Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Atlanta International Pop Festival

The 1969 event that brought Janis Joplin, Led Zeppelin, CCR, Chicago and more to Georgia

Some remember it as the first opportunity to witness Led Zeppelin live in the South.

Others recall the steamy sun and hordes of, as one attendee called it, “hippies and wannabe hippies and people who were mentally hippies.”

A month before Woodstock would garner the headlines and catchphrases as the music festival that defined a generation, the Atlanta International Pop Festival at Atlanta International Raceway in Hampton established the city — and the South — as a meaningful player in the music industry.

The lineup of the event, which commandeered the raceway July 4-5 in 1969, ranged from marquee names of the era (Janis Joplin, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Blood, Sweat & Tears) to relative newcomers (Grand Funk Railroad, Spirit) to now-heady acts playing for their largest audiences yet (Led Zeppelin, Chicago Transit Authority, which later was shortened to Chicago).

Debate continues regarding crowd size, with figures ranging from 80,000 to 150,000.

Regardless, it was a lot of people for what is considered Atlanta’s inaugural music festival.

The memory of legendary Atlanta concert promoter Alex Cooley, who died in 2015, is usually invoked in discussion of the Atlanta International Pop Festival. Yes, he was a founding father, and the success of the Hampton production sparked his involvement in the Texas International Pop Festival in the fall of 1969 and the successor to the Atlanta International Pop Festival in Byron in July 1970 (more than 300,000 people attended that one).

The festival also launched Cooley’s career as a concert promoter, which would benefit the Atlanta music scene for decades.

But Cooley was one of 17 people who promoted and invested in the Atlanta International Pop Festival. The others include Chris McLoughlin, president of their Georgia corporation, Interpop Superfest Inc.; Tom Kurrus, vice president; David Cooper, secretary treasurer; Fred Lagerquist, chairman of the board; Chris Cowing; Robin Conant; Richard Bryan; and Pat Hughes.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the festival, we spoke to people involved — fans, artists and others — to share their memories.

How it started

Robin Conant, promoter: "In late February, early March in 1969, I was living in an apartment off Perimeter Highway near Sandy Springs. I was working at a boutique in Buckhead called The Rogue on Buckhead Avenue. I was teaching guitar to Chris Cowing and he had a friend who had a friend named Chris McLoughlin. Chris and I sat down with Fred (Lagerquist) and we said, 'We heard about this festival in (Monterey) California and the Miami Pop Festival — why can't we do this in Atlanta?' The thinking was, it can't happen in Atlanta, it's such a backwater place. And we said, 'Why not?' We started doing some footwork and got in touch with Pat Hughes, a small-time booking agent in Atlanta, and said maybe you could reach out and find some big talent for this. At this time, Fred solicited his family's law firm to be the attorneys, and through his contacts and his law firm, we got in touch with the raceway in Hampton. That's where the Atlanta 500 was, so we figured that was a good place.

“I had met this man, Tom Kurrus, at The Rogue and he was rich and stylish and I told him about the idea and he said, ‘I’d be interested in that.’ I think he put in $30,000 or $40,000. … I think it was Chris McLoughlin who approached Alex. He would have probably gone to (a local restaurant) where Alex was the manager. Alex brought in Rich Bryan and David Cooper (as investors). I do believe Chris wanted Alex to be involved because he was a manager and we needed someone with that experience. But by the time Alex got in, we had a law firm and (festival) site.”

Peter Conlon, president of Live Nation Atlanta, friend and former business partner of Alex Cooley: "How Alex explained it to me, he was going snorkeling and was heading down to Key West with some friends. At the time, he had a restaurant in Buckhead and he was doing bands on the weekend because he had this affinity toward music. They stopped in Miami and there was a festival going on and he thought it was amazing that you had these groups and food and he said, 'We can do this in Atlanta.' And he came back here and started putting it together. He just basically started calling people and telling them what he wanted to do. They had to have some faith in him, which was amazing."

The music

The full lineup offered on July 4 was Grand Funk Railroad, Sweetwater, Delaney & Bonnie and Friends, Booker T. and the M.G.’s, Pacific Gas & Electric, Ian and Sylvia, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Dave Brubeck Trio with Gerry Mulligan, Johnny Rivers, Canned Heat and Creedence Clearwater Revival.

