Monday, September 7, 2009

June 16, 1968 Bjornson Park, Crow Canyon, Castro Valley, CA: Sonny & Cher/Sly And The Family Stone/Box Tops/Loading Zone





This hitherto obscure "Picnic/Festival", advertised in the June 7, 1968 edition of The Hayward Daily Review, with accompanying commentary from the "Here 'N' There" section of the same paper, delivers some surprisingly revealing information about both the expanding rock market and attempts to capitalize in the suburbs on developments in San Francisco.

This forgotten all-day concert at Bjornson Park in Castro Valley, California on June 16, 1968, was probably poorly attended, since headliners Sonny & Cher had gone from being very popular in 1965 over to becoming decidedly uncool. On top of that, the concert was delayed (from June 9) due to the tragic shooting of Robert F Kennedy. Nonetheless, for a variety of reasons, I suspect that all of the people who did show up had a pretty good time. If any readers out there actually went, or know someone who did, please comment or email m [update: thanks to intrepid reader Lois for sending a scan of the long-lost poster!]
The long-lost poster to Castro Valley's only known rock festival, on June 16, 1968 with Sonny & Cher headlining over Sly and The Family Stone. The art is apparently by Carson-Morris Studios, probably in Oakland, per the fine print

June 1968

By June 1968 the rock concert business in San Francisco was going full blast. There were no less than four major rock venues in San Francisco: Bill Graham's Fillmore, Chet Helms's Avalon, The Carousel (run by the Grateful Dead) and The Straight Theatre on Haight Street. At the same time, major rock concerts were held at Winterland in San Francisco and at the Berkeley Community Theatre. Four venues was too much for San Francisco, as it happened, and Bill Graham was about to take over The Carousel and rename it The Fillmore West, and the Avalon and Straight were struggling. Nonetheless, the rock business was booming in The Bay Area. Highlights of other concerts on the weekend of June 14 thru 16, 1968 included

June 14, 15-Winterland: Big Brother and The Holding Company (Bill Graham)
June 16-Fillmore: Big Brother/Steve Miller/Santana Blues Band (Matrix Benefit)
June 14,15,16-Carousel: Booker T and The MGs/Its A Beautiful Day
June 14, 15,16.68-Avalon: Buddy Guy/Clear Light/Frumious Bandersnatch
June 14, 15-Straight: Charlatans

Many of these groups were just underground sensations, but suburban kids would have heard the music on KSAN-fm, the leading underground rock station. Even as-yet unrecorded bands like Santana Blues Band, Its A Beautiful Day and Frumious Bandersnatch may very well have been familiar to suburban fans because they had played local High School dances. The June 14 thru 16 weekend bills were typical of any week in San Francisco throughout the Summer--nationally famous bands,  from near and afar, as well as rising local bands, at numerous venues.

However, out in the suburbs, while many kids might be able to afford to go the Fillmore, and had access to a car, they were either not allowed to go to the big city, or not confident enough to navigate it. Besides the usual prudence that parents would have towards teenage urban adventures (getting lost, bad neighborhoods, etc), rock music was associated with a host of other dubious traits: recreational drugs, disrespect for authority, long hair, Free Love and opposition to the Vietnam War being the most prominent. Since suburban audiences couldn't come to the big city, psychedelia had to make it out to the suburbs.

Castro Valley, California

Castro Valley is an unincorporated part of Alameda County, West of San Leandro and South of Hayward. Up until the 1950s, Castro Valley was a fairly rural community, known for its chicken ranches. More recently, its proximity to numerous freeways and commerce has made it a bedroom community and vastly expanded its population (57, 262 as of the 2000 census). In 1968, however, Castro Valley would have been very accessible to suburban kids, but a relatively rural setting. More importantly, parents in suburban Hayward, San Leandro or Fremont who might be uneasy about letting their kids drive to San Francisco or Berkeley (both easily under an hour from Hayward) for a nighttime concert would most likely be quite benign about letting their kids drive off to spend an afternoon in the nearby chicken farming community.

The Venue

Bjornson Park was a privately owned park in Crow Canyon in Castro Valley. It is currently called Crow Canyon Park, located at 8000 Crow Canyon Road in Castro Valley, California. I do not know the exact history of Bjornson Park, but it is plain from the clipping that it is a commercial park, with lunch available for purchase. The park is currently a private park, apparently mainly used for commercial or corporate events. There is also a nearby Crow Canyon Country Club, so it is possible the exact scope or expanse of the park may have changed since 1968. Nonetheless it is clear that Bjornson Park was a private commercial facility in Crow Canyon.

I know of no other rock shows before or after this date, suggesting the event was not enough of a success to be repeated.

The Pitch

The most interesting part of the ad is the line that says "Psychedelic Art, Jewelry, etc For Sale." Cities like Berkeley and San Francisco had "Head Shops," were tie-dyed trinkets could be purchased, but they would have been hard to purchase outside of those towns. The all-day event was built on the Monterey Pop Festival model--a complete day of performances, at a venue used to absorbing crowds, with a chance to make money from concessions. The unstated pitch here is that kids in towns like Hayward, San Leandro, San Ramon and Fremont can't or don't go the Fillmore or Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, so it will come to them for a day.

