How California Jam Became One of Rock’s Best Festivals
It was one of the great rock festivals of all time. With the backing of a major television network and an eye-popping lineup, the California Jam has also built up a reputation for being one of best-run in rock history, too.
Many wondered about the future of big music festivals after the tragic murder of Meredith Hunter at the hands of the Hells Angels in December 1969 at Altamont. A few more large-scale events were staged in the years immediately following Altamont – most notably the Atlanta International Pop Festival in July 1970 and at the Isle of Wight in the U.K. a month later. For the most part, however, multi-bill, extended rock concert was marching toward extinction.
Then the last of the great late-‘60s/early-‘70s rock festivals took place on April 6, 1974 in Ontario, Calif. Produced by ABC Entertainment, the California Jam set records and precedents that are still the envy of music festival promoters today. The lineup was staggering, featuring performances by Rare Earth; Deep Purple; Earth, Wind & Fire; Black Sabbath; the Eagles; Emerson, Lake & Palmer; Seals & Crofts and Black Oak Arkansas.
Overall, 250,000 paying fans made the trek to the Ontario Motor Speedway for the one-day event. What’s more, all of those in attendance were able to actually hear the music being played thanks to the installation of what was then the loudest amplification system ever created put in place around the stage. The festival was so successful that a second installment was thrown in 1978.
The backing of a major corporate entity brought a myriad of changes to the accepted outdoor festival model in the hopes of actually turning a profit. The entire show was filmed and broadcast live on television and radio across the country for those who couldn’t see it for themselves in person. Deep Purple’s set would later become the first full-length concert to be sold on VHS (and was eventually issued on CD). The amenities at the venue itself made Woodstock look like a POW camp and perhaps most shocking of all, it ran on time.
In fact, the only black mark on the California Jam through the years has been the behavior of Deep Purple, who followed Black Sabbath as the second-to-last act on the night. Guitarist Ritchie Blackmore chose to mark the otherwise celebratory mood of the occasion by throwing guitars and equipment into the crowd and attacking a camera that got in his way. A pyrotechnic effect later blew up one of his amplifiers causing the stage to catch fire, which was thankfully put out before any real harm or damage could be done. After their set was over, Deep Purple climbed aboard helicopters and high-tailed it out of Speedway leaving Emerson, Lake & Palmer to pick up the pieces.
While not as renowned as some of the bigger festivals that came before or after, the California Jam nevertheless presented a real turning point in the history of rock. It marked the beginning of the corporate influx into large-scale music events, which reached its nadir with Woodstock ’99 – and the end of free-form events which took the attitude that "if we make money great; if we don’t, we don’t."