The July 5 lineup was Delaney & Bonnie and Friends, Ten Wheel Drive, Pacific Gas & Electric, Al Kooper, Chicago Transit Authority, Tommy James and the Shondells, Joe Cocker, Spirit, Led Zeppelin, Blood, Sweat & Tears, the Staple Singers, Janis Joplin, Sweetwater and Johnny Winter.

Phillip Rauls, photographer who has released a commemorative 50th anniversary calendar, worked for Atlantic Records at the time of fest: "I wasn't assigned to go there, but I got a (photo) pass. I still had to pay to get into the festival. I used a Yashica TL-Electro, a $250 35 mm camera. I filmed the whole event as a photojournalistic episode. The camera was state of the art at the time, but I wasn't! It was so hot there that day. Al Jackson, the drummer for Booker T. and the M.G.'s, performed most of the set sitting in the sun and the stage had no roof over it. He performed almost the entire set with a towel over his head."

David Michaelson, music fan, musician and festival attendee: "Janis Joplin was great. She was incredible live. She sat there talking to 100,000 people like she was in a bar, just rambling on in between songs, and all of a sudden, she'd start singing and it was goose bumps. Creedence Clearwater Revival, Booker T. and the M.G.'s, one of my all-time favorites. They were just my heroes. Spirit, I wasn't that familiar with, and Led Zeppelin was the new band we all wanted to see. I heard from some friends who had seen them on the West Coast and said they were killer.

“The first band that came on that we saw was Paul Butterfield, probably three in the afternoon. In the middle of his set, there was a big commotion behind us. All these people were looking back and it was Joe Namath, which at that moment, he was possibly the most famous human being in America because the (New York) Jets had just won the Super Bowl in January of that year. He was with some blonde, just walking through the crowd.

“The Staple Singers came on and they were phenomenal. They had a big hit with ‘Respect Yourself’ at that moment. After that was Chicago Transit Authority, which was like, ‘Whoa, who’s this? Gonna go buy that record tomorrow.’ They were unbelievable. Their first album had only been out a couple of months.”

James Pankow, founding member and trombone player for Chicago Transit Authority (Chicago): "We were a lesser-known act but up and coming. The first album was still getting its legs by word-of-mouth. We had not gotten on the radio because AM didn't understand our music and it was considered underground. Radio had to catch up with us, and we really didn't have a national audience or any kind of notoriety because we couldn't get on playlists on the pop stations. But on FM radio, the album was growing in leaps and bounds and had become required listening to college stations around the country. … The pop festivals were maximum exposure in comparison to the college tours we were doing. There were tens of thousands of people at those festivals, and so many were experiencing the CTA for the first time."

Michaelson: "(After CTA) Spirit went on. By then, it was like seven in the evening. Spirit was it. They just stunned everybody. Just how great they were, visually, everything about them, everyone was mesmerized. Never, ever had I experienced that whole hippie-energy-one-brain thing. That's the only time I've experienced that my whole life. It was so real."

Mark Andes, bassist for Spirit: "I remember it was really warm. Spirit was really pretty great when we were on — and apparently we really were! We probably took the people with us wherever we were going."

Michaelson: "Zeppelin got a big response, but they only had one album out at the time. They did some cover songs. They did some Yardbirds songs. They did a version of 'Roll Over Beethoven.' Robert Plant was screaming like a banshee. They were really good. But still, after what Spirit had done, that's all I was thinking about."

Rauls: "Robert Plant played without a shirt and was barefoot and had on super-tight pants. He looked like the poster boy for Viagra. They were very gentlemanly to me. They were bringing forth an electronic type of blues that in those days didn't have a title or a theme, but they were considered a metal band."

Pankow: "One of the stage crew guys, thinking it was a funny joke, spiked the backstage water supply with LSD, and they wound up having to send a whole team of EMTs backstage. They set up cots and tents to treat people who were on an accidental acid trip. I remember Alex and his people being alarmed and upset that some idiot did that, which was inexcusably insane. Dozens of the stage crew had to be treated. Alex's people were scurrying around trying to compensate for the crew who were affected."