The Monterey Pop Festival format was widely copied for about a year, but it does not seem to have been a money maker. Promoters may not have realized that all the Monterey Pop bands played for free, in the hopes of "exposure." Operating costs were covered by ABC-TV, who planned to make a TV special. It was never made, and the footage was used for the Monterey Pop movie, released in 1969. By early 1968, the first "Woodstock" model festivals had started to happen, specifically The "Piano Drop" at a farm in Duvall, Washington (April 28, 1968), which led to the first multi-day outdoor rock festival (Sky River Rock Festival and Lighter Than Air Fair, August 31-September 2, 1968, on a Raspberry Farm in Sultan, WA). The Woodstock model replaced the Monterey model, although it too was usually unprofitable, except for the original.

The all-day outdoor concert model was finally perfected with the development of "sheds" like Shoreline Amphitheater  (in Mountain View, CA) or Alpine Valley (in East Troy, WI), which provided a festival like atmosphere while maximizing access and retailing opportunities. In 1968, though, all this lay in the future.

The Bands

Sonny & Cher

Sonny & Cher were extremely popular in 1965 and 1966, with hit songs like "I Got You Babe"(peaking at #2), and even had a hit as late as 1967 with "The Beat Goes On" (#6). By 1968, however, Sonny & Cher's catchy pop music seemed decidedly unhip, as bands like The Beatles or The Doors made them seem shallow. An attempt to make movies had flopped,  and album sales for their relatively easy listening pop had plummeted, and by 1968's end they had refocused their act towards Las Vegas. While Sonny & Cher had a reputation as effective professional performers (Mac "Dr. John" Rebennack was their band leader for some years), they would not have seemed like a cool Fillmore band.

The Box Tops

The Box Tops were probably seen as an AM-radio friendly band, also too uncool for the Fillmore and Avalon. In fact, although they had had a #1 1967 hit with "The Letter", and a #2 hit in 1968 with "Cry Like A Baby," and their songs were written by their producers they were actually a very good group. Lead singer Alex Chilton, not even yet 18, had a tremendous voice (which is why, to quote The Replacements, "children by the millions sing for Alex Chilton when he comes around"), and producer Dan Penn was a great soul songwriter. So although The Box Tops may have seemed like a confectionery concoction, they were probably surprisingly good live.

The People

"The People", as advertised, were actually a San Jose band called People!, but the exclamation point was usually left off. At this time, they had a big hit with a song called "I Love You," written by Chris White of The Zombies (it was not a hit for The Zombies). People! was successful in the South Bay, and apparently had a good live act, with two lead singers and two drummers. Once again, although the audience was probably only familiar with a hit single, they were probably pretty interesting live.

The Loading Zone

Alone among the advertised bands, The Loading Zone were Fillmore regulars, and a true "underground" band. They were probably at their performing peak, with a new album on RCA and an exciting lead singer in Linda Tillery. The album, recorded some months earlier, shortly after Tillery had joined the band, was a bit stiff, but by all accounts the Loading Zone's fusion of rock and soul music, with the dynamic Tillery fronting the group, made for a very exciting band.

Brotherly Love with Jeannie Piersoll

Jeannie Piersol was a well-regarded local singer who had been in some soulful local rock bands like Yellow Brick Road and Hair. She had recorded a few singles for Cadet Concept Records. I have to confess I have never heard her recordings (their aren't many) but she was supposedly quite good.

Transatlantic Railroad

Transatlantic Railroad was a Marin band, featuring Kent Housman. What little recorded evidence (one 45) of them isn't bad, but it was typical Bay Area rock of the time.

Sly And The Family Stone

Way down in the advertisement in Sly And Family Stone. Sylvester Stewart and his family were from the nearby East Bay port city of Vallejo, but the group had formed in San Francisco. After debuting in Redwood City in December 1966, the group had played throughout the East Bay in 1967. The band had released its first album, A Whole New Thing (on Epic) in October 1967. The band's first and biggest single, "Dance To The Music," had been released in December 1967, but did not peak until March of 1968 (it peaked at #8).

Listeners would probably have been familiar with Sly's hit single, as he was always popular on AM radio. Yet in person, suburban East Bay teenagers, like everyone else in America, could hardly have expected the potent synthesis of funk, rock, psychedelia and social conscience that was Sly And Family Stone. As Joel Selvin aptly puts it, in black music there is "Before Sly" and "After Sly." Of course, by the end of the 1960s, the whole country was hip to Sly And The Family Stone, and their star only rose afterward. For most of those in attendance at this event--however many or few--seeing Sly must have been like an electric jolt, and they are still telling their friends to this day that they saw Sly when.

Conclusions

My only evidence for this concert is the advertisement and note in the graphics at the top of this post (ads in The Hayward Daily Review the week before and after have no additional information). I have tried to speculate on what this concert represented, and might have been like, based on what I knew about the time.  With that in mind, here are my assessments:

  • With the rock market booming in San Francisco, this was an effort to present a hip "Monterey Pop" type event in the suburbs, with "psychedelic jewelry" for sale as a mark of hipness
  • The projected audience was teenagers who listened to the radio, mainly AM radio, who would have not only lived in the suburbs but may not have been able to or allowed to go to venues like The Fillmore
  • The concert was rescheduled from June 9, and the biggest "name" act (Sonny & Cher) was well past its prime, so the event was probably not well attended nor much of a success
  • Although most of the bands are forgotten by all but rock historians, there were actually some bands that were probably pretty good live
  • Sly And The Family Stone, one of the great bands in San Francisco music history, would have been memorable enough to make the show unforgettable for anyone who went

Anyone with additional information, or even amusing speculation, is encouraged to comment or email me.

1 comment:

  1. An intrepid reader has very kindly sent me a scan of the poster for this long-lost event, and I have included it above. The artist (per the fine print) is (are?) "Carson-Miller Studios" and "oak" which I take to mean Oakland.

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