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Look Back: 1969's Atlantic City Pop Festival

The Atlantic City Pop Festival was the forerunner to the Woodstock Festival, 
which took place 12 days later in the summer of ’69.

By Tom Wilk
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 37 | Posted Aug. 17, 2011

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The late great Frank Zappa in Mays Landing.

Photo by Peter Stupar / Copyright 2011 / peterstupar.com

ATLANTIC CITY — Twelve days after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took mankind’s initial steps on the moon, Atlantic County braced for another first — the staging of the Atlantic City Pop Festival.


Over the three-day weekend of Aug. 1-3, 1969, drumbeats would replace hoof beats at the festival site, the Atlantic City Race Course in Hamilton Township. Festival producers Herb, Allen and Jerry Spivak, Shelley Kaplan and Larry Magid envisioned an event that featured top-flight entertainment along with about 70 craft and food booths in a relaxed, outdoor atmosphere.


An impressive range of talent ranging from A (American Dream) to Z (Frank Zappa) was booked. 


The roster of acts spanned the musical spectrum from American rock (Jefferson Airplane, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Captain Beefheart), the blues (B.B. King), British rock (Procol Harum, Joe Cocker), R&B (Booker T. & The MGs), singer/songwriters (Tim Buckley, Joni Mitchell) to ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll (Little Richard). Other acts were initially booked (Crosby, Stills and Nash, the Moody Blues) and featured in advertising and on T-shirts, but did not appear at the festival.


In his book, My Soul’s Been Psychedelicized – Electric Factory: Four Decades in Posters and Photographs (Temple University Press), Magid credited Spivak with sealing the deal for the racetrack as the site of the festival, the first major one on the East Coast.


Not everyone was eager to see the festival come to southern New Jersey. One merchant, upset at 
the prospect of young people descending on Atlantic County, suggested the words “Atlantic City” be deleted from the festival name since it would tarnish the image of the region.
Security was tight for the festival. Police officers in Pleasantville and Atlantic City worked 12-hour shifts. On the racecourse grounds, 100 private security guards kept watch to ensure the racecourse would be able to open for thoroughbred racing season on Aug. 8, five days after the festival ended. State troopers were stationed at nearby Oakcrest High School as precaution if problems developed.
The festival’s lineup served as a magnet, attracting fans not only from the tri-state area, but as far away as Florida, California and Canada. Ticket prices were reasonable — $6 for one day or $15 for the entire weekend. The festival was a sellout with 40,000 in attendance each day, Magid noted.
In the end, the musicians were the glue that kept the festival together with their performances. Procul Harum’s show on the first was a highlight, spotlighting the guitar work of guitarist Robin Trower and organist Matthew Fisher. The biggest disappointment of the festival came on the opening day when Mitchell walked off the stage, midway through the fourth song of her set. Mitchell believed the audience was not listening to her as she sang the same verse twice during “Cactus Tree” without any reaction.


“I’m sorry I can’t play anymore,” she said in halting her performance.
The acts following Mitchell restored the crowd’s energy level, notably the Chambers Brothers, who closed the show Friday night, highlighted by “Time Has Come Today.” 


Two San Francisco-area bands electrified the crowd Saturday. Jefferson Airplane featured the soaring vocals of Marty Balin and Grace Slick on “Somebody to Love” and “Volunteers.” Creedence Clearwater Revival, riding a wave of commercial popularity, did not disappoint with such hits as “Green River” and “Proud Mary.”


The pace of the festival went smoothly, Magid noted in his book, thanks to a stage designed by Buckminster Fuller that revolved on a turntable to allow the acts to go on without delay.


During the festival, the crowd was generally orderly, but there was a sense of “anything goes” as well. Some spectators climbed the racecourse’s light towers for a better view of the proceedings. During the heat on Saturday, others went swimming in the track’s pond to cool off. Marijuana use also was prevalent. A Rolling Stone report on the festival noted that “dope smoking was so flagrant that anyone sitting within five rows of the stage was guaranteed at least a contact high.”


