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Bigger Than Woodstock: Remembering Summer Jam

History has tended to overlook the festival that was bigger than Woodstock, Monterey or the Isle of Wight.

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Rock folklore remembers landmark festivals such as Woodstock, Monterey and the Isle of Wight as legendary occasions. For some reason, it has tended to overlook the event that was bigger than any of them.

The Summer Jam at Watkins Glen, the Grand Prix racetrack in New York state, took place on 28 July 1973. It was attended by a mind-boggling (and record-breaking) total of 600,000 people, who enjoyed hours and hours of music provided by just three acts, the Allman Brothers Band, the Grateful Dead and The Band.

That attendance was sufficient for the Summer Jam to be given the title of “largest audience for a pop festival” by the Guinness Book of World Records. While estimates of festival crowds often vary wildly, the figure dwarfed the 400,000 that were said to be at Woodstock. Also, in retrospect, that summer’s day at Watkins Glen defined the very idea of the extended jam session that became one of the characteristics of 1970s rock.

The seeds of Summer Jam were sown the year before, when promoters Shelly Finkel and Jim Koplik had staged a Grateful Dead show in Hartford, Connecticut. Three members of the Allman Brothers Band — Dickey Betts, Berry Oakley and Jaimoe — all showed up on stage for an impromptu jam.

Watkins Glen was certainly not intended to be a free concert, but it turned out that way for hundreds of thousands of people. The promoters sold 150,000 tickets in advance at $10 each, but the rest of the throng that created a different sort of jam on the approaches to the racetrack wound up with a long-distance view for nothing.

Even the soundchecks at Summer Jam were epics, with part of the Grateful Dead’s supposed run-through eventually seeing release on the 1999 box set So Many Roads (1965-1995). When they officially opened the event, the Dead played two long sets, after which The Band followed with a two-hour performance.

When the Allmans hit the stage, the timing was perfect to give songs from their imminent Brothers and Sisters album an airing. They took their place among what were, by now, staples in their show such as ‘Statesboro Blues’ and ‘Whipping Post.’

Their Watkins Glen performance of one of the new songs, Gregg Allman’s ‘Come and Go Blues,’ was later released on their 1976 live compilation Wipe The Windows, Check The Oil, Dollar Gas. The Allmans played, as often, for three hours, and then, true to the spirit of the day, members of all three bands got up to jam on standards like ‘Johnny B. Goode’ and ‘Not Fade Away.’

“Who can explain it,” Koplick said in the Washington Post’s report of the festival. “We spent less than $30,000 on advertising and we wound up selling 150,000 tickets at $10 each. But we never dreamed we’d have this many people. I guess they just found the concept appealing — a day of music in the country.”

12 Comments

12 Comments

  1. cathy

    July 28, 2015 at 8:31 pm

    What a GREAT weekend!!!!!!

    • Dale R. Clark

      July 28, 2019 at 9:34 pm

      I hiched hiked there with a friend Robbie Lauren because my brother Jerry Clark left a note on the table at my mother’s in Marion, Ohio. Note said couldn’t wait any longer so him an his wife Janelle in a few other friends drove on up ahead of us. This show was the show of showes. It was a three day show with just three bands.I remember Jerry Garcia coming out and sitting on a bar stool and strumming all night long he said man if you’re all up I’m up to and played the night away. What a show of a show’s will never forget the show and then we hitch hike back through buffalo and over and never will never forget that show was awesome.

  2. diana

    July 29, 2015 at 2:07 am

    I grew up there and was working at a local restaurant at the time. We were all used to seeing large crowds at race times, but nothing like this ever! By Sunday morning we had run out of everything but eggs and maybe toast. Still, everyone was amazing and it’s a memory that will last forever.

  3. Bill mulligan

    July 29, 2015 at 4:28 am

    I went with Pam, Sarah, John. Climbed the hill in 93 degrees, couldn’t get anywhere near the stage. There were topless chicks drugs everywhere,trash kept pulling up.heard some of the music but couldn’t see any bands.

