bonnaroo Rock Flashback: 1974s California Jam Ushered In The Modern Festival Era

Modern festivals such as Bonnaroo trace their lineage more clearly to California Jam than to Woodstock (Getty Images/Jeff Gentner/Stringer)

If you had picked up a newspaper on the morning of Monday, April 8, 1974, you would have read about the latest developments in the ever-growing web of scandals around President Richard Nixon, which would lead to his resignation in August. And on the sports page, Hank Aaron’s chase of the all-time home run record was the big story. (He would hit #715 that night.)

But if you opened the paper to an inside page, you would probably have seen an article about a major rock festival that had taken place in California the preceding Saturday: California Jam.

California Jam had attracted approximately 200,000 fans to the Ontario Motor Speedway. Tickets had cost $10 in advance and were $15 at the gate for a lineup featuring [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]the Eagles[/lastfm], [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Emerson Lake & Palmer[/lastfm], [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Black Sabbath[/lastfm], [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Deep Purple[/lastfm], [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Black Oak Arkansas[/lastfm], [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Rare Earth[/lastfm], [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Seals & Crofts[/lastfm], and [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Earth Wind & Fire[/lastfm].

Authorities marveled at the small number of arrests — between 15 and 25 on drug or weapons possession, public intoxication, and public nudity. A bigger problem was the monumental traffic jam along Interstate 10 before the show, and the confusion afterward, when thousands of concertgoers found that the cars they had illegally parked along the interstate had been towed.

The show was promoted by ABC Entertainment and recorded for broadcast on its late-night In Concert series. Four weekly episodes aired beginning in May 1974, and were simulcast on ABC’s FM radio network. (They were repeated on four straight nights during Thanksgiving week.) There was plenty of TV-friendly stuff included in the event: skydivers, fireworks, skywriters, hot air balloons, and a blimp that hovered over the race track throughout the event. The shows featured concertgoer interviews by DJ Don Imus and promoter Don Branker. There’s a lot of video from the shows at YouTube here, including this performance by the Eagles.

(Was that the voice of veteran sportscaster Chris Schenkel introducing the Eagles? I believe it was.)

California Jam was successful enough that it had a sequel: California Jam II was held in March 1978. Its stars included [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Aerosmith[/lastfm], [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Foreigner[/lastfm], [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Ted Nugent[/lastfm] (whose request to make his entrance by climbing down a rope from a helicopter was denied), [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Santana[/lastfm], [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Heart[/lastfm], and others. Like the original, it was taped for broadcast on ABC-TV and radio.

The California Jam shows of 1974 and 1978 represented a new paradigm for rock festivals. The improvisational days of Woodstock and Watkins Glen were over; the modern era of the hyper-organized festival had begun.

Like revisiting the past? Check out more Rock Flashbacks!


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