Summer Jam of July 1973: Watkins Glen, NY, Hosted a HUGE Concert of 600,000 50 Years Ago

Summer Jam of July 1973: Watkins Glen, NY, Hosted a HUGE Concert of 600,000 50 Years Ago

This video is about SUMMER JAM, one of the greatest rock concerts of all time — an epic jam session — and it happened about 50 years ago near Seneca Lake, as you know, that’s my favorite of the Finger Lakes in upstate New York.

On July 28, 1973, more than 600,000 people flocked to the Watkins Glen Grand Prix Raceway to attend that historic event featuring three of rock and roll’s most famous groups of the time: The Grateful Dead, The Allman Brothers Band, and The Band.

The concert’s origins date back to the previous year, in 1972, when the Watkins Glen Raceway hosted the Summer Jam Festival, a three-day event that featured a diverse musical lineup. That festival was a success, attracting tens of thousands of fans and generating positive media coverage. Inspired by this success, the organizers decided to plan an even bigger and more ambitious event the following year.

Hi, I’m Pam Pariso, and I do these videos to share my passion for Seneca Lake, the area I serve. I help people buy and sell real estate around the Seneca Lake area. And would you do me a favor, please like and subscribe to my videos about Seneca Lake history. 

So let’s talk about this HUGE GATHERING that took place near Watkins Glen, at the famous racetrack about 50 years ago. 

Summer Jam was an epic gathering that marked a high point in the evolution of rock music and the counterculture movement of the 1970s. It was a time when young people questioned authority, challenged social norms and sought new forms of expression and connection. It was the era of hippies, rebellion to authority, And back then, more than now, live music was the bond that drew people from all over to attend. Summer Jam reflected this cultural shift and brought together a diverse and passionate crowd of music fans from across the country.

A network of organizers, promoters and volunteers planned and promoted Summer Jam, which succeeded, since more than half a million people showed up. 

The main promoters were Shelly Finkel, 29, and Jim Koplik, 23. 

They lined up the Grateful Dead, The Allman Brothers Band, and The Band, and they knew that these bands would draw a huge audience. These three bands were all at the height of their popularity and creativity. Their vinyl records sold like crazy, and their music resonated deeply with young, idealistic audiences. The Grateful Dead was probably the most popular, known for their awesome and spontaneous live performances. They had their own groupies, a devoted following known as the “Deadheads”, and many of them traveled long distances to attend Summer Jam.

The Allman Brothers Band was also hugely popular, thanks to their soulful mix of blues, rock and jazz. They were unique in that they had two lead guitarists and two drummers, and they basically created what we now call “southern rock.” They’d just released their landmark album “Brothers and Sisters”, which included the hit single “Ramblin’ Man”. 

The Band was a Canadian-American rock band, another hugely popular and influential rock-and-roll group in the late 60s and early 70s that was almost as famous, back then, as the music of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

The original plan was to sell 150,000 tickets at $10 a ticket. About 32,000 of those tickets were sold in New York City. They actually planned for a crowd of 75,000 thinking it wouldn’t sell out, then later they upgraded their estimates to expect about 100,000 people to show up. Organizers had many logistical challenges, getting permits, hiring staff, preparing the grounds, food, bathrooms, traffic flow, coordinating with local authorities and emergency services. And they actually did all that, thinking that maybe 100,000 or so would show up, but obviously that got blown out of the water it to the point where an extra half a million people showed up, flooding the racetrack grounds, stopping traffic, ditching cars to hitchhike in. it was a mob scene for miles around this hot spot. Most of them were in their late teens and 20s.

Here’s a newspaper clipping from the Elmira Star Gazette the day before the concert with the headline: Festival Goers Slow Rt. 17 Traffic. Now Route 17, which is now I-86, is just the main highway that got people to the Watkins Glen exit near Horseheads, NY, about 25 miles away. 

It talks about how the State Police were getting concerned that traffic was bottlenecked, bumper-to-bumper. It says if traffic became unmanageable, state police would put up road blocks that would only allow local residents or legit concert ticket holders to pass. 

But that got blown out of the water as the people kept coming!

So just picture this, about 600,000 people converging on the small village of Watkins Glen. At the time, it only had about six traffic lights! It’s not that big. The sheer size of the crowd presented many challenges, including traffic jams, overcrowding and supply shortages.

People started to ditch their cars when the traffic wouldn’t move on Route 17 and walk or hitchhike to the racetrack, more than 20 miles away.

Here’s a news article showing the hitchhikers with a headline: CONCERT COPS GIVE UP ON MOVING CAMPERS. 

It says: Police officials here have given up attempts to move campers from an area next to the state for Saturday’s Summer Jam rock festival, saying it would be more trouble than it was worth to move them by force. (Read some of that article in the third column)

And as the people kept pouring in, and pouring in, the law enforcement was so overwhelmed they just gave up, because the sheer numbers of people made it impossible to stop the flow.

The concert basically took place in one day, and it rained most of that afternoon too. But the concert went on, and it was a triumph of music and community that literally made history. In fact, it went down in the Guinness Book of World Records 
Yes, Summer Jam at Watkins Glen held the Guinness Book of World Records for a long time as “largest audience at a pop festival,” with an estimated 600,000 fans in attendance at the Watkins Glen Grand Prix Raceway. Approximately 150,000 tickets were purchased in advance, the rest being admitted in what became a “free concert”.

Summer Jam wasn’t just a concert; it was a cultural phenomenon that reflected the spirit of the times. Young people were rebellious hippies, scoffing at tradition, and Summer Jam was a reflection of this cultural shift and marked a turning point in the history of rock music.

Here’s another headline: Marijuana Hawked at Rock Festival Site. The article talks about how it was sold like popcorn is sold at most events. Apparently there was also LSD, mescaline, alcohol too. 
One of the most memorable aspects of Summer Jam was the sense of camaraderie and unity that permeated the event. The crowd was diverse and inclusive, with people from all walks of life coming together to celebrate the music and the moment. Many attendees camped out at the racetrack for several days, creating impromptu communities and sharing resources and experiences. The sense of community and belonging that emerged from Summer Jam is a testament to the power of music to bring people together and inspire positive change.

With all that mass of humanity, there were some weird things that happened. Four people died in car accidents trying to get to the concert. One guy stabbed himself. And a 35-year old sky diver jumped out of a plane with a parachute and lit a flare, which caught his jumpsuit on fire. Apparently he used a “military explosive, containing four ounces of TNT, as an attention-gaining device.” His body was found in the woods a half-mile from the concert grounds. 
Nudity was rampant. Long haired scalpers were price gouging by selling six-packs of beer for as much as $3, cans of lukewarm soda for 35 cents and watermelons for $2.”

Police tended to look the other way at small offenses during the concert. Some farmers reported that their fences were trampled and their fields were used as restrooms and campsites. One farmer complained that his pig had been stolen. And the trash they left behind was beyond belief. 

In the aftermath of Summer Jam, the concert received extensive media coverage and became a cultural landmark for a generation. It was widely considered the biggest rock concert ever, and set a new standard for the size and scope of music festivals. More importantly, he symbolized the ideals and aspirations of a generation that sought a better world through music, art and social activism.
Summer Jam was a record-breaker! And this year, to honor the event, there will be a tribute concert: Summer Jam ’23, held on Saturday, July 29th, at Lincoln Hill Farms in Canandaigua, NY. This show will feature performances from beloved tribute bands for all three original bands, including Friends of the Brothers and Terrapin Flyer. Tickets are only $35 if you buy them in advance and $45 the day of the show. For more information, visit the Lincoln Hill Farms website below!

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