (FM XIX)


Patrons at the Saddle Rack in San Jose, ca 2001

March 7, 1982 The Saddle Rack, San Jose, CA: Jerry Garcia Band KFAT Fat Fry (FM XIX)

Melvin Seals played organ in the Jerry Garcia Band from 1981 until 1995, playing with Garcia for several hundred shows.  Yet Seals was only on a Garcia radio broadcast a single time, on KFAT-fm from Gilroy, CA, recorded at an Urban Cowboy bar called The Saddle Rack, in San Jose. The entire time that Seals played with Garcia, both Garcia and the Grateful Dead became a greater and greater attraction. Yet Garcia radio broadcasts became a thing of the past, so Melvin only participated in that single one. In many ways, the early '82 period showed the Jerry Garcia Band at a crossroads, on the verge of separating itself from any normal part of the 20th century music industry. This post will examine how the Jerry Garcia Band not only came to play the Saddle Rack--a Silicon Valley joint that nonetheless had live, actual bulls in a stockade--but to see how it came to be broadcast on the radio.

Jerry Garcia Band: Status Report, 1982
In 1982, the Grateful Dead were not in a good financial way. Their concerts were still fairly lucrative, but they were carrying a lot of staff and had expensive gear, so profits were probably not high. Their record sales had cratered, too, so royalties were not adding to the bottom line. Songwriters would still be getting a little money, but with record sales down, their fortunes were not swelling. Also, by the early 1980s, none of the Grateful Dead or their extended family wanted to live commune style on an old ranch. They all wanted a somewhat middle class life in a house with their family members and a car that worked, so their expectations of what was a reasonable to receive as compensation would have been higher than it was a dozen years earlier. The Grateful Dead members, crew and staff were generally hurting for cash. 

The Jerry Garcia Band had gigged steadily throughout 1981, ending their year with a substantial Eastern tour in November. In late December, the Jerry Garcia Band had started recording at Club Front, and they would continue recording through February, in between some Grateful Dead shows. The JGB played just a few shows in early 1982, two at the Old Waldorf, two at the Catalyst in Santa Cruz, and five at the various Keystones (Berkeley, Palo Alto and The Stone). On Wednesday, March 3, the band had played an afternoon show at a tiny (300 capacity) room at San Francisco State. 

Unknown to most fans at the time (certainly unknown to me), "Jerry Garcia Band" was not just a name under which a band was booked, but a corporate partnership between Garcia, John Kahn and Ron Tutt, dating back to 1975. Originally the LLC had included pianist Nicky Hopkins, but he had been written out when he left the group at the end of '75. The Jerry Garcia Band had released one album, the poorly-received Cats Under The Stars on Arista. Tutt had stopped performing with the band before the album was even released, and I don't know whether this was directly related to the death of Tutt's other employer, Elvis Presley. Buzz Buchanan and then others had taken over the drum chair in the meantime.

The Fall '81 Jerry Garcia Band tour had stood out not least because Ron Tutt had returned to the band on drums. I can remember calling the Grateful Dead Hotline and hearing (I think) Steve Marcus announce the tour as "The Return of Ronnie Tutt." Drummer Daoud Shaw had left the band at the end of the Summer, Bill Kreutzmann had briefly filled in, and Tutt came on board for the big East Coast tour. When Garcia had returned to the stage, however, for three Keystone shows in December, 1981, I asked someone who went and he assured me that Kreutzmann had played drums. Did this mean Billy was just the filler for local gigs, or that Tutt was out of the band? In retrospect, it looks like Kreutzmann was just intended as a fill-in drummer for local gigs, but Tutt ultimately left the group without making any more live appearances with the Jerry Garcia Band.

Run For The Roses Sessions at Le Club Front

The Jerry Garcia Band still existed as a company, and it appears that Garcia and Kahn were bringing back Tutt in order to record. There were Club Front sessions intermittently between September 1981 and February 1982. Tutt played on the tracks that were released on Run For The Roses, but I don't know exactly when he was recording. Given that Bill Kreutzmann drummed for the Garcia Band in September and December 1981, its possible that Bill had some involvement in the sessions, but more likely in a rehearsal role.

The Run For The Roses album would not be released until Fall 1982, and the release was confusing to fans. We now know that while 5 of the tracks were recorded in 1981, two of them were 1974 outtakes from Compliments Of Garcia. That wasn't clear from the album credits, however, and to contemporary record buyers (like me) it had appeared that Merl Saunders had been invited to Garcia Band sessions, even though he hadn't played with Garcia since Reconstruction in 1979. It is difficult to explain how little information there was about the Jerry Garcia Band at the time. A few insiders may have known (or figured out) that Roses included two outtakes from the prior album, but it was largely unknown when the record came out.

Based on a Jake Feinberg interview with Melvin Seals from just a few years ago, it appears that Ron Tutt was surprised at what bad shape Garcia was in. Now, sure, Tutt was no innocent, and he had toured with Elvis, so he wasn't naive about the pressure on rock stars. Certainly the Garcia of 1975 through 1977 hadn't adhered to any kind of clean living. But Tutt was still surprised, and did not stick around. As far as I can tell, Tutt did perform on the October tour, and recorded the basic tracks (probably in 1981), but had left the band by the beginning of 1982. I assume that the release of Run For The Roses as a "Jerry Garcia Band" album was the vehicle for Tutt exiting the partnership with Garcia and Kahn. 

For the purposes of this post, however, it's important to remember that in the Spring of 1982, Garcia was still looking to make a viable proposition out of the Jerry Garcia Band as a recording and performing entity in line with the music industry orthodoxy of the time. The Garcia Band was recording an album for a major label, and was at least thinking about how they might present the album to the record-buying public.

Jerry Garcia FM Broadcasts
Live FM broadcasts were an essential part of the Grateful Dead's history, and their Fall 1971 tour was an integral component in making the band a long-lasting phenomenon. Most early 70s bands (or their management, anyway), wrung their hands in anxiety that any FM broadcast might create a bootleg LP. The Dead, while no fans of bootlegs, nonetheless benefited hugely from the bootleg phenomenon. For major market FM broadcasts, however, the critical component was a record company willing to compensate the radio station for lost advertising time. Warner Brothers had shown themselves willing to do that in 1971, and the Dead--and Deadheads--had been the beneficiaries.

The Jerry Garcia ensembles of the early 1970s did not have the backing of any major record company. Yet Garcia managed to play on the radio anyway, due to a combination of the unique conventions of Bay Area rock radio, and Garcia's own willingness to appear live on the air. KSAN-fm regularly broadcast live shows, mostly from local studios, and some other stations followed suit. So the Garcia-Saunders ensemble and Old And In The Way had appeared live somewhat regularly around the Bay Area, thanks to these practices.

Another Bay Area practice, probably somewhat related to KSAN's habits, was that local college stations also broadcast shows live. Stanford's station KZSU, for example, just had a 10-watt signal that could  only be heard on campus and in Palo Alto, but Garcia was willing to allow broadcasts on the station (not surprising, when you find out that Garcia had been broadcast live on KZSU since 1963). Old And In The Way also had some broadcasts on other local college stations, in a nod to the post-WW2 tradition of bluegrass bands. So even without record company backing, live Garcia was not without a presence of FM radio.

Once Garcia became a solo artist on Arista Records, the Jerry Garcia Band had a live FM broadcast in Washington DC on March 18, 1978. I assume that Arista supported this, even though the 1978 show was prior to the release of Cats Under The Stars. I think Clive Davis had a long enough view to see that Garcia's appeal was over a long period of time, so he made sure there was a broadcast.

KFAT-fm, 94.5 Gilroy, CA

The Jerry Garcia Band show from the Saddle Rack in San Jose was recorded on March 7, 1982, and broadcast on KFAT-fm, out of Gilroy, CA, as part of an ongoing series called The Fat Fry. The tale of KFAT is hard to imagine these days, and I can only sketch it out. Suffice to say, the KFAT Fat Fry appealed to fans in the range of KSAN and the Bay Area tradition of live rock broadcasts, and it was largely self-supporting. Thus a band did not require support from their record company. My guess is that the Garcia Band was offered a lucrative gig at the Saddle Rack, in return for allowing the show to be broadcast throughout San Jose and the South Bay. Unlike many acts, FM broadcasts were always fine with Garcia. It would have been a good paying show and broadcasting was normal for him. Who knew that it would be the last live broadcast of a Jerry Garcia Band show?

The Keystone Palo Alto broadcast a live show on KFAT every Monday night back in the late 70s and early 80s, as part of The Fat Fry. KFAT was a legendary psychedelic country station in then-tiny Gilroy, CA (pre-Cisco Systems), whose story is too bizarre to believe (read it and weep--radio was like this once, but only once). Every Monday night a local live attraction would play the Keystone Palo Alto and their first set would be broadcast on KFAT, audible all over the South Bay, and even in South Berkeley if you were lucky. To some extent, this was to advertise the bands themselves, and to some extent this was to promote the Keystone Palo Alto.

KFAT broadcast a quirky mix of country, blues, old-timey music, raunchy comedy, bluegrass, Hawaiian, and whatever struck the fancy of the disc jockey. It was on the air from mid-1975 to January 1983 at 94.5 FM. From high atop Mt. Loma Prieta (site of the famous 1989 earthquake) near San Jose, its signal reached to the edge San Francisco to south of Monterey and east to the Sierra Nevada mountains. Some of the original KFAT staff carries on the tradition (updated for the 21st Century) at KPIG in Freedom, CA (107-oink-5 fm). KFAT wasn't really audible in San Francisco, and reception was sketchy in South Berkeley (and non-existent further North). So the real audience was the greater San Jose, Santa Cruz and Monterey areas, back before the area was dominated by well-off Silicon Valley suburbs. It wasn't exactly rural--although there were some farms and ranches--but it wasn't really suburban either. 

