Bert Sommer at Woodstock!
It was around 7:00pm and just before sunset on day one, Friday August 15th, when the chance of a lifetime came for Bert. The rain hadn't started to mist on the crowd yet. The mood was still mellow and the timing was perfect. Woodstock's producer Artie Kornfeld couldn't even watch his young 20 year old star set up he was so nervous... this was too personal for him. He had signed & directed Bert's musical career almost from the very beginning and finally Bert was getting his first real taste of major concert exposure in front of close to a half a million people!
'Jennifer' was on "The Road to Travel" released on Capitol Records which had been out a few months and they were in the studio recording his second album on Artie's new indie record label Eleuthera Records called "Inside Bert Sommer". The choice of songs to perform at Woodstock was difficult to say the least. Artie wanted some new material that would capture the attention of the Woodstock feeling.
Bert was thinking of opening with something off the first album called 'Jennifer' ~ a song about love & emotional attachment. This was the 'fantasy song' he had written about Jennifer Warnes who was in the LA cast of "HAIR" with him and who also appeared as a regular on The Smothers Brothers hit TV show. Not that I had anything to do with his choice of songs; but I had just completed this album cover for Jennifer on London Records (Parrot Label) and used Bert's 'Jennifer' song lyrics about her on the back cover of that new release.
Bert could have done any songs he wanted and for as long as he wanted... he had put together an incredible hour long set with studio musician Ira Stone on electric guitars, Hammond organ and harmonica. Charlie Bilello is on bass in this performance that has been 'lost' for over 35 years. Despite many inaccurate printed reports and song set lists that have Bert only performing 'Jennifer' & 'America' at Woodstock ~ the actual 10 song set sequence was: Jennifer / The Road To Travel / I Wondered Where You'd Be / She's Gone / Things Are Going My Way / And When It's Over / Jeanette / America / A Note That Read / and Smile.
The Pennebaker film clip of Bert doing Jennifer from "Woodstock Diaries" isn't all that exists no matter what rumors you might have heard. I have seen some of the rejected Michael Wadleigh cut filmed versions of Bert, but it was all close-up and fixed camera footage of just his head from an unmanned camera. Seems statements that the progression into darkness during his set, and with the camera film settings for daylight lost anything remotely called a performance isn't quite true. Supposedly this was why Bert was left out of the movie, but recently we have heard directly from Michael Wadleigh that Bert's whole pristine performance actually EXISTS today in the Warner Brother's vaults; but unreleased due to record company politics. Since Bert was on a different major record label (Capitol) ...Warners did not really want to promote his and other's 'lost' performance business.
Thanks to Andy Zax the 40th anniversary Woodstock audio CD box set from Rhino Entertainment will have 3 new unreleased songs by Bert. (Jennifer, And When It's Over and Smile.) All will be live from the direct feed PA system at Woodstock. This is stuff nobody has ever heard! Zax calls Bert's Woodstock performance "the absolute highlight of the first day".
British filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker (and his crew) were there pushing to get co-producer Mike Lang to sign & approve them as the official Woodstock filmmakers; but Artie just two days before the festival began, finally signed the deal with Warner Brothers in NYC for mainstream distribution with Michael Wadleigh (and his partner Bob Maurice) through their company called Paradigm Films. Seems distribution was something that Pennebaker couldn't provide ~ but Mike Lang hired him anyway to get whatever coverage he could as a backup. Wadleigh had an entire large crew of cameramen, but couldn't get enough raw film stock from Eastman Kodak on such short notice to document every single moment. What is nice about the 'Woodstock Diaries' video version is the crowd shots, different distances & angles...
The stage & light towers being built...
Bert' sitting on the light towers - pre-show on 8/15/69
The Backstage Couch...
Bert Sommer (rear) - left is Tom Feher (The Left Banke) - right is Peter Sabatino
(The Vagrants) and Joan Padney (the ultimate hippie chick).
