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Rockin’ the Fillmore: Part One (1968)

Thursday September 22, 2022. 08:19 PM , from Sweetwater inSync
Rockin’ the Fillmore: Part One (1968)
In March 1968, impresario Bill Graham’s Fillmore East opened with a bang. The headliner was Big Brother & the Holding Company, featuring the inimitable vocal talents of Janis Joplin. Bolts of energy shot off the stage like lightning, electrifying the audience and putting the world on notice: Live music would never be the same. Though it lasted only 39 months, the Fillmore East, New York’s legendary rock palace, presented the crème de la crème of contemporary artists. Join us as we take an affectionate retrospective look at the Fillmore East, its influential role in the ’60s music revolution, and stratospheric highlights from the concert venue that forever changed the music business.

Cultural Sea Change – A Historical Perspective

In America, trends and cultural shifts frequently start on the coasts and gradually filter their way to the country’s center. Today, of course, this process can be more or less instantaneous through social media, but, six decades ago, it could take years. The Fillmore East represented an inexorable, organic evolution of the New York music scene as it responded to what was going on in Manhattan, in England, and on the US West Coast at the time. Interestingly, a government agency — the Federal Communications Commission — played an unlikely role in igniting the rock revolution of the late ’60s.

FM Rock Insurgency

Thanks to a 1966 FCC ruling, a rock insurgency was underway on New York’s FM airwaves. FM stations were relatively new compared to their AM counterparts, their earliest frequency assignments dating back to WWII. They were mostly neglected by their corporate overlords, who didn’t seem to know what to do with them other than simulcast their AM sister stations’ programming. To stimulate growth and competition in the FM bandwidth, the FCC outlawed this practice, which required unique programming and sent the station owners scrambling to accommodate the new rules. Fortuitously, this occurred at a time when the record business was exploding with new music.

Breaking New Music

RKO General Broadcasting launched their “new” WOR-FM in July ’66. Amid wrangling between management, the on-air talent, and their union (AFTRA, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists), it took several months to settle into a groove (pun intended) with the new, progressive rock format. By the fall of that year, WOR-FM shows were helmed by veteran DJs Murray the K and Scott Muni, joined by Bill “Rosco” Mercer and Johnny Michaels in the evening time slots — all spinning album-oriented rock and dedicated to breaking new music. Inexplicably, in late ’67, WOR-FM transitioned to a tight-playlist format, causing both Scott Muni and Rosco to jump ship over to rival station WNEW-FM, owned by Metromedia. Ironically, when WOR-FM abandoned progressive rock programming, WNEW-FM picked up the format and became New York’s legendary FM rock station.

Got a Revolution

The revolution in NY’s music scene didn’t happen in a vacuum. By spring 1967, Top 40 was well on its way to being a thing of the past on FM radio in all major markets. Priming the pump for the Summer of Love was the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Released at the end of May, it quickly surged to the top of the album charts. As an explosive punctuation to all this upheaval, the Monterey Pop Festival shook the world in June ’67 with electrifying performances by a who’s who roster of artists that included Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother, the Grateful Dead, the Who, Otis Redding, Ravi Shankar, and others. At Monterey, the Jimi Hendrix Experience made its US debut with Jimi finishing his set by setting his Stratocaster ablaze and smashing it to pieces. These artists, and countless others, were releasing groundbreaking albums in an unprecedented assault on the music business status quo. Against the backdrop of social upheaval, political strife, and mounting casualties in the Vietnam War, a palpable sense of excitement filled young music fans — one that’s difficult to describe for those who did not live through it.

Enter the Fillmore East – Bill Graham Takes on the Big Apple

Concert promoter Bill Graham, whose San Francisco Fillmore Auditorium bookings helped ignite the Bay Area music scene two years before, was out to conquer the Big Apple. In early 1968, he purchased the Village Theater at 105 Second Avenue. Opened as the Commodore Theater in 1926, this 2,645-seat venue functioned variously over the decades as a Yiddish vaudeville house, a movie theater, and a multipurpose auditorium. During Second Avenue’s heyday as a movie theater district, it was purchased by Loew’s Inc. and renamed Loew’s Commodore.