On December 5, 1977, the headliner for the second-ever Monday Fat Fry had been Robert Hunter and Comfort. They brought along Bob Matthews and Betty Cantor (Hunter name-checked them from the stage) to ensure a great sound. They performed a complete version of Hunter's "Alligator Moon" suite. Since Hunter never allowed the Comfort version of the suite to be released, the live Fat Fry version remains the definitive recording. As at any Fat Fry from that era, the first set was broadcast, and Hunter encourages the listening audience to come down to Keystone Palo Alto for the second set. So the Dead family, if not actually Garcia, was familiar with the Fat Fry, and must have been positively disposed.

A promotional belt buckle for KEEN, San Jose (1370am). "Country Music 24 Hours A Day"

San Jose and The San Jose Country Music Scene

San Jose had initially been a medium-sized California city, but in the 1960s it underwent explosive growth. At a time when San Francisco's population growth was capped by geographic limitations, the flat plain of the Santa Clara Valley was custom-made for suburbs. San Jose boomed, and the suburban cities around it (Santa Clara, Cupertino, Sunnyvale, Campbell and others) expanded as well. Given that the city was full of teenagers, its no surprise that San Jose had a thriving rock scene in the 1960s, even if much of it was somewhat self-contained. Certainly the Grateful Dead and all the other San Francisco bands regularly played outdoor and indoor shows in San Jose, because it was too lucrative not to

Comparative Population (Census Data)
Census    San Francisco    San Jose
1960        740,316             204,196
1970        715,674             459,913
1980        678,974             629,400
1990        723,959             782,248
2019        881,547            1,019,995
Come the 1970s, however, while San Jose was bigger than ever, the rock market had regionalized. Rock promotions were focused on San Francisco and Berkeley, mostly at shows promoted by Bill Graham Presents. Rock fans from San Jose or the nearby suburbs had to expect to get in their cars (or their parents' cars) and drive to Winterland, Berkeley Community Theater or Oakland Coliseum to see big rock shows. There were a few venues in San Jose, but there weren't that many memorable rock shows. 

As far as the 1970s went, Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead had each played a show at the San Jose Civic Auditorium in 1972, the Jerry Garcia Band had played Cupertino in 1975 and the Grateful Dead had played the San Jose State football stadium in 1979, but that was about it. Jerry Garcia and The Grateful Dead had played Palo Alto and Stanford in the 70s, so San Jose Deadheads had some opportunities, but Palo Alto wasn't San Jose, and everybody knew it.

By 1982, San Jose was not only booming, it was getting wealthy. The early harvests of microprocessors had made Silicon Valley increasingly prosperous. It is a long-forgotten fact that the original coinage of "Silicon Valley" was a play on the Santa Clara Valley. The Santa Clara Valley had been a prosperous agricultural area since the mid-19th century, and up through the 1960s, San Jose had basically been a farm town. All of the farms and ranches throughout the greater South Bay bought their feed and tractors in San Jose. The Bay Area's biggest country radio station was KEEN-1370-AM, out of San Jose. When Bob Weir and Jerry Garcia talk about hearing country music on the radio growing up, they were talking about KEEN. As far as the Bay Area was concerned, San Jose was a farm town, and a big city like San Francisco or a college town like Palo Alto was always going to look down on San Jose. San Jose got no cultural respect from anywhere else in the Bay Area, and once rock music became "Art," that was true of rock as well. 

Don Cox, owner of Cowtown in San Jose, had a local hit with "Crazy Gringo" in 1976

As it happened, however, and not surprisingly, San Jose was the heartbeat of a thriving country music scene since at least World War 2. Not only was there KEEN, but there were numerous venues and bars for country and honky tonk music. This was true well into the 1970s. Among the biggest country music venues in San Jose was Cowtown, at 1584 Almaden, opened in the late 1950s by local country singer Don Cox. Cowtown had a house band, playing music for dancing and sometimes backing visiting country stars. Cowtown was open on Almaden up through the early 80s, and when it closed Cox re-branded his other joint, Sam's Club (over on Monterey Road), as Cowtown, and the successor stayed open until 1988.

In fact, there were a few Grateful Dead connections to Cowtown. In the early 1970s, one of the regular pedal steel guitarists in the house band was Bobby Black. The story goes that Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen heard Black--they may have been booked at Cowtown--and were so impressed that they ended up hiring him in 1972. In 1978, Black would spend a year in the New Riders of The Purple Sage, after Buddy Cage quit (and before Cage returned). Black was a fine steel player, with a more pronounced Western Swing style than Cage. It was Black on pedal steel with the Riders when they opened for the Grateful Dead on the night Winterland closed, New Year's Eve 1978.

A more intriguing Cowtown connection, however, involved Garcia's old pal Peter Grant. According to Grant, back in '64 or so, when Grant and Garcia were in the Black Mountain Boys together (Grant on dobro, Garcia on banjo), they were driving around in Garcia's Corvair when they hear Buck Owens' new hit "Together Again," with the great pedal steel ride by the Buckaroos' Tom Brumley. Both Grant and Garcia agreed on the spot that they each had to learn pedal steel. Although Garcia had bought a Fender pedal steel in 1967, he sold it because he couldn't keep it in tune, so Grant had learned the instrument first. It was Grant that played pedal steel on "Rosemary" on Aoxomoxoa

By April 1969, however, Garcia had bought a Zane Beck Double-Ten (ZB10) pedal steel at Guitar City in Lakewood, CO. He had started to play it with John Dawson, then the Grateful Dead and then the New Riders. He also played some sessions on some rock albums, including the Jefferson Airplane's Volunteers and "Teach Your Children" by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. By 1970, the New Riders were turning into a serious enterprise, and for his own Garcia-reasons, Jerry bought a new Emmons DB 10. So--being Jerry--he called up Grant and asked him if he wanted his earlier one. Grant owned a pedal steel guitar, but it wasn't nearly as good as the ZB10 that Garcia was moving on from, so he gladly said yes.

Peter Grant and Jerry Garcia's old ZB10 Pedal Steel Guitar at Cowtown in San Jose, ca 1974

By the mid-70s, Peter Grant was a regular member of the house band at Cowtown. Grant was a full-time musician, and though he went on tour once in a while (with Hoyt Axton, for example), he lived in San Jose and his main gig was Cowtown. And so it came to pass that Jerry Garcia's legendary ZB10 was live at 1584 Almaden Avenue in San Jose at a honky tonk bar many nights of the week in the mid-70s, just as it was intended. Garcia never played Cowtown, but his steel guitar was regularly in the house. 

The Saddle Rack opened on August 13, 1976, at Lincoln and Auzerais Avenues, near downtown. Unexpected as it may have seemed, in the heart of early Silicon Valley, it was a savvy move to open a Cowboy bar in urban San Jose. True, San Jose had not really been a Feed And Seed hub for some years, and many of the former orchards in San Jose were now housing developments. Thanks to San Jose's inferiority complex towards Palo Alto and San Francisco, however, the city was an attractive place to live for the kind of guy who worked in a factory and liked Merle Haggard. 

It's largely forgotten now that the first wave of Silicon Valley, from the early 60s onward, was oriented towards manufacturing. There were a lot of factories, and the men and women who worked there didn't have advanced degrees from Stanford. When that bell rang at 5:00pm, they wanted a cold one, dim lights, thick smoke and loud, loud music. The Saddle Rack hit the mark, and was an instant hit. The 1980 Urban Cowboy movie, with John Travolta, captured this dynamic in Texas a few years later, but it was already in full force at the Saddle Rack.

According to a 2001 Fare-Thee-Well retrospective of the Saddle Rack in the San Jose Metro, Travolta's Urban Cowboy movie supercharged the atmosphere at the Rack. The club's manager said "At the time the movie came out, it moved from a little country bar into a massive, and I mean massive, country bar." The Saddle Rack had a mechanical bull, and for a year or two, they even had some real ones. Yes--it's possible that the Jerry Garcia Band played a live concert in a room with real actual bulls:

[owner Hank] Guenther turned up the cowboy mystique when he incorporated a bull pen--yes, live bulls--in the back corner, where the dance floor closest to the bathroom now stands, around 1982. The story sounds familiar. On a busy Thursday night [in 2001], Patty Gergel, 22 and a recent graduate of San Jose State University, tells her group of friends that she heard a rumor about the bulls. 
"They got loose and started running on 280," she tells her sorority sisters.
"Shut up!" one of them screams.
"It ran on Meridian [Avenue], not 280," says [manager Andy] Buchanan, clarifying the rumor later that night. 
Was it all the bulls?
"Just one. It jumped over a 10-foot fence. That was amazing to see. An 1,800-pound bull jumping the fence."
An automobile traveling on Meridian hit the bull and ended its spree of freedom. The bull arena didn't last much longer and in 1984, after their insurance company said they wouldn't cover it, Guenther shut it down. These days, the mechanical bull is one of the largest draws, with many just-turned-21, it's-my-birthday gonzos tanked on liquid courage lining up for a crack at it. (Wednesday bull riders pay $1; Thursday is free and Fridays and Saturdays is $2.)

More importantly for our story, however, was that the Saddle Rack became a live venue. San Jose had no nightclubs booking original music at the time (notwithstanding The Bodega in the nearby suburb of Campbell), at least not on any level beyond local bands. Somewhere around 1981, the Saddle Rack took over from the Keystone Palo Alto as the sponsor of the Fat Fry. In 1981, the Saddle Rack was a big, booming operation and the financial arrangement was probably better for the bands. In any case, San Jose was right in the center of KFAT's audience, even if Palo Alto had a bigger irony quotient. More from the Metro:

Beginning in 1981, the Saddle Rack hosted live shows and concerts featuring singers and rockers--heavy metal and country--on the way up and on the way down, Buchanan says. Over the years, they've booked such acts as James Brown, B.B. King, Garth Brooks, Huey Lewis, Roy Orbison, the Charlie Daniels Band, Johnny Cash, Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn, Martina McBride and an all-star roster of other bands and singers. And it's not all Texas-style bragging. Inside Guenther's office, just like in the movie where Wes attempts to rob Gilley's (which inspired Guenther's Rack), wood-framed photos of celebrity singers line the faux wood-paneled walls.

