Friday August 15, 1969, Bethel, New York. Artie Kornfeld checks his watch, ten minutes to five o’clock. A crowd of three hundred thousand kids has congregated in a rented dairy pasture for three days of music. They mill about, waiting for something to happen, waiting to get it started.
Artie turns to his friend, who also happens to be the latest act that he is producing. You gotta get out there, man.
No way, Artie, the kid says in his thick Long Island accent. I ain’t going out there.
Why not, man?
There’s, like, three hundred thousand people out there, man. That’s too heavy.
No man, it’s going to be beautiful.
The two go back and forth, the crowd growing more and more restless. Finally Richie Havens steps in. I’ll go, he says. At 5:07 Havens hits the stage and remains there for three hours, filling time while other performers make their way to the traffic-jammed site. The performance makes Richie Havens a star. He is the man who opened Woodstock. Bert Sommer is the guy who went on third.
Announcer Chip Monck gave the newcomer a subdued introduction, asking the crowd to “please welcome Mr. Bert Sommer and some of his friends.” Monck mispronounced Bert’s last name with a long O like “comber” rather than “summer.”
Sommer’s friends were musicians he recruited via an advertisement in the Village Voice. Imagine that for a second — you respond to a classified and end up playing at the most famous music festival ever staged.
Bert sat crossed-legged on a rug in the center of the stage, opened his set with a haunting reading of “Jennifer,” a song he wrote about his Hair co-star Jennifer Warnes. Woodstock may have been his debut as a performing musician, but Sommer already experienced some stage success as Hair’s original Woof on Broadway. He was even featured on the cover of the original playbill.
In all Sommer played ten songs that day in Bethel, New York, and when it was all over he was greeted by an enthusiastic ovation. Some say that he received the only standing ovation at Woodstock, an assertion that the singer brushed away jokingly by saying that the crowd was only standing on their way to the bathroom. Even Chip Monck seemed energized by the performance. “The rather magnificent Mr. Bert Sommer!” he shouted over the applause.
Sommer spent the next three days watching the show from the sound towers and backstage enjoying the many pleasures available to rock stars in 1969. During this time he also wrote his only hit, “We’re All Playing In the Same Band,” about the festival. It appeared on his second album, Inside Bert Sommer.
So why haven’t you heard of Bert Sommer? Did he blow his chance by letting Richie Havens open the festival when Sweetwater got stuck in traffic? Bad management? Something else?
Billing was the least of Sommer’s problems. The twenty year-old was signed to producer Artie Kornfeld’s Buddah record label, distributed by Capitol Records. This was likely a great benefit to the young artist, as Kornfeld was a co-producer of Woodstock. In that sense Bert greatly benefited from his relationship with Artie — Woodstock should have been great promotion for his debut album, The Road To Travel.
But Warner Brothers rather than Capitol Records owned the rights to Woodstock. Coincidentally, it was the Warner artists who received top billing in both the 1970 documentary and the original twenty song soundtrack. If the following clip had appeared in the original Woodstock film perhaps Sommer’s debut album would’ve performed better. (Note: That’s Artie Kornfeld in the brown vest at the beginning of this clip.)
Another consideration is that The Road To Travel overall wasn’t a particularly great album. Buddah Records was something of a bubblegum pop label, and one can almost hear Sommer’s earnest songs being rearranged to fit the company’s vision. Compare “Things Are Going My Way” to the previous clip of “Jennifer,” which is pretty true to the studio version:
Regardless of whether it was the decision of the label, Kornfeld, or Sommer, the album is too inconsistent in tone. One can only wonder how the album might have done if all of the album’s songs were played with the same sparse, folky arrangements as the Woodstock set.
He managed to squeak out two more albums, the aforementioned Inside Bert Sommer and the eponymous Bert Sommer, before the phone stopped ringing. The singer moved back to Upstate New York for a couple of years before relocating to Los Angeles for a role in the first season of Sid and Marty Krofft’s Saturday morning variety show, Kaptain Kool and the Kongs. From there it was back to New York, where he recorded his fourth and last album with Barry Manilow producer Ron Dante and future David Letterman band members Paul Schaffer and Will Lee. The album went nowhere, and Sommer rode out the rest of his career playing in local bands in New York.
Bert Sommer died of a respiratory ailment in 1990 at age forty-one. Some comments on message boards — along with Sommer’s own accounts of hard partying — suggest that perhaps his death was heroin-related, but that is pure conjecture. All I know for certain is that three available cuts from Bert’s Woodstock performance are absolutely brilliant, and in fact are the motivation for this series. Here’s Sommers’s Woodstock set list and where to find official versions of his performance:
- Jennifer (Woodstock 40 Years On: Back To Yasgur’s Farm)
- The Road To Travel
- I Wondered Where You’d Be
- She’s Gone
- Things Are Going My Way
- And When It’s Over (Woodstock 40 Years On: Back To Yasgur’s Farm)
- America (available at www.bertsommer.com, but note that this recording is from a hand held tape player located on the stage. You can hear Sommer’s great studio version of Paul Simon’s classic on YouTube labelled as if it were the Woodstock performance, but it isn’t.)
- A Note That Read
- Smile (Woodstock 40 Years On: Back To Yasgur’s Farm)
Your official Woodstock soundtrack song count to date: 10