The Village Theater

In the early ’60s, the Commodore found a new purpose as a fashionably shabby venue used by various promoters and local organizations for a hodgepodge of folk, jazz, and rock performances, poetry readings, community meetings, and political events. By the middle of the decade, even though it was colloquially known as the Village Theater, “Loew’s Commodore” was still emblazoned above the marquee (and it would remain so for a time even after it became the Fillmore East). Comedian Lenny Bruce appeared there in 1964; British folk-rock singer Donovan made his NY debut there the following year. By ’66, things were starting to heat up with a fuller schedule headlined by a diverse range of musicians and personalities ranging from LSD guru Timothy Leary (accompanied by a psychedelic light show) to jazz saxophone greats John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman.

In 1967, the floodgates opened with a full roster of artists. Highlights from this fertile pre-Fillmore era included appearances by these memorable acts:

June — Mothers of Invention, the Doors (riding high on the success of their hit “Light My Fire”)July — The Byrds, the Who (on their first American tour)August — The Yardbirds (featuring Jimmy Page)September — Jazz bassist Charles Mingus, British power trio Cream, the Doors (again)October — Otis Redding, Procol HarumNovember — Jefferson Airplane, the Who (again)December — The Grateful Dead

Even though the talent lineup was solid, the building was less so. As proof of the property’s decrepit condition, during the Dead’s Boxing Day set, it snowed on the audience through a hole in the ceiling!

Rock Palace Renovation

Meanwhile, in San Francisco, rock impresario Bill Graham was looking for an East Coast counterpart to his Fillmore Auditorium. He found it in The Village Theater. Much larger inside than its narrow Second Avenue facade would indicate, the auditorium extended to the corner of 6th Street. Graham’s initial plan was to transform the venue into a ballroom, but tearing out almost 2,700 seats and leveling the floor proved too exorbitant and time consuming. So, he decided that Fillmore East would have reserved seating. Graham had already announced the grand opening would be on March 8, which meant that his team had less than two weeks to spruce up the dilapidated property. The renovation project was directed by soon-to-be Fillmore East manager and master of ceremonies Kip Cohen along with John Morris and Joshua White. They brought in Chip Monck as lighting director. (Monck would later be lighting designer and MC for the Woodstock festival.) The work proceeded at a fast and furious pace. As Cohen recalled, “The derelict building was actually converted into the Fillmore East in 12 unbelievable days.” On February 29, 1968, with the theater’s transformation ongoing, the first ad appeared in The Village Voice for the Fillmore East’s grand opening. “One night only,” it proclaimed. “Big Brother and the Holding Company, Tim Buckley, and Albert King. Shows at 8:00 PM and 11:15 PM. Tickets: $3, $4, and $5, available at the box office or by mail.”

The Fillmore East (1968-1971) From 

The venue received a significant face-lift that maintained the ornate vintage details of the property. Roof repairs were completed, and other areas that needed attention were addressed, including remodeling the backstage area with comfortable dressing rooms appropriate for the rock royalty who would play there. Modified loading dock and stage access accommodated the massive load-in requirements for major rock groups arriving in trucks packed with guitars, mountains of amps, drum kits, Hammond organs with Leslie cabinets, modular synth rigs, and more. From the start, Graham knew he needed state-of-the-art sound and lighting systems so artists would not have to bring in their own. For most shows, there would be three acts playing two sets a night, making it critical to streamline the operation and avert the need for bands to park 40-foot tractor trailers outside and schlep more gear in and out of the building.

The Hanley Sound System

The Fillmore East’s custom house PA system was designed by audio engineer Bill Hanley, who later created the sound system for the 1969 Woodstock festival and became known as “the father of festival sound.” The Fillmore was the first theater in New York tailored for rock music (and its attendant high sound pressure levels). The auditorium’s acoustics — whether seated in the orchestra, the mezzanine, or the precariously steep first or second balcony — were excellent, and the purpose-built 35,000-watt Hanley sound system performed flawlessly, regardless of the musical genre it was pumping out. It was so good that even the notoriously fastidious Grateful Dead — who usually traveled with some version of their “Wall of Sound” — trusted and used it.