Recap: The Jerry Garcia Band at The Saddle Rack, San Jose, CA March 7, 1982
The Jerry Garcia Band played an Urban Cowboy bar, perhaps for the only time. There was a mechanical bull in the house, and just maybe a couple of real ones. It was perhaps Garcia's only direct nod to the country tradition in San Jose, even if Jerry himself hardly thought about it. Garcia had played a fair amount in San Jose in the 60s, but despite the increasing size and importance of the city in subsequent decades, it remained outside the Garcia and Grateful Dead orbit (save for a Jerry Garcia Band show at the Events Center in San Jose State University on April 25, 1992, capacity 7400).

The Saddle Rack show was the last Jerry Garcia Band live broadcast, and I believe his last non-Grateful Dead live broadcast of any kind. I taped it myself, in my Berkeley apartment. I was thrilled to get some current Garcia on my cassette deck, of course, but it never occurred to me that it would be the very last one. No doubt, Garcia rocked the house, and everyone was dancing--I wonder if there was any line dancing? It is a latterday Garcia irony that in contrast to most touring bands at the time, Garcia's manager would have been more concerned about the payday for the show--no doubt pretty darn good--and unconcerned about the virtues or defects of performing live on the radio. Garcia, with and without the Dead, had appeared so many times on air by 1982 that he would have had no reservations, and rightly so.

One indeterminate question is whether the show was broadcast live or tape-delayed. KFAT Fat Frys were always on Monday, and March 7, 1982 was a Sunday night. I do know that while the Keystone Palo Alto Fat Fry was always live--artists always encouraged listeners to come on down for the late set--at least some Saddle Rack shows were taped. According to one internet posting, at least once the Saddle Rack had multiple bands that were then broadcast on successive Monday nights over the next few weeks. I myself taped the Garcia Band show, but I no longer recall if it was broadcast or tape-delayed to the next night. I also no longer recall if they only broadcast one set. My guess is that they probably just blasted out one set, since I think I would have recalled an all-night Fat Fry (I long since gave up my original cassette to the four winds).

And as for the Jerry Garcia Band in 1982, its future arcs were unexpected in any number of ways. Run For The Roses was released by Arista in November, 1982, to very little fanfare. Only the title track passed into the regular JGB repertoire, with the rest of the new material fading into obscurity. The covers were unmemorable, including a needless "Knocking On Heaven's Door." Presumably Ron Tutt opted out (or was bought out) of any partnership, and the Jerry Garcia Band would not release any material until a live double cd in 1991. The Jerry Garcia Band retreated into the silo of Grateful Dead fandom, and disassociated itself from the rest of the music industry in almost every way. 

Yet, remarkably, the Jerry Garcia Band thrived against all odds. It wasn't just that the Grateful Dead became huge, massively huge, far beyond the dreams of even the most devoted Deadhead. It was also that, in some strange way, the Jerry Garcia Band was a contrast of sorts to the Dead themselves. Given, of course, the inevitable effect of "The Garcia," the Jerry Garcia Band strove to minimize the trappings of a Grateful Dead concert. The pacing and song choices at JGB shows minimized the raucous drama of Dead shows, and Garcia's own choices de-emphasized his most famous songs. For many years, the Garcia Band never did an encore (before caving in to the inevitable). As a result, many aging Deadheads, myself included, stuck with the Garcia Band long after going emeritus on the full circus of the Grateful Dead themselves. Thus, the Jerry Garcia Band developed into a massive concert attraction, outside the scope of the music industry at the time.

The condominium development at the former site of The Saddle Rack uses the old club as its street name (above: 1390 Saddle Rack St, San Jose, CA)

The Saddle Rack in San Jose closed on August 5, 2001. The site is now a high-density condominium unit. The condo is now located on Saddle Rack Street, which did not exist when the club was there. The club moved to 42011 Boscell Road in Fremont, across the Bay. It continued to thrive for many years, but finally went out to pasture amidst many other closures in May, 2020. 

Two big questions remain about the Jerry Garcia Band's last live broadcast on March 7, 1982 at the Saddle Rack:

  • Was the show broadcast live on Sunday night, or delayed until March 8 (Monday)?, and
  • Were there live bulls in the house while Garcia played!

Anyone who knows, or thinks they know someone who knows, or has something interesting to say anyway, please suggest it in the Comments

Appendix: Setlist from The Saddle Rack, San Jose, March 7, 1982
I: Sugaree, Catfish John, Valerie, Second That Emotion, Tangled Up In Blue
II: The Harder They Come, Mystery Train, Knockin' On Heaven's Door, Tore Up Over You, Midnight Moonlight

Note: while it is suggested in JerryBase that Dave Torbert played bass this night, no evidence seems to support this claim (unfortunately). Torbert did sit in for the first set in Chico just 10 days later, as John Khan was delayed by fog.

Friday, June 24, 2022

February 3, 1970 Family Dog on The Great Highway, San Francisco, CA: Jefferson Airplane/Grateful Dead (Lost and Found) [FDGH VII]

The KQED-tv Special A Night At The Family Dog, recorded in February 1970, was released in 2007

February 4, 1970 Family Dog on The Great Highway, San Francisco, CA:  Jefferson Airplane/Grateful Dead/Santana/Kimberly "A Night At The Family Dog" (Wednesday)
Most of the concrete information we have about the Family Dog on The Great Highway comes from Grateful Dead scholarship. Almost all of the surviving live tapes from the Dog are from the Grateful Dead, or are associated with the band. Of the non-Dead, non-Garcia tapes that exist, many were recorded by either Owsley or Alembic (Bob Matthews et al), each affiliated with the Dead. On top of that, what press coverage there was on the Family Dog was often anchored by reporting about the Dead or Jerry Garcia. 

For the wider audience of rock fans, and even of Deadheads, the most prominent knowledge of the Family Dog on The Great Highway was the Public Television special A Night At The Family Dog, recorded at a special concert for an invited audience on Wednesday, February 4, 1970. The show was initially broadcast on PBS-tv affiliate stations nationwide on April 27, 1970, and re-broadcast various times. With only three commercial networks and the occasional independent station, Public Television shows were widely watched in a way that would be unfathomable today. I assure you that the PBS Night At The Family Dog special was watched by young people nationwide in large numbers, and was probably influential in suggesting that events like this went on in San Francisco all the time. Certainly, if you were in cold Des Moines or windy El Paso and saw Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead and Santana sharing the stage, everybody dancing and a big jam afterwards, it would make you believe that San Francisco was the promised land indeed.

I have looked into this event at some length, starting a decade ago when I discovered a contemporary San Francisco Chronicle article about the Wednesday night filming of the KQED special by Ralph Gleason. Although Gleason was disingenuous about his role--he was co-producer of the TV special--it was a striking description, and our only source of information up until that time. It seems, however, that there was a lot more to the story. At least some of the music from the special was likely recorded the night before. Now, that may mean that there was a dress rehearsal the night before, with professional video and audio, some of it seems to have been used in the TV special. Alternately, it may mean the date of February 4 was incorrect.

So: while we might have the date wrong, we might actually be missing a show. There could be audio, and there could even be video. Let's look at what we know today.

The Grateful Dead's performance at Chet Helms' Family Dog on The Great Highway on February 4, 1970 is fairly well known today. The hour-long video of concert highlights, originally broadcast on Public Television, has since been released in 2007 on DVD as A Night At The Family Dog. In 2005, the Grateful Dead released the recording of their entire set from that night. Thus both the audio and some video are available from the show, a rare and potent combination. However, while the music is well-covered, and video is available, very little has been recalled about the circumstances of the actual event itself. Even the Dead's cd release is scarce on details. Still, you can watch the video, play the cd, light one up--legally, in most states--and get a feel for what it might have been like Back In The Day.

Grateful Dead scholarship never rests, however, and it seems that the video and cd may have been somewhat more of a pastiche than we originally thought. One of the best sources of the era has been Sally Mann Romano, the ex-wife of the late Jefferson Airplane drummer Spencer Dryden. Her 2018 book The Band's With Me is a must-read for anyone interested in California rock history in the late 60s and early 70s. In a Twitter exchange, Romano recalled that the filming of the TV special was actually two nights at the Family Dog, on Tuesday and Wednesday (February 3 and February 4). The first was probably conceived as a rehearsal and sound check, prudent considering that filming live rock concerts was still in its infancy. Some very good evidence, however, suggests that at least some--and perhaps all?--of the TV special and the subsequent Archival cd release was actually from February 3.
Owsley Stanley's tape box for the recording at the Family Dog on February 3, 1970. The sticker says "Probably really 2/4/70"--I disagree.

What About Tuesday, February 3?
The Owsley Stanley Foundation has a long-term project of preserving Owsley's live recordings, even when the tapes themselves may not yet be released. Recently the Foundation announced that an Owsley 2-track recording of the February Family Dog had been preserved. The tape box itself says "See 16-track," an indicator that Owsley's recording was different than the Bob Matthews/Alembic recording that would have been the basis of the PBS video special. Owsley, always scrupulous about dates, has marked the box "Dead #2/Airplane #1, 3 Feb 70 Family Dog." A sticker on the box, in different handwriting, says "Probably really 2/4/70," since February 4 was the known date of the live recording of the special.

As I have documented in the previous post in this series, the Family Dog on The Great Highway had re-opened the previous weekend with a comparatively stealthy appearance by the Jefferson Airplane on Friday and Saturday, January 30 and 31. When I asked Sally Mann Romano about this on Twitter, however, she specifically did not recall that weekend's shows, and her recollections are uniformly precise. She plainly recalled going to the Family Dog for two days, presumably February 3 and 4 (Tuesday and Wednesday), and she understandably said that she surely would have remembered spending 4 out of 6 nights at the Dog. Mann Romano's recollection was the first indication of a rehearsal filming on the night before the official event. 