Ira Stone was Bert's lead guitar player at Woodstock '69: pictured here in 2007
Bert & Ira Stone backstage at Woodstock from a photo by Jim Marshall
Ira Stone, gives us the whole inside Woodstock story: "In 1969 I answered an ad in the Village Voice newspaper. They were looking for a guitar player to work with a Capitol Records recording artist. I had seen Bert around because he wrote a few tunes for the 'Vagrants'; Leslie West’s band before 'Mountain'. Leslie and I were friends, played guitar together and hung out back then. Bert met with us (my wife Maxine & I) before he had to go play 'Woof' in "HAIR". We both took our guitars out and started to tune down to open 'D' at the exact same time. That was a magic moment because not many guitar players were using an open D tuning at that time. We then played 'Jennifer' from his first album. Little did I know that our very first gig would be at the Woodstock Festival and we’d open with that song!"
"We arrived in upstate New York on Thursday and hung out until Friday when we had to get to the festival site. The caravan of cars that we were in got caught in the traffic gridlock so we had to wait in a big field for a helicopter to fly us over the hill to the stage area. Can you imagine waiting in a field with (among others) the Maharishi, Tim Hardin, & Bert ~ not too surreal. None of us realized the scope of this event until the chopper cleared the hillside. Then we were in awe! All we saw were hundreds of thousands of undulating colors. So many people. It was a sight that I will never forget!"
"We went on stage and played a full 10 song set. The eighth song into the set, we did that cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s 'America' and got the only standing ovation of the Festival. Looking into Bert’s eyes and hearing the roar of that huge audience... WOW! We finished our set and were totally blown away. All of us were unaware at that time what this concert would later become!" The spirit of a generation... The Woodstock Generation!
Bert (barefoot) with Ira & Maxine Stone waiting onstage at Woodstock ©1969 Life magazine
Ira remembers how they had sitting on the stage with them two small battery powered Sony TC-55 cassette recorders with built-in microphones that captured the magic of the experience. This less than perfect recording technique has now become the lost treasure of their whole Woodstock performance! We are placing the song 'America' here in honor of Bert's memory and what would have been the celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Woodstock Festival in 2009.
One of Ira Stone's signed Woodstock guitar sits on my wall ~ it is also signed by Artie Kornfeld
>play arrow below to hear the only live audio Sony TC-55 version of the song 'America'.
NOTE: For those fans with sharp ears you might pick up on
the spoken words at the end during that standing ovation....
"Dig it Bert ~ Um, I wanted to introduce the rest of the group,
On bass this is Charlie, he came here from Brooklyn ~
The long hair is Ira ...and Ira is operated by Max. ~ Hi Artie".
Artie Kornfeld said of Bert in his latest book 'The Pied Piper of Woodstock' "Bert's performance fit right in the string of Richie Havens singing 'Freedom' and John Sebastian singing 'Younger Generation' and of course Country Joe McDonald's protesting against the war. Bert Sommer should have been someone accepted on the same level as any of the Superstars that played at Woodstock."
book cover design by Victor Kahn from a photo by Barry Z. Levine and the sky painting by Jim Warren
Artie said "When Bert came up to perform at Woodstock, it was special because he was dear to me. I was a little nervous because I wanted him to do well. I was proud watching Bert. I got busy and went backstage and hung out to be closer to Bert and his band, which included Ira Stone (electric guitar), Charlie Bilello (bass), Ira’s wife Max, and of course my talented friend Victor Kahn. Victor designed album covers & websites for Bert when I produced him for Capitol, Eleuthera and Buddah Records. My dear friend Frank Yandolino, who also helped Bert as a friend and cover designer, also stood by my side on stage. When Bert finished his performance of Paul Simon’s “America” it was simply electrifying. Paul Simon later said that Bert’s rendition on record that I produced, was better than Simon & Garfunkel’s. I’ve been told that this performance was the only standing ovation at Woodstock. Shame on the powers that kept Bert out of the movie."