The Joshua Light Show

Joshua White, who created a light show the previous year at the Anderson Theater, the Fillmore’s forerunner just two blocks north, was tasked with doing the same for the Fillmore East. However, the size and complexity of this bigger venue would take the nascent art form of concert lighting design to a whole new level. Constructed as a rear-projection lighting rig on two elevated platforms 20 feet behind the stage, the setup allowed White and his crew to throw shadow-free psychedelia onto a massive screen while the musical artists performed. In order to project a diverse range of visual effects, the Joshua Light Show (JLS) deployed several tons of lighting equipment, including eight 1,200-watt, aviation-grade landing-strip lights; three film projectors; three overhead projectors; two banks of multi-carousel slide projectors; dozens of color wheels; and motorized reflectors constructed of Mylar, broken mirrors, and aluminum foil. They also incorporated oil paints, watercolors, glycerin and alcohol, hair dryers, glass clock faces, crystal ashtrays, and more.

The shows consisted of four elements, the first of which was projecting pure colored light through an assortment of handcrafted or modified devices. The second element was concrete imagery, such as film footage shot by JLS members, custom-etched film loops, and segments of commercial films as well as geometric-patterned, hand-painted, and historical fine art slides. Later, after equipping the stage with CCTV (closed-circuit TV) gear, the JLS could also project enormous real-time images of the musicians performing onstage. The third element was the “wet show,” consisting of dyed water and oil combined in the clock crystals on the overhead projectors. This technique produced classic late-’60s effects, including wispy trails of interwoven color and shape-shifting, amoeba-like blobs. “Lumia,” the fourth element, involved the manipulation of refracted and reflected light using a series of mirrors, motorized broken-mirror wheels, reflective Mylar sheets, and miscellaneous other shiny objects on overhead projectors.

With specialists controlling each lighting effect, the light show instantly responded to the music. During crescendos, it would build to a visual frenzy with everything happening simultaneously. In combination with the music, the Joshua Light Show was a breathtaking audiovisual experience for the audience, as if a Jackson Pollock painting had come to life, jumped off the canvas, and wildly gyrated to the music before their very eyes. The venue often showed cartoons and movie snippets between sets to keep the audience entertained and to prevent the concession stands from being overrun. From today’s perspective, where motion graphics are precisely designed and controlled from a computer, the handcrafted art form performed live by the JLS was truly impressive. Elevating the musical magic with out-of-this-world visuals, the Joshua Light Show would remain one of Fillmore East’s most iconic and beloved features during the venue’s regrettably short life span.

Built for Rock

With the sound and lighting renovations complete, the Fillmore East was ready to begin its tenure as New York’s premier rock venue. From March 1968 to June 1971, it ruled supreme as one of the world’s most significant nonclassical concert halls. Every musical artist worth hearing played Manhattan; during that time, that meant playing the Fillmore. Other venues existed, of course, but none were purpose-built for rock. Musicians knew that, at the Fillmore, their artistry would be presented in its best light: the house would be packed, they would sound and look great, and, most importantly, their show would get press. Legendary performances happened there. So, let’s travel back in time and indulge ourselves in some of the highlights from this unique chapter in music history.

Grand Opening: Big Brother with Janis Joplin

On the afternoon of Friday, March 8, a nerve-wracked Bill Graham and his cohorts were still feverishly putting the finishing touches on the Fillmore East right up until they opened the doors for the first show. As it turned out, there was no need to worry. From Albert King’s first guitar licks as the opening act, the audience sensed that they were about to experience something extraordinary. Followed by Tim Buckley and then by Big Brother & the Holding Company, that first Fillmore East show went off without a hitch. Everything worked perfectly — the sound was excellent, and the light show was mesmerizing. Even the concession stands at the rear of the main level and balcony area did big business — thoughtfully stocked with fresh fruits and juices, bagels and cream cheese, donuts, and multiple flavors of Dannon yogurt to satiate a packed house of hippies with the munchies. Remember that this was the NY debut of the incredible Janis Joplin, and you have quite the media sensation. The following week, the press went wild with articles in all the major newspapers about the phenomenon in the East Village. The chatter on New York’s FM radio stations was incessant. It didn’t take long for Fillmore East to become the focal point of New York rock culture.

Janis Joplin Publicity Photo(1970)

The Doors

After the rushed remodel and blowout opening, Bill Graham kept the Fillmore closed for two weeks for “minor adjustments.” On March 22, it reopened with the Doors, who had played the venue nine months prior when it was still the Village Theater. And what a show it was! Four shows, actually. Artists were typically booked to play two sets, at 8PM and 11:30PM, on both Friday and Saturday nights — the classic schedule the Fillmore would (mostly) keep until early 1971. With cheap tickets and each show being a triple-bill extravaganza, the Fillmore East was the weekend destination for music lovers in the Tri-State area. That night, the Doors delivered one of the most iconic performances of their career. Photographer Yale Joel from Life Magazine was there to visually capture the event, including the hall’s baroque ornamentation. The subsequent Life feature spread elevated the band’s profile worldwide and boosted the Fillmore East’s reputation as “The Church of Rock and Roll.”