  4. Janet

    July 29, 2015 at 4:40 am

    I drove from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Univ. of Alabama, to this event and the weather was perfect, the crowd was friendly and interesting to talk to. I met a medical student, pediatrics, that I wish I had stayed connected with. He was headed to Central America to do some charity work. We sang along with all of the tunes all weekend long. It was magical but I was too young to grasp the significance of the experience. We were just having fun with the best bands , EVER!!!

  5. Lynn

    July 29, 2015 at 3:21 pm

    I went with friends….I was only 17 and I remember walking through the crowds trying to get close to the stage. Think I heard the band do Life is a carnival..Is there a set list anywhere?

  6. norman

    July 29, 2015 at 4:00 pm

    When it started to rain everyone headed back to where they were camped I put on a poncho and headed to the stage I couldn’t believe it I made it all the way to the stage the grateful dead had finished playing and the stage was empty so I climbed up on the speaker staging with three other people and stayed there until the allman brothers played that night man what a show.sitting above them watching ducky Betts playing that red guitar all night was great as far as I could see was a ocean of people then the band and Bob wier and garcia came out and they jammed all night and. I saw it all from15 feet above the stage truly the best night of my life pretty hard to beat that night

  7. norman

    July 29, 2015 at 4:05 pm

    When it started to rain everyone headed back to where they were camped I put on a poncho and headed to the stage I couldn’t believe it I made it all the way to the stage the grateful dead had finished playing and the stage was empty so I climbed up on the speaker staging with three other people and stayed there until the allman brothers played that night man what a show.sitting above them watching ducky think about toBetts playing that red guitar all night was great as far as I could see was a ocean of people then the band and Bob wier and garcia came out and they jammed all night and. I saw it all from15 feet above the stage truly the best night of my life pretty hard to beat that night

  8. JEFF

    July 30, 2015 at 5:03 pm

    I WAS THERE , STILL GOT TK , I REMEMBER THE SUN BURN – EVERYONE WAS BUYING TRIPS ON THE HALF MILE MARKET INTO THE GATE , I FOUND A CHUNK OF GOOEY OPIUM AND FLOATED THREW THE WEEKEND – ONE FOR OUR AGES ….

  9. D Horowitz

    August 1, 2015 at 3:26 pm

    Went with Peter, Nancy & Alan. Stuck on 2 lane road approaching the racetrack for many miles, just pushing the car along a few feet at a time – 4 lanes all going west. Had to park many miles away and walk. Locals in curlers and robes taking pictures of the long line of “refugees’ with shopping carts full of stuff walking to the racetrack at dawn. Alan lost his t-shirt and got terribly burned. Left after the t-storm and got a ride all the way back to our car. Worth it? Sure was!

  10. josephcollavini

    December 16, 2015 at 8:16 am

    I LIVE IN WILMINGTON,DELAWARE IT 8 HRS TO GET THERE WATKINS GLEN , GOT ALL THE WAY UP FRONT WITH NO CAMARA BIG BUMMER ” AUWSOME CONCERT BUT IT TOOK 3 DAYS TO GET BACK TO DELAWARE : ))))) I WOUL DO IT AGAIN TOMMORROW …. GOD BLESS THE GREATFUL DEAD , THE BAND AND ALLMAN BROS BAND …. AMEN PS ANYONE WITH PIC PLEASE SEND THEM TO JOSEPH COLLAVINI 450 @ YAHOO.COM. OR FRIEND ME ON FACEBOOK JOSEPH COLLAVINI TKYU …..

  11. Randy Houser

    November 29, 2016 at 4:28 pm

    Please go to my Facebook page to see my photos from the summer jam. It’s called. “Watkin’s Glen Summer Jam 1973: photos by R Houser unless otherwise noted. Crowd and band shots see if you are in any!

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