Interesting how this experience so meaningful to Bert and the festival's producers would be left out of Michael Wadleigh's film in its mainstream release. Michael Wadleigh personally has noted that Bert's performance of "America" at Woodstock was one of the highlights of the entire festival! Most have never heard or seen any of Bert's lost Woodstock performance... Bert jokingly started calling this 'The Woodstock Curse'. Being left out of the recollection of all things Woodstock became the norm. The worst was probably his name being left off the Woodstock Memorial Plaque on the original site of the festival. Bert never lost his sense of humor about himself ~ in a twenty year Woodstock interview he is quoted saying:
"I was involved in the two most famous counterculture events of the 60's... HAIR & Woodstock. That and a token will get you on the New York subway!"
Bert would also always joke about his Woodstock performance and tell the people
"Yeah, I got the standing ovation... on their way to the bathrooms!"
TRIVIA: What 15 performers who appeared at the Woodstock Festival, but were not in the final released movie!
The Band, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Paul Butterfield, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Grateful Dead, Keef Hartley, The Incredible String Band, The Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, Melanie, Sweetwater, Leslie West & Mountain, Ravi Shankar, Johnny Winter, and Bert Sommer.
WOODSTOCK'S FORGOTTEN MAN
By JIM FUSILLI - The Wall Street Journal's music critic
quoted word for word from August 6, 2009
Unless you attended Woodstock, it’s unlikely you heard Bert Sommer’s set, the best of the festival’s first day. None of his 10 songs was included in the official Woodstock albums or in the various versions of Michael Wadleigh’s documentary “Woodstock.” So forgotten was Mr. Sommer’s appearance that his name was omitted from the original plaque placed on the festival site in Bethel, N.Y., to commemorate the event of Aug. 15-17, 1969.
Mr. Sommer is the lost bard of Woodstock. There’s bitter irony in that: With his frizzy shock of dark hair, blue eyes, wide smile and dimpled chin, he seemed an embodiment of the ideal hippie youth. The producers of “Hair” thought so. When he joined the cast, they featured his image on the program. Some of Mr. Sommer’s gentle lyrics composed prior to Woodstock anticipated what many say is its enduring spirit. “And I’ve seen where I’d like to be \ It’s a place where your mind is free,” he sang in “Hold the Light.”
At the festival, his rendition of Paul Simon’s “America” earned a standing ovation. “It was the perfect song—‘We’ve all gone to look for America,’” said Mr. Sommer’s friend Victor Kahn, who witnessed the set. “Everybody was absolutely, positively sure Bert was going to make it.”
A self-taught musician raised on Long Island, N.Y., as a teen Mr. Sommer joined the Left Banke following their hit “Walk Away Renee” and wrote songs for the Vagrants, led by guitarist Leslie West. His debut solo album, “The Road to Travel,” was released by Capitol Records, where he was championed by Artie Kornfeld, a vice president at the label.
“Bert seemed to be born knowing how to write,” Mr. Kornfeld said. “His music blew me away. I liked his style and his sincerity.”
Mr. Kornfeld left Capitol after he and new partner Michael Lang decided to put on a rock festival near Woodstock, N.Y. “I told Bert about it as soon as the idea came up,” he said. “Anywhere I was going, he was going.”
Mr. Sommer placed an ad in the Village Voice to recruit a band for the Woodstock gig. Ira Stone, who played guitar and keyboards, and bassist Charlie Bilello were hired and the three musicians drove north from New York City for their first show together.
“When it came time to go to the festival, we got stuck in traffic,” Mr. Stone recalled. Waiting in a field with Tim Hardin, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and others, Mr. Sommer, then 20 years old, and his band were retrieved by helicopter and transported to the site.
“We came over the hill,” Mr. Stone said, “and it was unbelievable. From the air, it looked like a sea of colors.”
Following performances by Richie Havens and Sweetwater, the trio went on shortly before sunset. With Mr. Sommer seated cross-legged on the stage wearing a placid expression and a green headband, they opened with “Jennifer,” the first of six songs they played from his debut disc. “And When It’s Over,” a tune he’d written for the Vagrants, followed. A rousing yet tender “Jeanette” preceded “America.” They closed with “Smile,” a new composition. “Smile and the world smiles with you,” Mr. Sommer sang. “Smile, all the love is your hands. Smile, ‘cause we all need one another . . . ”
As Mr. Sommer left the stage to warm applause, the announcer acknowledged him to the crowd. “The rather magnificent Mr. Bert Sommers,” he intoned, thus misstating his name as he had when he introduced him some 40 minutes earlier.
