The Summer Jam at Watkins Glen was a 1973 rock festival which once received the Guinness Book of World Records entry for “Largest audience at a pop festival.” An estimated 600,000 rock fans came to the Watkins Glen Grand Prix Raceway outside Watkins Glen, New York, on July 28, 1973, to see the Allman Brothers Band, Grateful Dead and The Band perform.
The concert was produced by Shelly Finkel and Jim Koplik, two promoters who had organized a successful Grateful Dead concert at Dillon Stadium, Hartford, Connecticut, in 1972. At the Dillon Stadium concert, the Grateful Dead were joined on-stage by Dickey Betts, Berry Oakley, and Jai Johanny Johanson, members of The Allman Brothers Band. This impromptu jam planted the seeds that would eventually spawn the “Summer Jam” concert in Watkins Glen, NY.
Bill Graham’s FM Productions provided lights, staging and a 50,000-watt sound system. The sound system introduced a new concept: Digital delay lines to compensate for the speed of sound in air. New Jersey electronics company Eventide brought three digital delay units each capable of 200 milliseconds of delay. Four speaker towers were placed 200 feet (60 m) from the stage, their signal delayed 175 ms to compensate for the speed of sound between the main stage speakers and the delay towers. Six more speaker towers were placed 400 feet from the stage, requiring 350 ms of delay, and a further six towers were placed 600 feet away from the stage, fed with 525 ms of delay, the audio signal coming through all three modules. The most distant audience areas were unable to see the stage because of terrain, but they could hear the concert. Each Eventide DDL 1745 module contained many 1000-bit shift register integrated chips, and cost the same as a new car. The concept meant that the people in the front were not blasted with too much sound in an attempt to reach the back, and the people in the back enjoyed high fidelity sound. The system worked very well.
Similar to the 1969 Woodstock Festival, an enormous traffic jam created chaos for those who attempted to make it to the concert site. Long and narrow country roads forced fans to abandon their vehicles and walk 5–8 miles on that hot summer day. 150,000 tickets were sold for $10 each, but for all the other people it was a free concert.
Although the concert was scheduled to start on July 28, thousands of music fans were already at the concert site on the 27th. Robbie Robertson of the Band requested to do a soundcheck, but was perplexed that so many people were sitting in front of the stage. Bill Graham allowed the soundcheck with the crowd of people in front, and The Band ran through a few numbers to the delight of the audience. The Allman Brothers Band did their soundcheck next, playing “One Way Out” and “Ramblin’ Man”. Grateful Dead’s soundcheck turned into a legendary two-set marathon, featuring their familiar tunes such as “Sugaree”, “Tennessee Jed” and “Wharf Rat”. They also performed a unique jam that was eventually included on their retrospective CD box set So Many Roads (1965-1995).
On July 28, the day of the concert, 600,000 music fans had arrived in Watkins Glen. Grateful Dead performed first, playing two long sets. They opened with “Bertha” and played many hits such as “Box Of Rain”, “Jack Straw”, “Playing in the Band”, “China Cat Sunflower” and “Eyes of the World”.
The Band followed the Dead with one two-hour set. However, their set was cut in half by a drenching thunderstorm, in a scene again reminiscent of Woodstock, people were covered with mud. During the storm, keyboardist Garth Hudson performed his signature organ improvisation “The Genetic Method”; when the rain finally let up, the full Band joined Hudson on stage, and segued into their signature song “Chest Fever”.
Finally, the Allman Brothers Band performed for three hours. Their performance included songs from their soon-to-be-released album Brothers and Sisters, along with their standards “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed”, “Statesboro Blues”, “Les Brers in A Minor” and “Whipping Post”.
Following the Allmans’ second set, there was an hour encore jam featuring musicians from all three bands. The jam featured spirited renditions of “Not Fade Away”, “Mountain Jam”, and “Johnny B. Goode”.
Although there were no reports of violence at Watkins Glen, the day was marred by the death of Willard Smith, 35, a skydiver from Syracuse, New York. Smith dived from an airplane carrying flares. One of the flares ignited his body suit, and he was engulfed in flames. Smith’s body was eventually found in the woods near the concert site. There is also the unsolved disappearance of two high school teenagers (Mitchel Weiser and Bonnie Bickwit) from Brooklyn who were hitchhiking to the concert.
Many historians claimed that the Watkins Glen event was the largest gathering of people in the history of the United States. In essence, that meant that on July 28, one out of every 350 people living in America at the time was listening to the sounds of rock at the New York state racetrack. Considering that most of those who attended the event hailed from the Northeast, and that the average age of those present was approximately seventeen to twenty-four, close to one out of every three young people from Boston to New York was at the festival.
Summer Jam was the last concert event to be held at Watkins Glen International until 2011, when the rock band Phish organized and performed at a three day festival, called Super Ball IX, at the complex.
In 2013, a maintenance crew from Watkins Glen International found abandoned cars from the event in the woods on track property. (Wikipedia)