Jimi Hendrix, Miami Pop Festival, and Hear My Train A Comin'
Music vet and New Times scribe Lee Zimmerman offers his insights, opinions, and observations about the local scene. This week: South Florida's first festival and a memorable moment with Jimi Hendrix.
In May 1968, South Florida had very little to boast about when it came to placing its imprint on the national music scene. The Beatles made their bow outside New York City when they appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in a telecast from Miami Beach, and Criteria Studios had already begun its run of notable R&B hits (James Brown recorded his signature song "I Got You (I Feel Good)" there in 1965), but for the most part, our environs were a kind of musical nowhere land that few in the business ever thought about twice.
That made the first Miami Pop Festival, which took place over two days, May 18 and 19, all that more auspicious. Though many may think of it as footnote in rock's larger trajectory, it was in fact a critical lynchpin between the two festivals that would eventually overshadow it: Monterey Pop, held 11 months before, and Woodstock, which awaited 15 months later.
For the record, the Miami Pop Festival didn't take place in Miami at all. It didn't even take place in Miami-Dade County. The setting was Gulfstream Park in Hallandale, then -- and now -- a racetrack that hosts concerts sporadically, in addition to its primary calling as a horseracing venue. It also holds a connection to the aforementioned festivals. Michael Lang, a young native New Yorker who relocated to Coconut Grove in 1966 to open a head shop, attended Monterey Pop and was so inspired by the idea of a multiday, multiact musical event, that he decided to attempt to organize one himself. The result of that decision was manifest in the first Miami Pop festival and, seven months later, a much larger gathering held in the same locale. Satisfied with the results, Lang would go down in rock history as the man who help organize Woodstock, the festival that still serves as a blueprint for every festival since.
But there was also another connection, one that was at least as significant. As it turned out, Jimi Hendrix performed at all three. The man who lit his guitar on fire at Monterey and closed out the three days of Woodstock with a sunrise performance was also the biggest star at the first Miami Pop, and the artist who made that provided the promoter with his main draw. There were other heavyweights there as well -- Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, Steppenwolf, Blue Cheer, John Lee Hooker, and Arthur Brown -- but the Jimi Hendrix Experience was clearly the most formidable act on the bill and the one act that ensured its success.