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VOL. 127 | NO. 143 | Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Full Circle

Film screening hearkens back to Shell’s roots as 1960s gathering place

By Bill Dries

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When the 1968 film “Monterey Pop” is shown at the Levitt Shell this week, the images from the D.A. Pennebaker documentary about the 1967 rock music festival will make a sort of homecoming.

“Monterey Pop” screens Saturday at the Levitt Shell as part of the Indie Memphis Concert Film Series. It’s an appropriate venue because people who saw the film in 1968 tried to re-create its atmosphere at the Shell.

(Daily News File Photo: Lance Murphey)

The shell in Overton Park was one of countless park venues across the country where those who saw the film or heard of the event tried to recreate the atmosphere as best they could.

“Monterey Pop” will be shown at the shell “at dusk” Saturday, July 28, as part of the Indie Memphis Concert Film Series to mark the 45th anniversary of the California summer of love music festival that brought the first national exposure to Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Who and Otis Redding.

“I was a big fan of Otis Redding at the time. I’d just been turned on to Jimi Hendrix,” said Henry Nelson, who at the time was about 15 years old and growing up in West Memphis. “I’m probably ninth grade and I’m experiencing as a kid this uproar of civil rights and the hippie movement. People I knew in West Memphis were traveling to Overton Park a lot. Overton Park was this hub of peace, love, freedom. As a kid I was totally fascinated. … I kind of liked those hippies.”

The Memphis version was delayed and distorted because of the gap between the events and accounts of Monterey and later Woodstock on records and documentary films that at the time had limited runs in movie theaters only.

Nelson went to work as a disc jockey for FM 100 in 1973 and the station still had the Woodstock soundtrack in heavy rotation four years after the festival.

“We were playing all the tracks on it and by that time it was old,” Nelson said. “But still it was fresh for this market because FM 100, at that time being the progressive element that it was, was the only place to expose that soundtrack.”

Nelson had missed Monterey but he heard about the Woodstock festival in 1969 and made plans to go.

“I’m just bored in West Memphis. I was going to meet a buddy at the park and we were going to hitchhike to Woodstock,” he said. “I never got beyond Overton Park because he didn’t show up.”

There was plenty going on in the park and specifically at the shell.

1971 was the year of conflict between what began as a loose coalition of rock concert promoters who called themselves The Organizers and the Memphis Park Commission, which rented the shell for $300 a night.

By 1971, the shows were bigger and the crowds were bigger and so were the sound systems – a fence around the shell followed. The Park Commission imposed decibel limits on the sound and promoters had to pay for Memphis police patrols and put up a bond of several thousand dollars.

“They didn’t like what was going on there,” Nelson said. “I came along at a time when there was an effort to close it down. I remember the fence being put up. It didn’t matter.”

The Press Scimitar newspaper captured the backstage tension. One of the park commissioners, at the height of an animated discussion that July, was quoted by the newspaper as asking Charles Moore, the spokesman for what was by then The Organizers Inc., “Why don’t you go into another line of business?”

“I’d love to,” Moore said. “It’s not worth it anymore. I can tell by looking at your face that you don’t know where it’s at. You can count on 4,000 hippies at the next symphony concert and we’ll see what happens.”

The promoters then walked out.

The Park Commission board voted in 1973 to stop renting the shell and take down the fences around it so no one could charge admission.

The fences were to be taken down June 4, 1973 the day after a show headlined by the British band Trapeze. A group in the crowd of 5,000 destroyed the fence.

The Trapeze show was among the first in Memphis booked and promoted by Bob Kelley and what would become Mid-South Concerts Inc. The crowd at the shell that day wound up on the cover of the next Trapeze album. Kelley became the dominant regional promoter of rock shows.

The venue for those kind of outdoor shows was shifting nationally as well as in Memphis – going much bigger.

A year earlier, Buddy Miles, Black Oak Arkansas and Three Dog Night took their turns on a stage at the Liberty Bowl.

Kelley topped that in a 1974 Liberty Bowl show headlined by Eric Clapton with Lynyrd Skynyrd opening for Clapton. He followed that in 1975 with The Rolling Stones.

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