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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

The Monterey Pop Festival became a coming out party for Jimi Hendrix

When American music festivals are bandied about, Woodstock scores most of the attention.

However, the Monterey Pop Festival laid down the template 55 years ago.

“Monterey was the nexus,” Rolling Stone editor and publisher Jann Wenner wrote. “It sprang from what the Beatles began, and from it sprang what followed.”

Rock was a burgeoning entity by the time a half-million fans got to Woodstock in 1969. However, there were still questions about rock music being a valid art form two years earlier even though the Beatles had changed the world by June of 1967. The Fabs just blew minds around the globe with the release of the groundbreaking “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album, but there were still skeptics. Some music critics lambasted Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin’s debut albums.

Rock music was new and curious. However, credibility was on the horizon.

The Monterey Pop Festival, which was organized by John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas, record producer Lou Adler, event producer Alan Pariser and publicist Derek Taylor, was a game changer.

The artists who performed at the event held at the Monterey County Fairgrounds played for free, save for Ravi Shankar, who earned $3,000.

The eclectic lineup is staggering. Jimi Hendrix, The Who, the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, Jefferson Airplane, Eric Burdon and the Animals, the Mamas and the Papas and Buffalo Springfield are just some of the future legends, who performed in front of the fortunate thousands who witnessed history.

Monterey was the coming out party for Hendrix. It was a tall order for Hendrix to follow up an incendiary set by The Who and an intense performance by the Grateful Dead. But Hendrix turned it up to 11 in terms of volume and virtuosity. What Hendrix delivered on the Monterey stage tripped out music fans and wowed critics courtesy of his showmanship, technique and the chances he took throughout his performance.

Hendrix finished his Monterey performance with an unpredictable version of “Wild Thing,” which he capped by kneeling over his guitar, pouring lighter fluid over his soon to be destroyed Stratocaster, which was set ablaze. The legendary guitar hero then smashed his instrument onto the stage seven times before throwing its remains into the audience.

Monterey was massive for Janis Joplin, who performed as a member of Big Brother and the Holding Company. Columbia Records signed Joplin based on her Monterey performance.

Otis Redding, who was backed by Booker T and the MG’s, had played primarily for Black audiences, but he crossed over and delivered one of his greatest performances. Redding, however, died tragically in a plane crash just six months later at the age of 26.

Simon & Garfunkel performed at the height of their powers.

The Who delivered a visceral set, which was punctuated by Pete Townshend destroying his guitar and Keith Moon toppling his drums. But it was the band’s vicious sonic attack that was truly memorable.

The Grateful Dead delivered a spirited set. Dead vocalist-guitarist Jerry Garcia said he was inspired by Hendrix and The Who.

Ravi Shankar played some ragas, and San Francisco’s Jefferson Airplane showcased their early hits. The Mamas and Papas closed the festival. Scott McKenzie joined the band for a song John Phillips penned, “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in your Hair),” which he sang. After their energetic set, Mama Cass bid adieu by noting, “You’re on your own now.”

Much of the event is captured by D.A. Pennebaker’s tremendous documentary, “Monterey Pop.”

The amount of transcendent talent on the Monterey stage is arguably the finest ever assembled for a festival. Lou Rawls, the Association, the Steve Miller Band, Hugh Masekala and the criminally underrated Byrds are some of the other recording artists who performed.

The Monterey Pop Festival proved that rock music, like jazz, is a legitimate art form, not a passing fad. Pennebaker’s documentary captured the essence of the event. It’s well worth revisiting a half-century after the collection of iconoclasts made history in idyllic Northern California.