Click here for a photo gallery of images by Peter Stupar (peterstupar.com) and other items related to the Atlantic City Pop Festival.

 Watch a rare video clip from the Atlantic City Pop festival circa 1969 (sorry, no sound):

The biggest disruption in the festival — aside from three days of on-and-off rain — came when no one was on stage. A small group of concertgoers who camped at the site ransacked the merchants’ area, stealing an estimated $20,000 worth of musical instruments, albums and related merchandise.
The festival ended harmoniously with memorable closing performances by Janis Joplin and Little Richard. 


Twelve days later, the Woodstock Festival kicked off in New York and became the festival most associated with 1969, thanks to a documentary film and two soundtrack albums.
Silent footage of the Atlantic City Pop Festival can be seen on YouTube, but the memories play on in the minds of those who were there that August weekend.


Here is the original audio promo for the 1969 festival with photos of bands and program: 

Finally, a short clip of Janis Joplin live at the festival (with sound):

 

Story Behind the Photos

On July 31, 1969, Maryland 17-year-old Peter Stupar, with a rented camera, hitched his way up to the Atlantic City area for the Atlantic City Pop Festival. Little did he know that a) he’d be allowed to shoot all three days of the concerts, by managing to stay on the press corps side of the fence, b) he’d become a successful rock photographer who would go on to shoot Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, The Who and countless others (see peterstupar.com), or that c) he’d spend all three nights (Aug. 1-3, 1969) sleeping in the rain in the festival parking lot. “It rained like hell all every night,” Stupar tells AC Weekly. “It was like a hurricane. I had no change of clothes; I was a salty dog.” 


Stupar hadn’t even purchased his first Nikon, yet on the second day of the festival, he “marched over to the fence where the press photographers were on the second day and I told them I was with the press and they didn’t even ask for anything.” 


Stupar, who has been working on a book of photographs from the festival, says those who are interested in photos from the festival should check the photo gallery on his Web site. 


(All photos copyright Peter Stupar 2011. Photos are available for purchase by e-mailing the photographer at pstupar@aol or via his Web site peterstupar.com).

Click here for a photo gallery of images by Peter Stupar (peterstupar.com) and other items related to the Atlantic City Pop Festival.

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COMMENTS

Comments 1 - 37 of 37
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1. Zappa_Fans said... on Aug 18, 2011 at 09:16AM

“Was anybody there?? What did Zappa play??? Anyone have a set list?”

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2. Anonymous said... on Aug 23, 2011 at 08:41PM

“Didn't go to AC Pop Festival, was only 12 years old. However, one of the festival's headliners was Iron Butterfly, who were one of the hottest acts in the world at the time. It's weird that stories like the one above never mention them. (Note that Iron Butterfly played AC and did not play Woodstock.) Anyway, they played AC on Friday, and the next night Iron Butterfly took their bus to Cherry Hill to play the Camden County Music Fair. It was my first concert. My main memory from the show is that after his iconic solo in "In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida", the rest of the band dumped a trash can full of beer onto Ron Bushy, Iron Butterfly's drummer. Awesome.”

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3. Dan P said... on Oct 13, 2011 at 02:36PM

“i was there all three days with my cousin. since we didn't camp out (lived in ac), i dont remember the rain. i totally agree with excellent set by procul harum, one of the best of the weekend. chicago, santana, and paul butterfield also unbelievable. for me, best by far was janis. her raw energy and sensuality has yet to be topped, 41 yrs and countless shows later. only point of disagreement was jefferson airplane totally sucked. they were late on stage, so stoned they mostly just stood there, and what did come out was lifeless. most of the crowd left by that time left 30 mins into their set, ourselves included. magid and spivak should have had the foresight to film the weekend. there are precious few mementos of the festival. just priceless memories.”

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4. john g. said... on Aug 27, 2012 at 05:18PM

“I was 16 years old. I remember Joni Mitchell being upset with the venue. Does anyone else remember her words? She interrupted her own set and said something about making "room for the 'heavy' bands." At least that's how I remember it.”