The Doors Publicity Photo(1968)

The Who and Buddy Guy

Richie Havens, who made history with his passionate performance at the Woodstock festival, headlined the following weekend. Then, on April 5 and 6, the Who took the stage with Buddy Guy as the opener. Although they had played the Village Theater twice the previous year, this was the Who’s only 1968 Fillmore East appearance (they would play the venue three times the following year). The English quartet was transitioning from their pop-oriented incarnation of the mid-’60s into a more serious, tight touring unit. Although their magnum opus Tommy was still a year from being released, Pete Townshend was already working on some of the themes. The added patina of sophistication revealed itself in their four sets that spring weekend in New York.

Due to security concerns following Martin Luther King’s assassination, the Who played one long set each night instead of four sets over two nights. That allowed them to extend their renditions of “My Generation,” “A Quick One, While He’s Away,” and “Relax” into epic performances. They treated the audience to the general mayhem surrounding a Who performance, which included guitar, amp, and drum destruction with military-grade smoke generators packed into Keith Moon’s bass drums triggered to go off during the band’s smash-up finales. But, despite the expected over-the-top theatrics, the Who delivered their music with the muscular earnestness that would make them one of the most compelling rock acts of the ’60s and ’70s.

Traffic Performing Live (1973)Heinrich Klaffs, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Bill Graham’s theme this weekend must have been contrast, as the opening acts were two rock groups, each with a massively heavy sound representing the polar opposite of Traffic’s lighter-than-air music. Second on the bill was Blue Cheer, who would return in that position the very next month. The San Francisco power trio held the dubious distinction of being the loudest band on the planet. They were so loud, in fact, that, later in the summer, the final sessions for their aptly titled second album, Outsideinside, would be recorded on the end of New York’s Pier 54 — blasting across the Hudson and no doubt audible in New Jersey — because, as the legend goes: “no studio could contain them.” Third billing went to Iron Butterfly. The sound of the San Diego group was, in a word, heavy with drums, bass, organ, and guitar coalescing into a thick sonic stew that was the antithesis of, shall we say, more nuanced bands such as Traffic. They would rocket to headline billing in their very next Fillmore East outing on the strength of their upcoming record-breaking hit album. Stay tuned for more on Iron Butterfly.

Jefferson Airplane

Back again on May 3 and 4, having played The Village Theater just six months prior, Jefferson Airplane was in fine form. In some ways, they were the quintessential ’60s American rock group — and they were incredible onstage. On a good night, the band played with an intensity and precision that left the audience breathless, Grace Slick’s clear contralto voice and Jorma Kaukonen’s lead guitar soaring above it all. And May 3 and 4 were good nights (a live album of these shows came out in 1998). Driven forward by Spencer Dryden’s crisp drumming, Jack Casady’s aggressive bass, and Paul Kantner’s slicing rhythm guitar, the Airplane transfixed the crowd with sets that leaned heavily on material from their second studio album, Surrealistic Pillow. Containing the smash hit “Somebody to Love” and FM-airplay heavy “White Rabbit,” Pillow was released over a year before this appearance and was tremendously influential in outlining the contours of the rock revolution that ignited in the spring of 1967. It also turned out to be the group’s most successful album.

Opening for the Airplane was the Crazy World of Arthur Brown. Lead singer Arthur Brown, infamous for taking the stage wearing extreme makeup and a flaming metal helmet, foreshadowed overtly theatrical acts like Alice Cooper. Though the band’s first album wasn’t released until the following month, they were a hot item due to the involvement of a production team consisting of the Who’s Pete Townshend and manager Kit Lambert.