Mr. Kahn, then a noted graphic artist to the music industry, found Mr. Sommer in the throng backstage. “He was curious if he’d done well,” he said. “You know, Bert was a little bit insecure.”
In the days that followed, Mr. Kornfeld and Mr. Lang sold their rights to the festival to their partners in Woodstock Ventures who, in turn, sold the film rights to Warner Bros.—thus cutting off Mr. Kornfeld’s influence over whether Mr. Sommer might appear in the planned documentary. When Warner Bros. released “Woodstock” in March 1970, Mr. Sommer wasn’t in it. When a Warner’s subsidiary issued the three-album set two months later, he wasn’t included. Mr. Kornfeld said he was told Mr. Sommer was left off the album because he was signed to Capitol, a competitor.
“It would have been instant stardom for him,” said Mr. Kornfeld.
“He was devastated,” said Mr. Kahn. “Here was the most famous event in the world and he’s not getting any credit for it.”
Stung, Mr. Sommer pressed on. His second album, “Inside Bert Sommer,” was released. It included his modest hit, “We’re All Playing in the Same Band,” a song he wrote at Woodstock. He and the band did five nights at the Bitter End in Greenwich Village. They opened for Poco at Carnegie Hall and for Delaney & Bonnie and the Allman Brothers Band at the Capitol Theater in Passaic, N.J.
But while other relative unknowns were enjoying the benefits of having played the festival, thanks to the film or albums—Mr. Havens, Melanie, Santana and Ten Years After, among them—Mr. Sommer faded from the national music scene, his creativity hampered in part by drugs, his kind of folk pop becoming passé. He recorded another album with Mr. Kornfeld and continued his acting career, appearing in 1976 in the children’s TV program, “The Krofft Supershow,” as a character in a fictional band Kaptain Kool and the Kongs. He cut his final album a year later.
Mr. Sommer settled in Albany, N.Y., where he played in local bands, his voice still strong, according to Mr. Kahn. Health failing, he died in June 1990, 12 days after a final performance in Troy, N.Y., about a two-and-a-half-hour drive north of Bethel. A year earlier, a special edition of Life magazine commemorating the 20th anniversary of the festival included a cropped photo of Mr. Stone and his wife Maxine. As if deemed irrelevant, Mr. Sommer was cut out of the picture.
Mr. Kahn, who still calls Mr. Sommer “his best friend,” created a tribute Web site, www.bertsommer.com. Mr. Sommer’s performance of “Jennifer” at the festival is included in D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary “Woodstock Diary 1969: Friday Saturday Sunday,” available as an import. Three tunes from Mr. Sommer’s Woodstock set appear on the six-CD, 77-song package “Woodstock—40 Years On: Back to Yasgur’s Farm” (Rhino), which will be available August. 18, 2009.
When compiling the Rhino set, Andy Zax and Brian Kehew listened to all the music recorded at Woodstock. Mr. Sommer’s set, Mr. Zax said, “bowled us over. We were both convinced we were hearing something extraordinary. This is somebody people really need to pay attention to.” Mr. Zax is determined to ensure the release of Mr. Sommer’s entire Woodstock performance and said an independent label is interested in securing distribution rights.
“Bert didn’t get the breaks,” Mr. Kahn said. “He knew he was good, but he was sure there was some kind of curse. He was a sensitive guy. I guess it ate at him, but he didn’t talk about how he got screwed. He had an enjoyable life.”
—Mr. Fusilli is the Journal’s rock and pop music critic.
Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter@wsjrock
THE ALBANY YEARS
The performance video of "Jennifer" is from Pennebaker's dvd release "Woodstock Diaries".
HOME / INTRODUCTION / WOODSTOCK / LIVE / ALBANY / MUSIC / CREDITS / CONTACT