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5. brian p. said... on Sep 29, 2012 at 09:49PM

“Three friends and I, from Toronto, were there. It was an amazing three days....first time we saw and heard Joe Cocker and Santana. Remember the Joni incident. Most of us were very happy she left so that the good stuff could continue...we bought our tickets before we heard about Woodstock but were glad we did...

Iron Butterfly and the Mothers of Invention were amazing....as were many of the others...


Ahhh, the summer of '69.....”

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6. Lee Mathis said... on Nov 29, 2012 at 08:10AM

“I was 16 and had my mom drive us out there on Friday...

IT WAS GREAT!!”

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7. Anonymous said... on Dec 18, 2012 at 02:06AM

“I was there all three days. I was hired to work the lights . I was from Longport, NJ. I was on
the right hand side of the stage as you look at it. I was there all three days. I stood right next to and talked with Janis Joplin. I gave her a bottle of beer shaped like a keg, she was wonderful and funny and very normal to talk with. SomeOne was taking pictures the whole time call me if you want to talk about the concert. 251-751-7667”

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8. dutch from south philly said... on Jan 4, 2013 at 11:07AM

“i had meet a girl at the philly art museum the week before meet her again at the concert been together ever since GREAT SHOW WONDERFULL MATE”

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9. George Kotzas said... on Jan 25, 2013 at 08:13PM

“Agree. Procol Harum was a high point.

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10. Les Ericson said... on Jan 29, 2013 at 04:14PM

“I was there for all 3 days (and then for Woodstock 2 weeks later-what a month) The highlight for me was being hoisted onto the stage by a hells angel who guarded the stage left when Janice was on-I danced like a crazed puppet and she danced all the way stage right (not noticing me of course) -I always tell the tale of the time I danced with Janice Joplin-plus for whatever reason (drugs I'm sure) I heckled Zappa who stopped for a second and gave me the finger-ahhh fame!”

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11. Mark Canard said... on Mar 6, 2013 at 07:06PM

“I validate John g. (above) Joni did not think we dug her (WRONG). She seemed freaked out by the enormous crowd.

It is hard to engage 250,000 people!
I was there from beginning to end and had the whole festival experience. We hitchhiked there and I shared cigarettes with Frank Zappa and was at stage side and photographed Janis Joplin with my little Kodak Instamatic.

The greatest thing for me was being in the=at huge audience and sleeping with a great crowd in the most primitive conditions and feeling the vibe.”

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12. George Liebert said... on Mar 18, 2013 at 10:02AM

“I was at the Saturday show. We were camp counselors in Monroe, NY and drove down on our day off to see the show. Great great lineup that day, a lot of "B" groups, Butterfield, Byrds, Tim Buckley, BB, as well as Jeff Airplane and others. It feels like there were more bands that day than on the lineup card
but it was great fun. We had to drive over a 100 on the Jersey tpk to get back to camp before revelie the next day!”

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13. Anonymous said... on Mar 22, 2013 at 11:39PM

“i was there as a result of knowing relatives of the promoters.got to drive my 63 chevy onto the track and park near the stage.i was asked to stand on stage and repel boarders and did so.little richard hit on me.had shots with joplin.jimi hendrix was there.cannot understand why there is no mention of him.he and joplin hung out.plenty of people tripping on and off the stage.at the end i drove my chevy around the track.i hit 80.a compleat blast”

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14. Bill Bonney said... on Apr 12, 2013 at 10:23AM

“I was there for the duration and someone announced to the crowd that we had to be cool because there was a big concert coming up in New York State and everyone was watching how this one turned out. If there were no problems here they would proceed with Woodstock. The first night there was tension in the air with all those kids packed in so tight but when The Chamber Brothers came on it all dissapated and was great from there on in.
My friend and I brought no food or drink or sleeping bag or anything and we wanted for nothing! We sat in the crowd and food and drinks and smoke was just passed around all three days. You just ate some or drank some or smoked some and then passed it on, so cool! The music was great from morning till night and then you just lie back right where you were sitting and sleep. When it got real hot city water trucks came by and sprayed the crowd to cool us off, we loved it. Three days of peace, music, and freedom!”