Jefferson Airplane at the Fillmore San Francisco(1966)

The Jimi Hendrix Experience and Sly Stone

For one night only — May 10 — the Jimi Hendrix Experience blew the doors off the Fillmore East. Sly and the Family Stone was the opening act. Although Hendrix would play the venue only once more (with Band of Gypsys), these sets would help cement his reputation as the most innovative electric guitarist on the planet. Jimi created quite the media sensation with his incendiary performance at Monterey the previous June, but there were no pyrotechnics during his Fillmore East debut. The power trio was tight, focused, and intense as they rattled off smoking-hot renditions of songs from their first two albums, Are You Experienced and Axis Bold as Love. The set lists included “Purple Haze,” “Hey Joe,” “Fire,” “The Wind Cries Mary,” “Foxey Lady,” and “Spanish Castle Magic.” Strategically, the intensity was moderated by introspective versions of “Little Wing” and “Castles Made of Sand.” In August 1969, Jimi Hendrix would be the highest-paid performer to play Woodstock, but, on this Friday evening in May ’68, he was paying his dues.

Jimi Hendrix Performing Live(1967)

That evening, Sly and the Family Stone opened for Jimi on a hot streak fueled by their first charting single, “Dance to the Music,” which had rocketed to number eight on the Billboard Hot 100 the previous winter. Sly Stone and his band held tremendous crossover appeal by fusing funk, rock, and soul into an infectiously bouncy sound. That would be certified after their next single, “Everyday People,” hit #1 on both the Soul Singles chart and the Billboard Hot 100 later that year. The song was largely responsible for driving the group into the upper echelon of pop stardom, broadcasting a message of peace, love, and racial harmony.

Grateful Dead and the Jeff Beck Group

On June 14 and 15, the Grateful Dead took the stage at Fillmore East for the first time. With the old Village Theater roof having been repaired, they had one less worry — but the house sound system was another issue. Despite assurances from Bill Graham, Jerry Garcia and company, who always traveled with their extensive PA rig, were initially skeptical about using the Fillmore’s new Bill Hanley–designed setup. However, they agreed to try it for their Friday afternoon soundcheck and were so impressed that they had no qualms about using it. The Dead — who frequently played Graham’s Fillmore Auditorium (and, later, Fillmore West) in San Francisco — were essentially the de facto house band, appearing on 11 separate occasions over the Fillmore East’s three-plus years of existence. They always used the house PA. On these particular nights, perhaps because the audience was so blown away by the opening act, the Dead didn’t start their late sets until around midnight — and, in true Dead fashion, they didn’t leave the stage until just before dawn.

Grateful Dead Publicity Photo(1970)

What was that opening act? None other than the Jeff Beck Group. Fresh off the plane from England, it was their American debut. Booked by Peter Grant (Led Zeppelin’s future manager), the band took the Big Apple by storm with their sleek brand of heavy, blues-soaked rock. Fronted by Rod Stewart’s gravelly voice, the band included pianist Nicky Hopkins, bassist Ron Wood, and drummer Micky Waller. They drove the music forward as Beck hung back by his Marshall stacks, glowering as he ripped searing lead lines out of his Les Paul Goldtop — a bona fide rock star if there ever was one. Indeed, the group made quite a splash. The New York Times ran an article entitled “Jeff Beck Group Cheered in Debut,” where music and film critic Robert Shelton suggested that the band had upstaged the Grateful Dead. When the Jeff Beck Group returned to the Fillmore in October of that year, they were the headline act — as they would be again in May and July of 1969.

Summer Highlights

For the rest of 1968, Bill Graham presented a nearly weekly cavalcade of top artists and up-and-comers. The Fillmore East schedule tended to thin out in the summers of ’68 and ’69 as New Yorkers abandoned hot and sticky Manhattan for nearby breezy shores. Also, it was during the summer of ’69 that the Fillmore’s core staff became involved in staging the Woodstock festival. Summer ’68 highlights included many more, but here are a few standouts.

The Byrds (who would play the Fillmore six times, albeit with different lineups)Ravi ShankarCountry Joe and the FishMoby GrapeThe Gary Burton QuartetSteppenwolfVanilla FudgeJefferson Airplane (just a couple of months out from their last appearance)Big Brother (again)Joan Baez