Now, the most-likely explanation for Mann and Dryden not going to the Dog on the prior weekend is in the only-the-Jefferson-Ariplane category. The most likely reason was that the Airplane were thinking about firing Dryden, and were trying out drummer Joey Covington, all without telling Spencer or his wife. Indeed, Dryden would be pushed out of the band a month later, and Covington took over the drum chair in March. The actual dating of Covington's arrival is confusing, and not a rabbit hole I will go down here, but suffice to say inviting Covington to a secret gig and not telling the current drummer was just another day in Jefferson Airplaneville. 

What we are left with, however, is the knowledge that there may have been a rehearsal at the Family Dog the night before the official PBS taping. Today, even small venues are set up for live video with synchronized sound--we can all do it ourselves on our phones now anyway--but this was new stuff in 1970. Video cameras were giant at the time, and needed their own locations. Separate trucks were needed for the video feed and the sound recording, and cable snakes would have been laid everywhere. It's not surprising that a full tech rehearsal was in order. And it's also likely that the entire rehearsal was filmed and the music recorded, if only to ensure that there was backup material in case the "official" event on Wednesday (Feb 4) had technical problems.

If there was a full rehearsal the night before, it would not be at all surprising to find out that the official video may have been a pastiche of both nights. At the time, the entire industry considered live recording another way to create product, not an historic record of an event. One track on the Woodstock movie soundtrack album, for example, was actually recorded at Fillmore East (CSNY's "Wooden Ships"). The Grateful Dead released the Family Dog show as part of their Download Series in 2005, but that series was poorly curated and had almost no recording information. The date was listed as February 4, but that was probably based on an assumption. The cd has 9 tracks. The final six are the same as the ones on Owsley's tape (above). I don't think the Dead repeated six songs--either there was only one show, or I think the Dead played better the first night rather than the second, and three of those tracks were used for the PBS video{see the Appendix below for track listings].

What About The Grateful Dead on February 4, 1970? First Hypothesis
If in fact, the existing audio and video recordings of the Grateful Dead were from February 3, not February 4, what did the Grateful Dead play on February 4? It raises the tantalizing possibility that there would have been existing professional recordings of the Dead from the "official" night that were never used. Since there was an invited crowd on Wednesday night, probably there were plenty of crowd shots, but the Dead's actual performance would have been different. My guess is that the Santana and Airplane sets were used from the 4th, as was the jam.

According to the Owsley Stanley Foundation, the tape with the Grateful Dead from February 3 includes two Jefferson Airplane tracks, "The Other Side Of This Life" and "Somebody To Love." Neither of those are on the Family Dog video. There's also some implications from the numbering--since there is a "Grateful Dead #2" and a "Jefferson Airplane #1" it follows there are additional tapes with the Dead and the Airplane. As far as a soundcheck goes, my assumption is that the Dead and the Airplane showed up for the soundcheck, and the Dead are famous for using soundchecks as an opportunity to play as long as they felt like it. Now, granted, we can hear some audience after "Hard To Handle," but it's not unlikely a few friends and family were around. 

Santana was a hotter band than the Dead or the Airplane at the time, and less likely to show up for the soundcheck the previous night. It's just an assumption on my part, but it's plausible. Kimberly, I should add, who opened the show, appear not to have been recorded. Kimberly were associated with Santana management, which suggests the privileged part accorded to Santana's presence.

Unfortunately, however, video tape and 16-track recording tape were expensive. If it was determined that the Dead's February 3 set was superior, then the Dead tapes for the 4th would simply have been erased. Owsley seems to have taped the rehearsal night, but it seems less likely he would have been allowed to tape the "official" performance, if only because space at the mixing board would have been at a premium. There remains the remote hope that some fragments exist, somewhere, or perhaps some production notes. It's a little more complicated since Bob Matthews recorded 16-track tape for Alembic, but it's entirely plausible that the existing recording was either from February 3 or an edit of the two nights.

Since no one had asked Sally Mann Romano, the existing Owsley tape was casually indicated (by the sticker) as incorrectly dated, when in fact I suspect it was accurate. Any missing Dead tape from the 4th has likely disappeared. Sic Transit Gloria Psychedelia. But here's to hoping some undated audio and video fragments of the Dead's performances on February 3 and 4 1970 can be identified and resurrected. I trust Owsley to have gotten the date right. 

An Alternative Hypothesis: Maybe The Date Was Wrong?
Of course, there's another possible explanation for the dating confusion. Maybe the date of the concert really was February 3, not February 4. February 4 has been accepted as the proper date for decades, but it's not supported by an advertisement or announcement, because there weren't any. Ralph Gleason's article was Friday, February 6, which suggests that he saw the bands on Wednesday, February 4. But the Chronicle was a morning paper, so if he went on Tuesday (February 3) he still could not have published until Friday.

It's true that Sally Mann Romano, my most reliable witness, remembers two nights, which is why that is my preferred hypothesis. But there are other possible explanations for her memory (the Airplane were not coming in off the road, unlike the Dead, for example). In any case, the context of her memory was that she and her husband were definitely not there four nights out of six (January 30-31, February 3-4). I'm still inclined to thinking that the Dead played two nights, but I am at least acknowledging another possibility.

[update: legendary scholar David Kramer-Smyth found a link (see the Comments) to a Good Times review of the event. It isn't very informative, but it does indicate the event was on Wednesday (February 4), so that points toward performances on Feb 3 and Feb 4]

"Hard To Handle"
Even casual poking around will lead you to online comments from people who recall seeing the public tv special in April of 1970 and being absolutely floored by the Dead. We did not have direct access to the video until it was released in the 21st century (I don't know if it floated around in collector's circles previously). The Dead performed three songs on the video: "Hard To Handle," "China Cat Sunflower" and "I Know You Rider." Only one of those songs was on a previously released album ("China Cat" was on Aoxomoxoa). "Hard To Handle" would not be officially available until Bear's Choice in early 1973, and the "China Cat>Rider" medley did not come out until October '72 (on Europe '72). So numerous teenagers got on the bus hearing songs that would not circulate officially for a few more years. Now, it turns out we didn't even have the date correct.

Appendix 1: A Night At The Family Dog TV show
Broadcast on Public Television stations on or about April 27, 1970
Produced by Ralph J. Gleason and Bob Zagone for National Educational Television (NET)

A Night At The Family Dog DVD
with Grateful Dead/Jefferson Airplane/Santana
Eagle Vision: released 2007

  • Incident At Neshabur - Santana
  • Soul Sacrifice - Santana
  • Hard To Handle - Grateful Dead
  • China Cat Sunflower - Grateful Dead
  • I Know You Rider - Grateful Dead
  • The Ballad of You And Me And Pooneil - Jefferson Airplane
  • Eskimo Blue Day - Jefferson Airplane
  • Super jam featuring members of Santana, Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane

 A Night At The Family Dog audio
Grateful Dead Download Series
Grateful Dead Records: released 2005

  • Hard To Handle
  • Black Peter 
  • Me and My Uncle 
  • China Cat Sunflower > 
  • I Know You Rider 
  • St. Stephen > 
  • Not Fade Away > 
  • St. Stephen > 
  • In The Midnight Hour

 (plus bonus tracks from other 1970 shows)

The Family Dog on The Great Highway, at 660 Great Highway, ca. 1969

The Family Dog on The Great Highway, 660 Great Highway, San Francisco, CA
The Family Dog was a foundation stone in the rise of San Francisco rock, and it was in operation in various forms from Fall 1965 through the Summer of 1970. For sound historical reasons, most of the focus on the Family Dog has been on the original 4-person collective who organized the first San Francisco Dance Concerts in late 1965, and on their successor Chet Helms. Helms took over the Family Dog in early 1966, and after a brief partnership with Bill Graham at the Fillmore, promoted memorable concerts at the Avalon Ballroom from Spring 1966 through December 1968. The posters, music and foggy memories of the Avalon are what made the Family Dog a legendary 60s rock icon.

In the Summer of 1969, however, with San Francisco as one of the fulcrums of the rock music explosion, Chet Helms opened another venue. The Family Dog on The Great Highway, at 660 Great Highway, on the Western edge of San Francisco, was only open for 14 months and was not a success. Yet numerous interesting bands played there, and remarkable events took place, and they are only documented in a scattered form.

660 Great Highway in San Francisco in 1967, when it was the ModelCar Raceway, a slot car track

The Edgewater Ballroom, 660 Great Highway, San Francisco, CA

As early as 1913, there were rides and concessions at Ocean Beach in San Francisco, near the Richmond District. By 1926, they had been consolidated as Playland-At-The-Beach. The Ocean Beach area included attractions such as the Sutro Baths and the Cliff House. The San Francisco Zoo was just south of Playland, having opened in the 1930s. One of the attractions at Playland was a restaurant called Topsy's Roost. The restaurant had closed in 1930, and the room became the Edgewater Ballroom. The Ballroom eventually closed, and Playland went into decline when its owner died in 1958. By the 1960s, the former Edgewater was a slot car raceway. In early 1969, Chet Helms took over the lease of the old Edgewater.
One of the only photos of the interior of the Family Dog on The Great Highway (from a Stephen Gaskin "Monday Night Class" ca. October 1969)

The Family Dog On The Great Highway

The Great Highway was a four-lane road that ran along the Western edge of San Francisco, right next to Ocean Beach. Downtown San Francisco faced the Bay, but beyond Golden Gate Park was the Pacific Ocean. The aptly named Ocean Beach is dramatic and beautiful, but it is mostly windy and foggy. Much of the West Coast of San Francisco is not even a beach, but rocky cliffs. There are no roads in San Francisco West of the Great Highway, so "660 Great Highway" was ample for directions (for reference, it is near the intersection of Balboa Street and 48th Avenue). The tag-line "Edge Of The Western World" was not an exaggeration, at least in American terms.