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15. fab4ever said... on May 16, 2013 at 12:14PM

“Took a bus from upstate ny and stayed for all three days. got in the concert when a group crashed one of the gates. met and talked with Janis before she went on. took lots of photos but all lost in flood in 2006.”

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16. Guy said... on May 24, 2013 at 12:25PM

“I was there all three days. I had never seen anything like this B4. I have 2 say it changed my life. People being nice & caring 2 one another, great music and a feeling of freedom.
Favorite memory, watching Procol Harum doing "Salty Dog", the seagulls circling over head, amazing......Oh and the rain!!!”

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17. Anonymous said... on Jul 4, 2013 at 11:25AM

“In response to "Zappa_Fans" questions from 08/11/2011: Yes, I was there -- a 21 yo, long- haired, Penn State draft-deferred, avid Frank Zappa fan, whose favorite album, Uncle Meat, released in April of that year (1969) had been carefully listened to many times. I don't know/recall the "set list," but most of the material was from Uncle Meat -- and, as you'd expect, it was an amazing set that concluded with an absolutely incredible performance of King Kong. FZ and the original MOI were the BEST EVER..!!”

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18. Keith Renn said... on Jul 4, 2013 at 11:33AM

“I posted the previous comment (in reply to Zappa_Fans) and didn't mean to be anonymous.”

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19. TK said... on Aug 14, 2013 at 01:27PM

“I was there and was one of those disappointed that Joni Mitchell did not complete her set. I thought at the time that she was freaked out by the size of the crowd. Had not understood (as per this article) that she felt that people were not paying attention. I have found it so ironic that she would pen "Woodstock" without performing there after having a disastrous festival appearance several weeks earlier. Artistic license...
I have always felt that one of things that made Woodstock such a big deal was the word of mouth from Atlantic City, especially the hot talk running through the AC Festival crowd that "Hendrix is playing Woodstock". Since he had not played AC, Woodstock was the must- be- there next stop for festival goers.”

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20. Bill Mankin said... on Aug 18, 2013 at 09:54AM

“Without doubt, the Atlantic City festival had one of the best musical lineups of the era. However, to be historically accurate, it was the third major rock festival on the east coast. Seven months earlier, in December 1968, the three-day Miami Pop Festival took place in Hallandale, FL, and had a fantastic lineup. Then, a month prior to Atlantic City, the first Atlanta Pop Festival took place, with two days of great talent, including Led Zeppelin. Both Miami and Atlanta attracted an estimated 100,000 attendees (though most festival audience estimates from that era should be taken with a grain of salt). Regardless of the details, each festival that took place during that era had wonder and meaning for those who were there, and they each had unique aspects unmatched by the others. And they all helped spread the new counterculture nationwide.”

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21. Anonymous said... on Aug 27, 2013 at 10:28PM

“Spent all 3 days there. Was ending a 30 day leave having just come back from Nam. Saw and heard Santana for the first time. Sitting in the vast crowd and suddenly a small ball of aluminum foil dropped into my lap. Opened it up, there was some brown mescaline. Dropped for the very first time and was pleasantly surprised when my blue jeans suddenly had moving colors. Great music, Janis, Little Richards, Creedence, Airplane, CTA, Canned Heat, loved them all. Had to report to the Army on Aug. 5th in Boston. What a weekend! Luckily I live in a state with legal grass, so the good times continue to roll. Great memories.