The Chambers Brothers

With their single “Time Has Come Today” in a five-week run at number 11 on the Billboard Hot 100, the Chambers Brothers were on a winning streak. In September, with New Yorkers back from their vacations and a chill in the air, the group made their Fillmore East debut, doling out a warm toddy of psychedelic soul — with Blood, Sweat & Tears as the appetizer. Brothers George, Lester, Willie, and Joe honed their vocal chops at a young age in the gospel choir of their church in Mississippi. Later joined by drummer Brian Keenan, the Chambers Brothers received international exposure when they played the Newport Folk Festival as an acoustic act in 1965. After this, inspired by Bob Dylan and other folk artists who successfully “went electric,” they hit the road with a newly electrified sound. They had played New York City before, but their September 13 and 14 shows at the Fillmore East would be a baptism of fire. They nailed it; the audiences were gobsmacked, and the band received standing ovations. The opening act, Blood, Sweat & Tears (BS&T), treated the crowd to something rather unique in the rock world: a horn section. Interestingly, their Fillmore East debut would be their last booking there as a supporting act. BS&T would undergo personnel changes in the coming months, record a hit album with hit singles, and return triumphantly as the headliner four months later.

The Beach Boys and Creedence Clearwater Revival

On Friday, October 11, the Beach Boys, for one night only, took the stage following openers Creedence Clearwater Revival. An odd pairing, perhaps, but who do you put on a bill with the Beach Boys? In retrospect, Bill Graham’s logic makes sense: both bands represented a strain of Americana. This concert would be the only official Fillmore East appearance by the California surf rockers (more on this in part two), and the hip and somewhat jaded New York audience didn’t quite know what to make of them. Neither heavy nor exotic enough to satisfy many Fillmore regulars, the auditorium wasn’t packed. Still, those who attended were treated to a masterful performance by Brian Wilson and company and responded enthusiastically to the stream of psychedelic Pet Sounds–era tunes and older hits the group cranked out. For their part, Creedence performed their comparatively simple music flawlessly — a sign of good things to come for a band who would feature prominently at the Woodstock festival the following August. The weekend’s schedule was a bit of an aberration as Creedence opened for a different headliner the next night: the Turtles. It’s debatable whether that was a better matchup.

The Beach Boys Publicity Photo(1971)

Steppenwolf and — Buddy Rich?

Steppenwolf headlined on November 8 and 9. Steppenwolf was truly an international band — a Canadian-American group fronted by German vocalist-guitarist John Kay. Having played the Fillmore East in early June as the third-billed act, their bill-topping debut would be one of the biggest shows yet for the band, who had achieved stardom after their third single, “Born to Be Wild,” hit — and quickly saturated — radio airwaves in May. Their opening act was legendary jazz drummer Buddy Rich and his Big Band — talk about eclectic matchups! This billing speaks to Bill Graham’s astute, musically sophisticated acumen that saw only good in introducing rock audiences to a broader spectrum of genres. (This would not be the last time he did this.) Anyway, Steppenwolf, an impressively tight live band, garnered rave reviews for their performances while Buddy Rich, long accustomed to headlining jazz concerts, was in the unfamiliar position of being a warm-up act for a rock group.

Steppenwolf Publicity Photo(1971)

Suffice it to say that a portion of the audience hit the snack stands during Rich’s set, and some of those who remained in their seats seemed a bit fidgety. But, for the jazz-inclined and musically receptive rock fans present, Rich’s muscular polyrhythmic drumming, characterized by its blinding speed and flawless execution, underpinned a set full of driving big-band jazz that energized and primed them for the headliners. Ironically, the youthful rock audience members who embraced Rich’s exuberant, dynamic music considered it exciting and new. Indeed, it was — for them. Already in his 50s, Buddy had worked in successful big bands (and briefly led one) during the 1940s “swing” era, when big-band jazz was America’s pop music. He formed his classic big band in 1966, long after big-band jazz had fallen out of favor. Bill Graham must have reconsidered booking him as a supporting act because, when Rich returned to the Fillmore East two months later, he would be the headliner.

Iron Butterfly and Canned Heat

Iron Butterfly with Canned Heat as their opening act. Iron Butterfly had struck gold with their blockbuster second album, In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, which sold over eight million copies within a year of its release. The 17-minute title traWith no bookings the following weekend, the Fillmore reopened with a classic ’60s billing for November 22 and 23: Iron Butterfly with Canned Heat as their opening act. Iron Butterfly had struck gold with their blockbuster second album, In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, which sold over eight million copies within a year of its release. The 17-minute title track received solid FM airplay while the sub-3-minute edited version burned up AM radio and quickly became a Top 30 hit. The following year, Canned Heat’s rootsy, vintage blues sound would become known to the world via the band’s appearance at the Woodstock festival and the subsequent documentary film. But the group was riding their first wave of success on this crisp fall New York weekend. “Going up the Country,” a single from their third album (released earlier that month), was released on the day they made their Fillmore East debut. Talk about perfect timing! The rural hippie anthem eventually peaked at number 11 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart and set the scene for three days of peace, music, and mud at Woodstock.