The Family Dog on The Great Highway was smaller than the Bill Graham's old Fillmore Auditorium. It could hold up to 1500, but the official capacity was probably closer to 1000. Unlike the comparatively centrally located Fillmore West, the FDGH was far from downtown, far from the Peninsula suburbs, and not particularly easy to get to from the freeway. For East Bay or Marin residents, the Great Highway was a formidable trip. The little ballroom was very appealing, but if you didn't live way out in the Avenues, you had to drive. As a result, FDGH didn't get a huge number of casual drop-ins, and that didn't help its fortunes. Most of the locals referred to the venue as "Playland."

The Family Dog In 1969
Chet Helms had opened the Family Dog at 660 Great Highway to much fanfare on June 13, 1969, with a packed house seeing the Jefferson Airplane and The Charlatans
. One of the goals was that the Dog would feature mostly San Francisco bands and a variety of smaller community events and groups. Since so many San Francisco bands were successful, and had record contracts, this didn't confine the venue to obscurity. A lot of great bands played the Family Dog in 1969, but the distant location and the gravitational pull of major rock events hosted elsewhere in the Bay Area kept the Family Dog isolated. We know only the most fragmentary bits about music played, events and audiences throughout the year.  Despite the half-year of struggle, Helms had kept the Family Dog on The Great Highway afloat. He had entered the new year of 1970 with a new plan.He had new backers, and he would merge his operations with the Grateful Dead's. It didn't happen, however, and the Family Dog on The Great Highway ws closed by the end of the Summer of 1970.


Appendix 2: Excerpts from Ralph Gleason's San Francisco Chronicle column, February 6, 1970

"Do you have a set schedule for what's going to happen?" the technician asked Bob Zagone of KQED. "We don't have a set schedule for anything, Zagone said. 'We have a loose schedule."

They were in the KQED mobile video tape recording truck outside the Family Dog. Several other trucks and a generator, roaring away like a power drill, were set up in the parking lot. Zagone and the KQED crew were getting ready to videotape a Jefferson Airplane party at the Family Dog for National Educational Television.

There's a young band called 'Kimberly' going on stage starting in a few minutes," Zagone said. "The it will be Santana. After that I don't know what's going to happen."

The cables were strung all along the sidewalk and into the hall and the huge TV cameras on dollies were rolling back and forth through the place in the wild assembly of San Francisco hip society.

On stage the musicians were plugging in their guitars and tuning. In a little while Kimberly, a neat, melodic band, began. Light men experimented with different combinations. Rock critics wandered through the hall. "It has the right feeling tonight," Mike Goodwin of Rolling Stone said. And poet Lew Welch pointed out that it was one of the few times in recent memories that you could actually get close to a band and not be jammed by the press of a crowd.

After Kimberly, Santana took over and the rhythms of the drums and the bass melded with the guitar and conga drum and rose to an incredible [something]. It ended with Santana almost leaning over backwards, hitting the guitar strings and bassist David Brown, his eyes squeezed shut, flailing away at the guitar. The crowd screamed. Out in the truck, Bob Zagone complained "we're not getting that audience noise" and Bob Matthews, who was doing the sound, whipped out a mike and set it up taping the audience.  

"We'll go dark as they start their set and bring the light up gradually," Zagone said and the Grateful Dead began. In the truck the multiple images on the little screens made a fascinating montage. Jerry Garcia's face silhouetted but still clear, approached the mike on the screen and he began to sing. The little screens that showed the pictures [of] the various cameras were registering, flicked from one to another. "Gimme a two shot," Zagone said, "Let's see both those guitars."

Out in the crowd, which was dancing or sitting on the floor and around the sides of the stage, John Carpenter of the L.A. Free Press said "when is it going to be aired?" and hoped a definite date could be set. The man from N.E.T said probably in April. "It's a good night," Carpenter said. "I had forgotten what San Francisco was really like. I've seen people I haven't seen in years."

On stage the sound was into those rhythmic phrases that make the Dead such groovy dance music and several guests were dancing behind the band and on the stage. Still photographers leaped up from the audience and shot pictures like the paparazzi in "Z."

Then the Airplane came on and Grace smiled and Marty sang "Do you want to know a secret, just between you and me," and the lights flickered off the sweat on his forehead as he sang and Spencer drove into the drums with a fierce concentration and Jorma sang "Good Shepherd" and the crowd gyrated and the cameras rolled back and forth.

It was a great evening. San Francisco within a week had two TV specials shot here. Both on rock. There will be more and if they end up on the screen as good as they are in person, the rest of the country will see something unique.


Friday, March 25, 2022

May 27, 1973 Ontario Motor Speedway, Ontario, CA: Allman Brothers Band/Grateful Dead/Waylon Jennings (What Might Have Been)

May 27, 1973 Ontario Motor Speedway, Ontario, CA: Allman Brothers Band/Grateful Dead/Waylon Jennings/Jerry Jeff Walker (Sunday) Bill Graham Presents--canceled
The biggest rock concert in American History was the "Summer Jam" at Watkins Glen Grand Prix Racecourse in Watkins Glen, NY, where 600,000 fans saw the Allman Brothers Band, the Grateful Dead and The Band perform on July 28, 1973. Three-quarters of those fans got in for free, however, as the crowd overwhelmed the fences. The highest paid attendance at any concert was the next Spring, at Ontario Motor Speedway in Ontario, CA, 35 miles East of Los Angeles on April 6, 1974. 200,000 or more fans fans, at least 168,000 of whom paid, saw Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Deep Purple and The Eagles headline over a slew of other popular bands.

Yet on Memorial Day weekend in 1973, on Sunday May 27, Bill Graham Presents had booked the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers at the Ontario Motor Speedway. It would have been the first show at the Speedway, and the first time the Dead and the Allmans had been booked together since the Fillmore East in 1970. The show was abruptly canceled, almost certainly due to tepid ticket sales. Yet the paired booking and the venue would prove to be the biggest winners in the history of rock. What happened? 

This post will review what we can determine about Bill Graham's grand plans for the Ontario Motor Speedway on May 27, 1973, and why he was too early.

Winston Churchill ca. 1946

Winston Churchill was famously reputed to have said of his decisions in World War 2 that "History will be kind to me, as I intend to write it." It is largely forgotten now that the perpetually-broke Churchill made his living as a best-selling author of history books, so this was no casual assertion. [For the record, Churchill's actual quote was "For my part, I consider that it will be found much better by all Parties to leave the past to history, especially as I propose to write that history"]. Giant figures in rock music, notably Bill Graham, implicitly took Churchill's adage to heart. Graham is widely viewed as the greatest rock concert promoter in the 20th century, a view widely promulgated by Bill Graham. It isn't untrue, by the way--it's just that Bill made sure that the entire rock world heard his version of events first and loudest.

Bill Graham's modern twist on Churchill, however, was not as an author but as an interview subject. Graham gave more interviews than perhaps all rock promoters put together, always had a great story, told them well, and never told a provable lie. Sure, sometimes he favored his own interpretation of events. Every journalist and rock star biographer told Bill Graham's version of the story, and the very best of Graham's practices and innovations--and there were many, to be sure--took front and center, cementing Graham's legacy forever. Rock History was indeed kind to Bill Graham, but he was instrumental in the composition of that history.

In the Spring of 1973, Bill Graham took a big swing in the Southern California rock market, planning to put on the biggest concert in regional history. He struck out, massively. He never mentioned the event again, not in a meaningful way, and the story disappeared. In retrospect, Bill actually looks pretty good: he was absolutely right about everything, but he was just a little bit early. But that wasn't the story he wanted to tell, so he didn't tell it. Only the bare outlines remain.

Rock Festivals and Major Rock Venues: Status Report early 1974

Rock Festivals were a product of the 1960s. Gina Arnold's excellent 2018 book Half A Million Strong (University of Iowa Press) tracks how "free shows in the park" evolved into "giant multi-day events in some farmer's muddy field" over the course of a few years (yes, she's my sister but you should still read it). By the time of the biggest festivals of 1969 and 1970, most famously Woodstock, hundreds of thousands of people would come to some outlying area and camp out for several days, while live rock music blasted 24/7. Legendary as these events were, most fans did not attend more than one giant event, and most communities that endured a huge rock festival did not tolerate a second one.

The live rock music business got bigger every year, and various efforts were tried to find a way to have "festival" events on a large scale. Multi-act events were appealing to promoters because they inherently hedged risk in a volatile music market. Since shows had to be planned many months in advance, it was hard to anticipate how one band might have a breakout hit, and how another may have become over the hill, or even broken up, in the few short months between booking the show and playing it. In early 1969, for example, Led Zeppelin found themselves playing tiny auditoriums, sometimes as the opening act, with their debut album roaring up the charts, while at the same time Vanilla Fudge found themselves no longer the draw they had been the year before. A rock festival, with dozens of acts over a few days, could more easily absorb the hits and misses. Promoters continued to search for a way to book multiple acts profitably.

An aerial shot of the Watkins Glen Grand Prix Course on July 28, 1973, with some of the 600,000 fans in attendance at the Allman Brothers/Grateful Dead/Band rock concert

Rock Concerts at Auto Racing Tracks
The immediate and vast popularity of rock festivals posed a very specific land-use problem. Places like Indian Reservations and farms were not really viable for major, multi-day events, since too many things could go wrong. Equally importantly, despite or because of the increasing crowds, it was all but inevitable that rock festivals would become "free concerts." Liberating as this may have seemed at the time, it ensured that the events could not make enough money to provide a safe, repeatable event for bands, patrons and host communities. The financial opportunities of rock festivals were huge, however, and since nothing says "rock and roll" like "land use," over the years there was a concerted effort in the concert industry to find spaces that could successfully and profitably host occasional, loud outdoor events with giant crowds.

One of the intriguing solutions for hosting giant rock festivals was to use facilities designed for auto racing. Race tracks were usually somewhat removed from urban areas while still being near enough to civilization to attract a crowd. Auto races themselves were noisy, and major race events tended to occur just a few times a year and last an entire weekend, just like a rock festival. Since race tracks were permanent facilities, they generally had fences, bathrooms, water, power and parking, so in many ways they would seem like ideal venues for huge rock events. Indeed, some of the major rock events of the 1969 and the 1970s were held at race tracks. 