Conant: "I ran the backstage and the stage the (weekend of the festival) and I was dosed. At that point in my experience, I was pretty much used to it. I spent a lot of time in a trailer on a cot the first day."

Bill Mankin, music fan and festival promotion employee: "I got really badly sunburned the first day, so the second day I managed to get backstage to find shade and saw so many people coming and going up the backstage stairs and thought, 'That will be a place to be.' So I plastered myself along the back wall about 6 feet behind the bands and stayed out of everybody's way."

The concert in Piedmont Park

Two days after the Atlanta International Pop Festival, the promoters staged a free concert in Piedmont Park as a thank-you to fans. The Grateful Dead, who couldn’t play the main festival because of a schedule conflict, headlined the park lineup. Earlier in the day, Spirit, CTA and Delaney & Bonnie and Friends performed.

Conant: "I was in charge of it. There were about 700-800 people there. We went to a number of bands and said can you stick around; we'll pay your hotel. (Getting a permit for) the park, it wasn't an issue in those days. You just did it. By the time the Dead were on, it was pretty freakin' electric. Most people don't realize what they got to see. Delaney & Bonnie and Friends with Leon Russell and Dave Mason? That's a show. Years afterward, I'd be walking down the streets of Atlanta and people would say, 'Robin, I was there' — and I knew exactly what they were talking about."

Andes: "The thing I remember when thinking about that show was how fondly I look back with warm feelings. Bonnie (Bramlett) and I to this day, if we run into each other in Nashville, this will come up and we talk about the free show in the park and how it all happened. Everyone by now has their own version of how it happened (laughs). It was just this beautiful thing and it showed the positive feelings that were generated at some of these big outdoor events."

Conlon: "Alex made $10,000 (from the festival) and he and his partners felt guilty. They didn't expect to make money. So he took that money and did a free concert in the park with the Dead. (What he made then) would probably be (the equivalent of) a couple hundred grand today. But if you saw what he paid those acts (laughs). I think Janis was $7,000, Zeppelin may have been $5,000. This wouldn't cover their catering nowadays. But that's what the amounts of money were in those days. The deals were different."

Michaelson: "I read a million times that Alex said he almost felt guilty because they made money. Music is for the people and all that, which is cool. I don't know how we heard about the show, but word got around and (we were saying) oh my God, Spirit is going to play and we get to see them AGAIN? And Delaney & Bonnie and CTA? It was so cool; the three bands that I didn't really know about at the festival were going to be there. And the Grateful Dead. They were playing high energy and it was really good."

How the festival changed the perception of Atlanta as a music destination

Conlon: "Alex had to cajole people to come to the South. They didn't think they'd be accepted here. They thought culturally we weren't ready for rock 'n' roll — they thought we all listened to country music. It was so seminal for us in the Southeast. It showed the agents and managers that there's a market for that here in the South. Not only with the first pop festival, which had 100,000 people, but the second one (in 1970), which did 300,000-plus people a year later. It showed a lot of people that there was interest here."

Andes: "The whole way the music business is structured now with events, the people who are in control are really business people, money-crunching people. To have a festival with that diverse talent … it made a statement in Atlanta."

Michaelson: "For one thing, our governor was Lester Maddox. He was cartoonish, a total racist, so the whole country thought the all of Georgia and Atlanta was like Lester (Maddox was considered a segregationist). The irony of that is all the soul bands were always playing here — James Brown, Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke — but the bands from England and the West Coast were like, we don't want to go down there with all those rednecks. Then the festival came and those bands saw the crowds and went, wow, Atlanta is a lot cooler than we thought. (The change) was almost overnight. By fall, there were big shows. Almost immediately, you started getting Fleetwood Mac, Traffic, Savoy Brown, The Who. Then the California bands started coming, like Santana. Cooley was doing that."

Pankow: "It definitely went a long way to making Atlanta cool. It was like, 'The Pop Festival was there, man.' Like the Olympics were there. It was huge."


Atlanta Pop Festival Reunion

5 p.m. (pre-party in dining room at 3 p.m.) July 7. Free. Smith's Olde Bar (Music Room), 1578 Piedmont Ave. NE, Atlanta. 404-875-1522, register for tickets at smithsoldebar.com.

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