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22. CwB said... on Oct 6, 2013 at 09:29AM

“I had traveled to Toronto by myself earlier that week from my home in Cleveland. While there hanging out at the Rochdale I met a group of people who were planning to go down to AC for the festival. I flew to NYC with them where we separated, I was robbed of what little money I had, and hitchhiked the rest of the way to the festival. I arrived with nothing but the clothes I was wearing. I remember walking down a road with cars and tents lining it with people just everywhere! Someone gave me some food. Everyone was friendly and the atmosphere was electric. A guy came up to me and gave me a handful of weed. No baggie, just "hold out your hands" and plop.…weed. I sat down on the side of the road & started asking passer bys for rolling papers with this small hill of pot in front of me. It didn't take long”

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23. CwB said... on Oct 6, 2013 at 09:40AM

“So in the space of 36 hours I had gone from a squat in Toronto, relieved of my money and possessions in SoHo, penniless and paperless on a road outside a NJ racetrack. But now that I had hook up with my friends there was only one hurdle to cross. We didn't have any tickets, and still no money. It turns out that security might have been high according to reports by others on here but we managed to get in all three days by either climbing a fence or, walk through a gate with Frank Zappa and MOI. Which we did.

My lasting memories of the show are Joni Mitchell's breakdown on stage which was weird and sad, and something that no one has yet to mention. Nearly every band complained about the bad monitors. In fact, CCR kicked the monitors off the stage as they left! CCR, Janis, and Zappa were highlights for me, but I really liked Lighthouse & Cocker too.

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24. CwB said... on Oct 6, 2013 at 09:42AM

“Leaving after the weekend I heard others talking about a festival in a week in upstate NY but I had to go home and hope my parents did not discover that I had taken a bit of a side trip to my Toronto adventure.”

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25. Bill K said... on Dec 6, 2013 at 01:01AM

“I was there, the summer after my high school graduation. One of the best weekends I can remember. Two weeks after the moon landing and two weeks before Woodstock.

Overall I guess Woodstock would win a talent contest, with CSN, the Who, Sly, Hendrix, the Band and the Dead. Woodstock also had a lot of folk singers who were not very appealing in that environment.

Atlantic City was a little more on the commercial side, with Chicago, Three Dog Night, Iron Butterfly, and the Byrds. And Zappa, definitely not commercial. And at Atlantic City you could hear the music.

When Rolling Stone published its Janis obit it singled out her Atlantic City performance as one of her best. The only disappointment is that the Festival has been forgotten because not even the music was recorded. In 1991 I got an email indirectly to Larry Magid, the producer. He was gracious enough to respond that that weekend was among his best memories but they had not recorded the show and he knew of no bootlegs.”

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26. chi said... on Dec 29, 2013 at 04:21PM

“I was 19, with a guy named Chuck from Ft Dix. We hitch-hiked from Bordentown NJ to the festival. I remember hearing a lot of great music, dropping some a. and sleeping under a fruit stand. Wish I could remember all of it! Pics anyone? Great memories what I do remember! Then 2 weeks later - Woodstock, I wasn't ready to do that scene again so soon after the Atlantic City fest though, so Chuck went without me.”

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27. Will H said... on Jan 15, 2014 at 01:53PM

“Confirming John and Mark above. I was there the first day with a friend before we hitchhiked to Woodstock. I remember two things: Joni Mitchell's performance or lack of. She was at the piano stood up mid song and said, "I just can't go on anymore, I am sorry". I thought she thought no one was paying attention to her. The other was the rain which killed my plan to go to Woodstock. My buddy went; I met and left with a girl and went to her apartment.”

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28. Jay Pappas said... on Jan 17, 2014 at 06:13PM

“I was there. Was working Summer job on air at WOND/WMGM radio. Got a free ticket that we had as give-a-ways. People camped out all around the perimeter of Atlantic City Race Course. Incredible experience. My first rock concert!”

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29. Anonymous said... on Mar 30, 2014 at 04:59PM

“"I was there for all three days. My biggest memory was janice Joplin Sunday evening. It was drizzling rain and I was standing near the foot of the stage, on the racetrack. Someone had pulled out a tarp section which must have been used to protect the track from rain and the crowd of us was holding it over our heads to cover the racetrack. Smoke coming out of all sides. She must have sung through their break because I remember her standing next to a small table with a bottle of whiskey and a glass on it and only one guitarist there and she would take a drink often. Tncredible presence on that stage. BB King had played earlier, and was great. Same for Procol Harem and Iron Butterfly.”