Two of the most successful rock festivals were held at Dallas International Speedway and Atlanta International Raceway, both organized in 1969 by promoter Alex Cooley. Both tracks were giant NASCAR "super-speedway" ovals.  The Rolling Stones' debacle at tiny Altamont Speedway might not have happened had it been held at its original site, the newly-opened Sonoma Raceway, then a newly opened Road Course in rural Sonoma County, near the San Francisco Bay. 

I looked at some of the history and economic dynamics of Auto Racing tracks as Rock Concert sites in another post, although for purposes of scale I focused on the Grateful Dead. Generally speaking, while auto racing had been popular since the invention of the automobile, horse racing had been hugely popular in cities and county fairs throughout the United States, long before cars were invented. However, after WW2, when the GIs returned and economy boomed, America moved from its rural roots to a more urban and suburban universe, and the automobile became a more important part of everyone's life. A national boom in the popularity of auto racing corresponded with a slow decline in the popularity of horse racing. 

By the early 1960s, numerous custom-built facilities served the hugely popular auto racing industry, with oval tracks (for NASCAR and "Indianapolis" cars in the South and Midwest), road courses (for sports cars on both coasts) and dragstrips (nationwide). These facilities were actually ready-made for rock concerts, but there were some huge cultural divides. With a middle-class family audience for auto races, and their Dow Industrial sponsorship from major companies, racetrack promoters were neither tuned into nor inclined to sponsor long-haired outlaw rock concert events flaunting nudity and drugs. 

On July 8, 1972, Concert 10 presented a multi-act rock show at Pocono International Raceway in Long Pond, PA. Due to a huge rainstorm, the headliners did not appear until the dawn hours of July 9. The fine print says "the natives are friendly and the security, hassle-free"

Rock Concert Economics: 1973

In 1973, there was a huge audience for live rock music, but that audience was young, and without much ready cash. Also, since rock music stood for "rebellion," the most popular of rock music attractions were vulnerable to the complaint that they were charging "too much" for tickets. The inevitable result of these pressures was that popular rock bands put on concerts in larger and larger venues, instead of charging more at smaller places. By 1973, the most popular bands were selling out basketball arenas with capacities of 12,000 or more, even in so-called "secondary" markets. Ticket prices were reasonable, around 4 or 5 dollars usually, but the total number of tickets sold was larger than ever.

By the early 70s, multi-act "Festival" shows had mostly been financial debacles and public relations disaster, and it wasn't just Altamont: check out the saga of the "Erie Canal Soda Pop Festival" in Griffin, Indiana on Labor Day weekend of 1972. Smart promoters were looking for other workable venues, and race tracks re-appeared on the horizon. An interesting thing to consider about auto racing was that--because of the noise--they had to generally be well outside any populated areas, but still within driving distance of a lot of potential fans. At the same time, since fans had to drive a fair amount, a race track generally offered a whole slew of races during a weekend at the track, not just a headline race. These economics pretty much defined multi-act rock concerts, just for a different, younger fan base.

On July 8, 1972 there had been a huge multi-act rock festival at Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania. Pocono Speedway, in rural Long Pond, was nonetheless in driving distance for a huge population of teenagers in greater Pennsylvania and parts of Northern New Jersey. Pocono Raceway was less than an hour from Scranton, Allentown and Nazareth, and about 90 minutes from the suburbs of Philadelphia and Newark. There was a huge population of suburban rock fans with access to their parent's cars. 120,000 fans showed up to see Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Faces, Humble Pie, Three Dog Night and and numerous other bands, completely overwhelming the facility. The interest was there.

The parallel development at this time was rock concerts at football or baseball stadiums, full-size major league ones. There had been experiments with stadiums going back to the Beatles, but they had been unsatisfactory. The live rock music audience had gotten bigger, however, and sound systems had improved as well. The first "modern" rock concerts at football stadiums were on May 4 and 5, 1973, when Concerts West hsd produced Led Zeppelin shows at Tampa Stadium and also at Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta. Upwards of 40,000 fans attended each concert. All fans bought tickets, too, setting paid attendance records at the time for such venues. Uniquely, Led Zeppelin were the only act for both shows, with no opening bands. 

The rock market was finding new mega-venues, and Bill Graham wasn't going to be left out. Graham was a self-promoter, yes, but he thought big--he was going to break in two mega-venues of his own, one at home in the Bay Area and the other down in Southern California.

Bill Graham was the king of concert production in San Francisco, but he had only occasionally put on shows in Los Angeles. Southern California did not have a dominant promoter, however, so there was still room for Bill to operate. To do that, however, he needed to make a splash, and to make a splash he needed a place. It looked like that place was the Ontario Motor Speedway, an innovative and newly constructed auto racing track that had only opened for full-time racing in Summer 1970. 

The city of Ontario, CA, had been founded in 1891, and named by transplanted Canadians. Ontario is 35 miles East of Los Angeles, and 23 miles South of San Bernardino. Part of San Bernardino County, it is on the Western Edge of the proverbial Inland Empire. Ontario had been the site of a World War 2 Army Air Force Base, which remained an Air National Guard base after the war (and would remain so through 1995). The airport had also been established for civilian use in 1946 as Ontario International Airport. The Airport was joined to LAX in 1967, and jet flights had begun at the airport in 1968. Although Ontario only had a population of 64,118 in the 1970 census, as a result of the airport and the airbase it was at the nexus of a substantial freeway network. I-10 and I-15 met at Ontario Airport, so all of Southern California could get there easily.

Auto racing was booming in the 1960s, yet Los Angeles was underserved by facilities. Yes, there was the epic Riverside Raceway, another 25 miles East, but that made it even farther from LA proper. More importantly, Riverside was just a road racing facility--albeit a great one--and that limited the types of major events that could be held there. Ontario Motor Speedway was conceived as a full-service answer to every auto racing sector in the Los Angeles area, in a location near the city. The airport location was crucial, too, since major auto racing teams barnstormed around the country like touring rock bands, and drivers and even their race cars were often flying directly from track to track. 

Ontario Motor Speedway was custom built to provide first class facilities for all the major types of racing: an oval for NASCAR and Indianapolis cars, a road course (that included part of the oval) for road racing and a dragstrip. Besides advanced pit facilities, OMS also pioneered what we now call "clubhouses" and "luxury suites" for sponsors. It was a well-conceived endeavor. The plan was to have not only top level NASCAR and USAC (Indy Car) 500-mile races, but Formula 1 and NHRA Drag racing. The inaugural race was the (Indy Car) California 500 on September 6, 1970, with paid attendance of 178,000, a huge crowd even by auto racing standards. Jim McElreath beat out an All-Star field of drivers that included Mario Andretti, A. J. Foyt, Dan Gurney and the Unser brothers.

Mario Andretti (5) in a Ferrari 312B F1 car, about to lap Mark Donohue (26) in a Lola-T192 Chevy F5000 car. Andretti would win the Questor Grand Prix, the only F1 race at Ontario Motor Speedway, on March 28, 1971

After a hugely successful opening, however, Ontario Motor Speedway had a number of events in 1971 and '72 that did not live up to financial expectations. The racing was great--it was the early 70s--but after the September '70 opening, the Speedway didn't catch LA like it should. The big plan was that Ontario would host a 2nd United States Grand Prix, which hitherto had been the exclusive province of Watkins Glen in New York. As a prelude, Ontario Motor Speedway held a non-Championship Formula 1 race, the Questor Grand Prix, on March 28, 1971, won by Mario Andretti in a Ferrari 312B. The event was a financial bust, however, and Formula 1 cars never ran at Ontario again (ultimately Long Beach, CA, would get the second US Grand Prix). Although 1971 went alright, the 1972 Ontario attendance, despite great racing, were a financial letdown. Thus by 1973, Ontario Motor Speedway would have been open to the possibility of different promotions. 

Anaheim Stadium, Anaheim, CA July 10, 1973

Southern California Stadiums
There were plenty of stadiums in Southern California, but none of them were particularly ripe for rock concert promoters. Dodger Stadium was under the full control of the Dodgers, and they didn't share it. The Los Angeles Coliseum was old (opened 1921) and in and was near "undesirable" (read: "too African-American") neighborhoods. The Rose Bowl, in Pasadena, had access and parking issues. That left Anaheim Stadium, in Orange County. But it was just across the road from Disneyland, and The Mouse would not want weekend parking disrupted by hordes of young rock fans. In fact, starting around 1976, Anaheim Stadium would become the primary home of stadium rock concerts in Southern California, with the full cooperation of Disneyland, but that was a few years away. In any case, Bill Graham was from out-of-town, not well-placed to talk local stadium operators into cooperating.

Ontario Motor Speedway was a different matter. It had been well-conceived and well-built, but after initial excitement, the attention had died down--same as it ever was for LA--and it was going to need additional sources of revenue. May 27, 1973 was the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, and the biggest day for auto racing in America. Since all American race fans would be glued to their Televisions watching the 57th running of the Indianapolis 500, it was a perfect day for Ontario Motor Speedway to try something else. Bill Graham had figured out that he had a perfect venue in Southern California, and more importantly, a venue that needed him and his rock-concert expertise. 

