The summer of 1969 really was the summer of the rock festivals. Practically every weekend during that long hot summer there was a gig somewhere in America, the UK, and in many other countries in the Northern Hemisphere.
On the first weekend of July, the Atlanta Pop Festival attracted 140,000, although reports do vary, to the Atlanta International Raceway in Hampton, Georgia, 20 miles south of the city from which it took its name. Despite the very high temperatures, the whole affair passed off with no violence or trouble, but as with so many early festivals, the ability to buy decent food was woefully inadequate. In a headline in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, it said, “Music fans stay orderly despite the heat, wine, drugs.” The PA was supplied by Hanley Sound of Medford, Massachusetts, and the lights were the work of The Electric Collage of Atlanta, both companies doing the same thing a year later.
The festival ran over two days and among the acts appearing were Booker T. & the M.G.s, The Dave Brubeck Trio with Gerry Mulligan, Delaney and Bonnie and Friends, Grand Funk Railroad, Ten Wheel Drive, Tommy James and the Shondells, Chicago Transit Authority, and Led Zeppelin. There were others, including Joe Cocker, The Butterfield Blues Band, Canned Heat, Sweetwater, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Johnny Winter, and Janis Joplin who would all appear at Woodstock a month or so later.
The following year the festival moved to the Middle Georgia Raceway in Byron, Georgia, and ran from 3 July and this time ran over three days. Like Woodstock, the organizers started out charging for tickets ($14), and, again like Woodstock, it ended up a free festival. The promoters, fearful for people’s safety, opened the gates the let in the huge crowd. They had stood outside chanting, “Free, free, free. Music belongs to the people” and threatened to overwhelm the bikers/Hells Angels who had, like Altamont, been hired to handle security. Crowd estimates vary from 200,000 to 600,000.
Given the extra day, there were many more bands appearing. Among the big names that had appeared at Woodstock and played here were John Sebastian, Ravi Shankar, Johnny Winter, Mountain, Richie Havens, and Jimi Hendrix. According to the festival organizer Alex Cooley, “We had it all set where Jimi Hendrix would play his `Star-Spangled Banner’ right at midnight on the Fourth. We told him to signal us when he was about 10 minutes from being done because we needed that much leeway to set off the fireworks above the stage. Jimi got so into his solo he just forgot. Apparently, Jimi also forgot about the fireworks because when the first one went off, he jumped about 10 feet!”
There was a healthy contingent of British artists led by Ten Years After who had become very big in America on the back of their Woodstock appearance. Others were, Mott the Hoople, Giner Baker’s Air Force, Jethro Tull, Procol Harum, and the vastly under-rated Terry Reid who nearly became the lead singer with Led Zeppelin but turned down the gig
Local favorites The Allman Brothers Band were there along with B.B. King, the Bob Seger System, Cactus, the Chambers Brothers, It’s A Beautiful Day, Spirit and the first white rock act signed to Motown, Rare Earth. There was again Grand Funk Railroad – fact becoming a big name in the USA – and the brilliantly named Cat Mother & the All Night Newsboys.
As a postscript, a company hired to film the festival went bankrupt a week after it ended. The film is apparently in a vault somewhere in Philadelphia.