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30. mike said... on May 1, 2014 at 11:06AM

“there all 3 days..still have my ''peace'' symbol pin...want to go back to those days..”

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31. frank said... on Jun 22, 2014 at 08:46AM

“@29
Joplin stepped into a puddle of water during her set. She got shocked and the mike shorted out. I was next to the Stage also. She let out a 'mother f***er' and took a sip of Southern Comfort and went on with her set.”

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32. JIMIMAC said... on Jul 2, 2014 at 07:13PM

“We Took 2 cars and a van to AC From Pittsburgh...As we heard Iron Butterfly starting Inna-Gotta-da-Vida...we couldn't get inside fast enough..The 3 Days were OUTSTANDING..Totally High for the Whole Weekend.a Buddy and I had our draft Physicals scheduled for Monday morning...We figured the more "F***KED" up we were the Better...One Buddy was so High that on Sunday night he just Gave his van to a guy for 3 Joints, so he didn't have to drive it Home...lol......We broke Down in Harrisburg at 2AM on the Pa Pike...We thought we would go to Prison, Because our draft Physicals were at 7AM......We Called them in Downtown Pittsburgh, and They Said 'just Come in next Month..Kept Us Both Out of NAM!!.......Didn't have the Money for Woodstock 2 weeks later..AC was Very organized”

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33. Anonymous said... on Jul 3, 2014 at 10:19AM

“I recall Joni MItchell walking off the stage, saying something like "I can't go on," and had no idea why not. I didn't like her back then but later came to enjoy her writing and music. I recall sitting near this middle-aged woman who looked like she might be from Mexico and rolling big joints with her two hands and sort of snapping her fingers. Pretty amazing. I went to Woodstock weeks later. Amazing times, very different from today. The musicianship, integrity of the bands. Not at all like what it's become.”

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34. Scott said... on Jul 30, 2014 at 01:22PM

“We got to the place late on Friday, in our psychedelic-painted band truck and missed Iron Butterfly...bummer! But we saw all of the rest of the bands. We had a baggie full of orange sunshine hits that all melted together.....just stick your finger in it and lick. That was the best "acid" that summer. Remember the crowd crossing the track to swim in the pond? They brought out the track water trucks and sprayed the crowd to keep us out of the infield then. Remember the "Wheels of Soul" cruising the parking lot checking-out all the hippies? First time I smoked opium! Went to Woodstock without the rest of the band-mates. Saw the whole gig there but regret leaving before seeing Hendrix play.(I did see him at the Spectrum in Philly though.) Had some "sunshine" left for that, too! Those were good times....would love to take a time machine back to the summer of '69, baby!”

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35. Alan Rosenfeld said... on Aug 15, 2014 at 10:07AM

“Went for all three days. Didn't get to Woodstock, this was just as good.”

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36. Banford E. said... on Aug 22, 2014 at 09:08AM

“I was there all 3 days. Had a great time. Much of it is a blur, but I remember Iron Butterfly, Janis Joplin, and Joni Mitchell leaving the stage. A friend convinced me to go to Woodstock because Jimi Hendrix would be there, whom I had never seen. Of course, Woodstock was amazing, but AC was great too!”

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37. jerry w. said... on Sep 12, 2014 at 02:59PM

“ccr dedicated a song to George Wallace, the crowd booed,they went into bad moon rising,the crowd smiled.tim buckley my god what a voice,dr john dead chicken on a pole wearing feathers who needed acid. lighthouse took the stage there must have been 16 or 17 of them we thought the roadies and sound guys stayed on stage till we sorted it out (acid) chambers bros played time has come today for at least 45 mins nobody said more cowbell!! when I look at my program I remember it a little better”

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