What did the Ontario Motor Speedway offer as a rock concert venue?
  • Its location (35 miles E of LA, 23 miles Southwest of San Bernardino) put in close proximity to tens of thousands of potential rock fans.
  • The convergence of the I-10 and I-15 freeways meant that an even larger pool of rock fans could drive to the Speedway fairly easily, from either San Diego (on I-15) or nearer the Pacific Coast (I-10). Ontario was just outside of Central LA, so the majority of potential fans could circumnavigate the often brutal traffic jams that the region was infamous for.
  • In Southern California, it's always sunny and it never rains, so weather wasn't a consideration.
  • The racing facility had parking for 50,000 cars, and apparently there were satellite lots as well. No need to worry about cars abandoned by the side of the road on some farm road.
  • The grandstands featured 95,000 seats, with 40,000 "bleacher" seats in temporary grandstands, and a substantial crowd could fit on the infield. It was plausible to imagine 200,000 or more fans at an Ontario Speedway rock concert (178,000 had attended the inaugural California 500 race). This was double the capacity of even the enormous LA Coliseum.
  • Ontario Motor Speedway had debt to service and was looking for other sources of revenue, so they would be eager to work with a partner like Bill Graham.
  • Most importantly, the huge grandstands around the track, and hence around the facility, ensured that the facility was cordoned off. That meant it was plausible to ensure that only those with tickets would get into the show. At giant rock festivals, the economic issue was always gate-crashing, but that was usually in some giant, muddy field. The Speedway acted as fence, and entry was through controlled tunnels under the grandstands.
Robert Hilburn's column in the LA Times May 5, 1973

A feature in the Los Angeles Times mapped out the strategy I described above. Robert Hilburn was the Times' principal rock critic, and he had a "Saturday Roundup." On May 5, the Ontario Speedway concert was the primary topic, with a photo of Gregg Allman and quotes from a high-powered public relations executive (remember, in Los Angeles, PR equaled prestige).

Bill Graham Going All Out For Rock (Robert Hilburn, LA Times May 5 '73)
Bill Graham, rock's most creative--and often controversial--concert producer, is staging an all-day (8am to 5:30pm) rock show May 27 at the Ontario Speedway featuring the Grateful Dead, Allman Brothers Band and Waylon Jennings. Upwards of 150,000 persons are expected.

It's ironic, of course, that Graham, once so critical of outdoor festivals and other big-money events that lured rock stars away from more intimate ballrooms such as his Fillmores East and West, should be the man behind the Ontario spectacular, but there is no one better equipped to make the event a success. Graham, even his severest critics will conceded, puts together the best concerts in rock.

Though most of his energy is spent in San Francisco (he produces concerts regularly at Winterland and the Berkeley Community Theater), Graham does produce occasional shows in Los Angeles, most notably The Rolling Stones' benefit concert last January at the Inglewood Forum.

Gary Stromberg, a partner in the Gibson & Stromberg public relations firm, said special security measures will be taken for the concert. "California Highway Patrol, Sheriff's Department officers and local police will have road checks within five miles of the Speedway to insure that only cars with special stickers and concert tickets will be allowed in the vicinity."

Stromberg also said the Speedway has high fences and special tunnel entrances that were built specifically to deter would-be gate-crashers. There is parking at the Speedway, he added, for approximately 50,000 cars.

The event is titled "A Happening on the Green," and special non-musical treats are reportedly being arranged by Graham.

This aerial shot of Kezar Stadium (exact date uncertain)

Meanwhile, Back In San Francisco

Whatever your modern-day view of Bill Graham might be, he didn't think small. In May 1973, Graham was planning to expand his empire with a dramatic entrance into the Southern California market. But he had big plans for Northern California as well. On May 4, information was quietly leaked (through the Hayward Daily Review rock column "KG") that the Grateful Dead would headline two concerts at the Cow Palace on Tuesday and Wednesday, May 21-22. Also on the bill would be Willie Nelson and the New Riders of The Purple Sage. This was a surprising booking on a number of levels.

The Grateful Dead had an extraordinarily loyal audience in San Francisco, but the band wasn't really that big. The Dead had headlined three weeknight concerts at the (officially) 5400-capacity Winterland back in December (Sunday-Tuesday December 10-12), followed by New Year's Eve. Those four shows had sold out without meaningful advertising. Yet the Cow Palace was a 16,000-capacity barn in Daly City, on the outskirts of San Francisco. Were there really enough Dead fans to fill it up for two weeknights? Willie Nelson was a rising star at this time, but he was no proven commodity in the Bay Area. Tickets went on sale, but it almost seemed to be a stealth show.

The San Francisco Examiner, May 14, 1973

On Monday, May 14, Graham showed his hand. The two Cow Palace Grateful Dead concerts were rescheduled for Saturday, May 26 at Kezar Stadium in Golden Gate Park. Kezar Stadium, opened in 1925, had been the home of the San Francisco 49ers until the 1971 NFL season. Kezar was now largely unused, but it was in the center of the city and relatively easy to get to by freeway from surrounding counties. On top of that, most Bay Area residents knew how to get to Golden Gate Park, so it was a workable destination. Kezar was small for an NFL stadium (about 60,000), but huge for a concert facility. With no competing sports dates, Kezar would be easier to schedule than an active stadium.

More importantly, the weekend after the Grateful Dead, Graham announced that Led Zeppelin was going to headline Kezar Stadium. As noted, Zeppelin had begun their tour by headlining stadiums in Tampa and Atlanta. Now Graham was going to book Zep's biggest concert on the West Coast. Over the course of just eight days, Graham was planning to put on the Grateful Dead at Kezar (Saturday May 26, with Waylon replacing Willie), the Allman Brothers and the Dead at Ontario (Sunday May 27) and Led Zeppelin back at Kezar (Saturday June 2).

Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin To Play Kezar (SF Examiner, May 14 '73)
The Grateful Dead-Waylon Jennings concerts scheduled for May 22-23, have been canceled and the entire event, called a "Boogie on the Green," has been moved to Kezar Stadium, starting at noon, on Saturday, May 26.

Tickets sold for the Cow Palace shows will be honored at Kezar, or can be refunded through the Bill Graham organization. More tickets will go on sale at Ticketron Wednesday.

The New Riders of the Purple Sage will open the show, which will utilize the Kezar turf as well as stadium seats.

Led Zeppelin is scheduled for a Kezar Stadium concert Saturday, June 2. Tickets at Ticketron beginning Thursday.
The Grateful Dead/Waylon Jennings show at Kezar drew about 30,000 fans, and was a huge success. The Led Zeppelin show on the next weekend was sold out, drawing twice as many fans. The noise bothered the local neighborhood--the sound system was in a different location than it had been for the Dead--, and Led Zeppelin's fans were not as welcome in the Haight-Ashbury as Deadheads. Bill Graham had proof-of-concept for his "Day On The Green" all-day stadium concerts, but he moved them to the more accessible Oakland Coliseum. They would thrive there for many decades.

May 12, 1973 Pomona Progress-Bulletin listing

 May 1973 Status Report: Allman Brothers, Grateful Dead, Waylon Jennings, New Riders
The Allman Brothers Band would be the premier attraction at the Watkins Glen Summer Jam concert on July 28, 1973, attracting around 600,000 fans. 150,000 of them even paid. From the Summer of 1973 through the Fall of 1975 the Allman Brothers were one of the premier concert attractions in the country. You can make a good case that Led Zeppelin and Emerson, Lake & Palmer were equally as popular as the Allmans, but they weren't bigger. Now, granted, the Rolling Stones didn't tour and Bob Dylan only played indoor arenas, but the Allmans were a massive outdoor draw all over the country. Watkins Glen was the biggest, by far, but it wasn't a fluke.

Most rock fans from the era recall that Summer '73 was when the Allmans broke through with their mega-hit "Ramblin' Man," a catchy country tune that was not particularly typical of the bluesy jamming on which the Brothers had made their bones. "Ramblin' Man" was reminiscent of "Blue Sky," sure, and maybe "Revival," both of them Dickey Betts songs as well, but it wasn't at all like "Statesboro Blues" or "Whipping Post." So the idea that the Allmans began to dominate the US concert market when they got their big hit single is compelling. But it's wrong. 

The Allman Brothers had a massive successful US tour in the Summer of 1973. The first highlight was an epic double-bill with the Grateful Dead at Washington, DC's RFK Stadium, on the weekend of June 9-10. Yet that event was eclipsed by the triple-bill at Watkins Glen on July 28. Nonetheless, the Allmans' follow-up release to Eat A Peach, which had come out back in February '72, would not even be released until August of '73, after the Watkins Glen show. "Ramblin' Man" was the first single, released at the same time, and it would go on to reach #2 on the Billboard charts. Now, sure, advance copies of Brothers And Sisters and the "Ramblin' Man" 45 were probably on FM radio (or even AM) in late July, but the huge successes of RFK and Watkins Glen were before the album and single had even been released. The Allman Brothers Band were huge because they were huge. FM radio listeners had caught up to them, and FM radio played them constantly throughout 1972 and '73.

The Allman Brothers Band's third album At Fillmore East had been released in July 1971. As America was slowly catching up to their stunning sound, Duane Allman was killed in a motorcycle accident on October 29, 1971. As a result, the band's followup, Eat A Peach, a double-lp that was half studio and half live, received extraordinary (if well-deserved) attention. And if that wasn't enough, Derek And The Dominos had a hit in Summer '72 with the by-now18 month-old "Layla," and Duane's interplay with Eric Clapton drew even more attention to him. The Allmans were in the process of recording the sequel when bassist Berry Oakley died in a motorcycle accident almost exactly a year after Duane (on November 11, 1972). Interest in the Allmans inevitably redoubled. In 1973, Capricorn Records released a double album of their first two records (Allman Brothers Band and Idlewild South) as Beginnings, so the Allmans were all over the radio throughout the Summer, even though they did not yet have a new album. 

The Grateful Dead, meanwhile, had risen above the level of cult status, even if they were only somewhat of a "major attraction." The band had released four gold albums in a row (Workingman's Dead, American Beauty, Grateful Dead ['Skull & Roses'] and Europe '72), and they, too, got their share of play on FM radio. In the case of the Dead, the songs played on FM were likely the more rocking songs in their repertoire (like "Bertha" or "Sugar Magnolia"), rather than big jams like "Dark Star," but they were Dead songs nonetheless. The Dead would leave Warner Brothers to go independent at the end of 72, but they would not release their final record on the label (Bear's Choice) until July of '73.

The New Riders of The Purple Sage no longer featured any members of the Grateful Dead, but they still shared booking and other services with them. By May 1973, the Riders had released three albums on Columbia. The Dead tried to book the Riders as openers when it fit. Clearly, they fit in at Kezar but not Ontario.