Canned Heat “Rollin’ And Tumblin'”(1967)

Country Joe and Fleetwood Mac

On December 6 and 7, Country Joe and the Fish were back as the headliner with Fleetwood Mac as the opening act. Mind you: for those only familiar with the LA-based hit-making machine of the ’70s, this was the earlier British blues-band manifestation of drummer Mick Fleetwood’s group, whose sound was largely shaped by guitarist and co-founder Peter Green. Just as tight as their later incarnation, the band cranked out tunes from their self-titled debut album and their second album, which was released just four months before. Fleetwood Mac received a favorable response from the hardened NY crowd (many of whom held a predisposition toward electric blues), thus setting the stage for the headliners. Country Joe and the Fish were already a staple of the Bay Area scene. Their headlining Fillmore East performances in May and September had endeared them to New York fans harboring a penchant for psychedelic rock with a folk undercurrent. They would go on to Woodstock fame with leader Country Joe McDonald being conscripted for an unscheduled solo acoustic performance when Santana was delayed in taking the stage. McDonald performed again with his band the following day.

Sam & Dave and Super Session

Revered as one of the greatest live acts of the 1960s, Sam & Dave was the first black soul act to headline the Fillmore East. Achieving success with a string of hits such as “Soul Man” and “Hold On, I’m Comin’,” the “Dynamic Duo” (along with Aretha Franklin) ruled the mid-’60s R&B charts. At the same time, their considerable crossover appeal hastened the receptivity of white pop audiences to soul music. From Bruce Springsteen to Elvis Costello to the Blues Brothers, “The Sultans of Sweat” would influence generations of musicians. This rich legacy continues in the music of today’s artists. The opening act was Super Session, the live manifestation of keyboardist/arranger Al Kooper’s vinyl outing with guitarists Mike Bloomfield, a Chicago session ace who had performed with Bob Dylan, and Stephen Stills, who rose to fame with Crosby, Stills & Nash.

Underpinned with bass and drums by Harvey Brooks and Eddie Hoh, respectively, the Super Session album was released in May of ’68 and would remain on the Billboard 200 for almost nine months, topping out at number 12. With Super Session still burning up the charts, Kooper and Bloomfield teamed up for two appearances at the Fillmore East along with bassist Jerry Jemmott and drummer John Cresci. Though all were consummate professionals, the thrown-together rhythm section had some issues locking in; but Bloomfield dazzled, slicing through the funky beat with his laser-sharp execution. A highlight of Friday night’s late set was when the band welcomed an unknown guitarist from Texas, Johnny Winter, to the stage to join in on the B.B. King classic “It’s My Own Fault.” The chemistry between Winter and Bloomfield was sublime, as was their passion for the blues. It was Johnny Winter’s first time on the Fillmore East stage — but it would not be his last.

Sam & Dave Performing Live(1968)

Creedence and Deep Purple

After two successful stints as a second act, the December 20 and 21 bill featured Creedence Clearwater Revival as the headline act for the first time. Opening for them was Deep Purple and the James Cotton Band. It was the only Fillmore East appearance by Deep Purple, a progressive rock band with the requisite psychedelic elements that were de rigueur for the era. Deep Purple developed a heavier sound in the 1970s and, despite numerous personnel changes, achieved success as one of England’s most famous heavy metal bands. The founding lineup included classically trained Hammond organist Jon Lord and guitarist Ritchie Blackmore. Together they wove a rich prog-rock tapestry with influences as diverse as Rimsky-Korsakov and Vanilla Fudge.

Party Like It’s 1969

When the Chambers Brothers made their second headlining appearance at the Fillmore East on New Year’s Eve, the auditorium had a definite party atmosphere. The band closed out 1968 with a bang. Bill Graham’s New York venture had quite a successful first year. Its considerable influence on the music industry was evident from the sellout crowds it commanded and the constant media attention it garnered. 1969 would hold in store the return of many famous artists as well as exciting new arrivals — including a certain British supergroup that would set the world on fire.

Check out: Rockin’ the Fillmore: Part Two
The post Rockin’ the Fillmore: Part One (1968) appeared first on inSync.

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