Waylon Jennings (1937-2002) was an established country singer, but he had roots in rock and roll. Jennings had been the bass player for Buddy Holly and The Crickets, and had graciously offered to give up his seat on the airplane to The Big Bopper, on the fateful flight on February 3, 1959 that crashed, killing Holly, the Bopper, and Ritchie Valens. Jennings had gone on to success as a Nashville singer, but he had never been happy with how his records were made. By '73, country rock was starting to become a commercially viable enterprise, with the Eagles as the most prominent band, along with a slew of other groups like Poco, the New Riders and Pure Prarie League. The unhappy Jennings, however, tapped into something much more potent than hippies playing rock and roll with a twang.

The more potent and lasting merger of country music and the 60s would be the music coming out of Austin, TX. Genuine country musicians, with proper Nashville pedigrees, would move to Austin, grow their hair, light one up and pretty much play the same music they had been playing before. OK--maybe there was a bit more attitude, but that wasn't incompatible with older roughneck country, anyway. One of the earliest converts was Jennings. 

In 1972, Jennings had had a pretty good hit with the song "Ladies Love Outlaws," and RCA still wanted him to be a typical Nashville artist. By 1973, however, Jennings had moved to Austin, TX, to join fellow outcast Willie Nelson, and RCA finally saw the light. Jennings kept the beard he had grown, and "Outlaw Country" followed, with Willie and Waylon in the forefront. Sharing bills with the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers in California was a huge break from country practice. Jennings was consciously and enthusiastically aligning his music with long hair, weed and loud, loud music.

What Happened: Ontario Motor Speedway
On Monday, May 22, Robert Hilburn explained in the Los Angeles Times that the Dead/Allmans/Waylon concert would be canceled. The reason given was that the police were going to insist that the concert end by nightfall, because of some incident at a concert in Stockton.

Ontario Rock Concert Canceled by Graham (Hilburn LA Times May 22 '73)
The all-day Grateful Dead-Allman Brothers-Waylon Jennings rock concert Sunday at the Ontario Motor Speedway--which had been expected to draw upwards of 150,000 persons--has been canceled, producer Bill Graham has announced.

"Trouble with several youngsters at an April 29 outdoor concert in Stockton caused Ontario civic official to take a hard, long look at the May date," Graham, who was not involved in the Stockton event, said. Specifically, police said the concert--the first of its kind at the huge speedway--would have to end three hours before dark, or approximately 5:54pm, he added.

Since the Allmans and the Grateful Dead were scheduled to play several hours each, Graham said he doubted he could honestly end the show by that time." He pointed out the Dead played six hours recently at an outdoor concert in Des Moines, Iowa. Though normally outspoken, Graham made it clear he was not blaming anyone. "All the Ontario officials and police were extremely cooperative. Under the time limits imposed however, I didn't feel we could have given the kids the show we promised.

Graham said he is proceeding with plans to present Leon Russell Aug. 5 at the Ontario facility. Ticket sales for the Sunday event were described as "healthy" by a spokesman for the San Francisco-based producer. 

You can buy this story if you like. Maybe there were some elements of truth to it, I don't know. Here's what I think--the concert didn't sell enough advance tickets, and it no longer made economic sense. Remember, Graham's team would have had to construct a huge stage and a ginormous sound system, and fly the Allman Brothers, the Dead and Waylon Jennings in from out of town.  The Times article says that the concert was "expected to draw upwards of 150,000 patrons." If Graham had those kind of ticket sales, he would have found a way around any police objections (if those objections were real), by paying for better lighting, more security or whatever it took. But I don't think the ticket sales were there. Given that we know that the Allmans and the Dead would pack Watkins Glen just two months later, why could that have been?

Although this fine album was a massive hit, it doesn't shout "Los Angeles Summer of '73" to me

The West and The East

The West Coast and the the East Coast were very different concert markets in the 1970s. The Midwest and the South probably were different, too, but I have done less research into them, so I won't generalize. A characteristic of East Coast events from 1969 onwards was the willingness of large numbers of young people to get in their cars and travel for rock concerts. An event like Woodstock drew not just from New York state but all of New England, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Population was much more distributed in the East. There were a lot of medium-sized cities full of young people anxious to see major rock bands, and they would travel. The phenomenon of Deadheads driving hundreds of miles to every show originated as an East Coast phenomenon. 

The West, even in California, was considerably less populated in the 1970s. The vast suburbs of Los Angeles, the Bay Area, Fresno and Vegas were far smaller then. It wasn't that young people didn't love rock and roll as much, they surely did, but once you got outside the major metro suburbs, there just weren't that many people. Fresno, to name just one outlying city, had 165,655 residents in the 1970 census, while it would have 542,107 in 2020. There were just fewer young people ready to hop in their parents' cars and see a big rock show. Few Deadheads from San Francisco would have been planning to travel down to Ontario, since the Dead were playing the afternoon before. As for LA, the Dead had already booked three shows at the Universal Amphitheatre on June 29-July 1, so it's not like Deadheads would lose out.

Los Angeles and San Francisco aren't the same, which is what makes California great

Also, while both the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers were popular bands, I don't think they were particularly popular in 1973 Los Angeles. Now, sure, there were plenty of fans who liked each band, or both bands. But LA was huge, so any band could sell tickets--Jethro Tull, Black Oak Arkansas, The Yes, you name it. But the Allmans and the Dead were hippie guitar hero bands--was that what was happening and what was going to impress everybody in LA on Monday morning when you got back to school? I don't think so.

Did the Allmans or the Dead have a hit single on the radio? Definitely not. Did this matter in Los Angeles? Well, you decide, but it was the biggest record industry town in the history of the record industry, so I think you had to be super-cool or on the charts, and the Dead and the Allmans were neither. I think ticket sales were tepid, and Graham canceled the show. 

Some months later, in the East it was different. The tens of thousands who bought tickets for Watkins Glen weren't downtown Greenwich Village hipsters, they were kids in Syracuse or Allentown or Parsippany who wanted to see some big time rock bands. None of those bands were coming to their town, and their parents weren't necessarily OK with them driving to Manhattan, but some racetrack out in the countryside? Yeah, why not? The kids could have got permission to go the US Grand Prix, so why not a concert?

Graham's assessment of the Allman Brothers and the Dead as a booking pair was correct, but his location was off by 3000 miles. He was also right about the Ontario Motor Speedway, although he picked the wrong bands. The following Spring, Ontario Motor Speedway would hold the "California Jam" on April 6, 1974, an all-day affair headlined by Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Deep Purple and the Eagles. Actual attendance was well North of 200,000, but more importantly paid attendance was around 168,000, breaking every record known for a paying concert. That record would hold until "Cal Jam 2," also at Ontario Motor Speedway, on March 18, 1978. Cal Jam 2 had at least 175,000 paid.

So the planned May 27, 1973 concert at Ontario Motor Speedway had all the right pieces for an epic success of unimagined proportions, but in the wrong combination. We are left with only a poster.

  • The August 5 Leon Russell concert booked for Ontario alluded to above seems to have been moved by Bill Graham to Oakland Coliseum, the first in what was a decades-long success in outdoor stadium concerts at that venue.  The Grateful Dead show at Kezar (on May 26) was a huge success, but the sold-out Led Zeppelin show did not go over well with the neighborhood, leading to the shift to Oakland Coliseum.
  • The first concert at Ontario Motor Speedway has been entirely forgotten. On November 24, 1973, Three Dog Night and the Guess Who headlined a rainy Saturday at the Speedway. There were several opening acts, something like 25,000 people and per a Dennis Hunt Times review, a miserable time was had by all. It must have served as proof of concept, however, since Cal Jam was held five months later.
  • Bill Graham and the promoters of the Watkins Glen attempted another event at Ontario on August 3,1974, headlined by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Tickets were even sold, but the event was canceled.
  • Ontario Motor Speedway was a well-designed and forward looking auto racing facility, but it did not succeed financially. The Speedway was open from August 1970 to December 17, 1980. Per Wikipedia, by 1980, the Ontario Motor Speedway bonds were selling at approximately $0.30 on the dollar. Generally unknown and unrealized by the bond-holding public, the 800 acres (3.2 km2) of land originally purchased at an average price of $7,500 per acre, had now risen to a value of $150,000 per acre. Chevron Land Company, a division of Chevron Corporation recognized the opportunity to acquire the bonds and effectively foreclosed on the real estate. For approximately $10 million, Chevron acquired land which had a commercial real estate development value of $120 million, without regard to the historic significance or future potential of the speedway.
  • From above, you can still see traces of Turn 3.

Appendix: Where Was Ontario Motor Speedway?

The speedway was bordered on the north by 4th Avenue (then referred to as San Bernardino Avenue), on the south by Interstate 10, the west by Haven Avenue, and the east by Milliken Avenue, which still has the eastward curve needed to make room for turn 1 and turn 2 of the racetrack.   Milliken Avenue is one of (maybe the only) street with curves like this in the entire city. 

Contrary to those news reports about the Ontario Mills Mall being built inside the old racetrack, this is not the case.  Ontario Mills Mall lies across the street, due-east of what was the racetrack, on the east side of Milliken Avenue.  When the Speedway was still in existence, the future home of Ontario Mills Mall was either empty fields, or parking areas, depending on the year. 

Even though virtually nothing remains of the race track, other than some of the raised-berms that made turn number 3 at the corner of 4th and Haven Avenues, The City Of Ontario has retained some of the history and heritage of the racetrack by building Ontario Motor Speedway Park a few blocks west of the racetrack site and by using auto racing inspired street names in and around the old speedway.  Let’s give Ontario some credit for these street names! (Jaguar Way, Corvette Dr, etc)

Appendix 2: Population of Ontario, CA
1960    46,617        103.8%
1970    64,118        37.5%
1980    88,820        38.5%
1990    133,179        49.9%
2000    158,007        18.6%