In my last post I told of how my dad was instrumental (no pun intended) to my desire to be a musician. But, there was an event in August 1972 that roared into town like a tornado. And, it swept me up and hurled me into the life I have been living ever since!
It was called “The One World Festival of Music”, and it took place at Pitt Stadium in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh. There was a lot of controversy swirling around the 2-day event, though I don’t remember if I was aware of it at the time. For one thing, it was sponsored by the NAACP. The festival represented a celebration; joining the forces of African Americans and young, socially conscious activists. Our nation was already fractured by the war in Viet Nam and the beginnings of a cultural war. And, there were many people who were more than a little nervous at the thought of tens of thousands of the “other side” gathered together in one place at the same time.
Tim Stevens (Executive Director of the NAACP chapter) had told the University and the City during the permitting process that he estimated that attendance would be around 30-40,000. But, I suppose the City and Pitt began to see a different picture when young people started pouring into the city from all over the country a full ten days before the concert! Mayor Pete Flaherty and the police commissioner tried to get an injunction to prevent the festival, but it was too late… they were denied.
Oakland (as those of you from the ‘Burgh know) is the Civic Center of Pittsburgh—home to Pitt, Carnegie-Mellon University, Carlow University and a number of others. So, it’s always been a place where you would find a lot, I mean really A LOT of young people. And, with the festival drawing a bunch more with names like Savoy Brown, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Taj Mahal and Billy Preston, the streets were crowded with young folks with their knapsacks and sleeping bags gathering at almost every corner.
An electric current seemed to be floating in the air, and I think it must have been like Mardi Gras in New Orleans. My cousin, Nick and I were walking down Forbes Avenue early on that Saturday evening before the second day. Everyone was smiling and chatting and seemed to know and love everyone else.
We saw a guy sitting on a step in front of the Original Hot Dog Shop as he strummed his guitar. Nick nodded to me and we stopped to listen. The guitarist said he was just practicing, and he told us he didn’t know any songs. So, Nick asked him if he would let me play his guitar. I usually had mine with me, but I had broken a string that day and left it at home. I had only recently committed myself to playing every day since I was discharged from the Navy 9 months earlier.
Camaraderie and Love was floating along with the electricity in the air and the guy, smiling, handed me his guitar. I sat down beside him and began to play.
In those days I had a powerful voice with a powerful delivery and I played power chords with a machine gun like style. The effect was that I usually drew some attention, and soon a crowd gathered on our street corner to listen. Then, more people came to see what was going on with the crowd.
And then, somebody produced a wineskin to pass around. It seemed like everyone wanted to make sure that I would get some wine, since I was busy entertaining. So, I probably got a lot more turns on the wineskin than would normally be considered fair. But, nobody cared as long as I kept playing!
And soon, some sort of sweet smoke was floating on the air with the Camaraderie and the Love and the electricity (but, I didn’t inhale… much). Then, the police came.
By this time the cops estimated that there were about 150-200 people on our corner, which they said was too many. And, they were probably right, too, because the sidewalk could no longer hold them all and people were starting to spill out into the street. Now, that’s pretty serious if you know Forbes Avenue, and the police were serious when they said that we had to break it up.
Well, that didn’t sit too well with the crowd, and they began to strongly hint that they could get ugly. Then one of the cops ran over to his squad car to radio in a report. Moments later he came back and announced that we could continue our mini concert if we took it across the street to a vacant gas station. Well, the consensus was that moving across the street and being allowed to continue was a pretty good solution considering some of the other solutions the police could have come up with.
The impromptu concert/party escalated at the gas station, and soon the crowd doubled in size. And, I was happily hammering away on that guy’s guitar as I belted out crowd favorites one after another. Damn, we were having a good time! At some point, somebody shouted out a question that soon was taken up by nearly everyone, “Arte, are you performing at the festival tomorrow?” I was in no mood to dampen anyone spirits, including my own. So, I shouted back, “Yeah, hell yeah! I’ll be there! And, I’ll see you there! One World, people! One World!” You know… wine talk.
Somehow the night ended, though I don’t remember that part. I do remember waking up the next morning with a hangover. As I was working on easing back into real life with a cup of coffee, Nick casually mentioned that I had promised about 350 people that I would be performing at the One World Festival of Music that day. As the realization dawned on me, remorse began to stir somewhere deep in my soul. And, I knew that I would be sorely tested—I was determined to do whatever I could to make my promise a reality!
Nick and I moved around quite a bit at that time of our lives. And, I don’t remember if I was a guest or an official roommate of George Corneliussen, who was sitting at the kitchen table with us. George was a fellow artist/musician and definitely an all-around good guy. So, he thought it might be a good time to mention that he was the stage manager at the One World Festival of Music! And, he said that he would talk to the “powers that be” and see if they might squeeze me in between the major acts as they set up the stage for the next performance!
Oh, George! I thought some sort of Divine Providence had placed him there beside me at that kitchen table! .
That left us going over a checklist of things I needed to do to pull this off. I needed to borrow a guitar. Mine still had that broken string, and I now had to spend my fortune on an $8 ticket for the concert. It’s been a long time, and my memory is not what it once was, but I think that George let me use one of his. Anyway, I got hold of a guitar with the recommended number of strings.
I did have a clean T-shirt which I thought was fortuitous until Nick explained to me that a T-shirt would not be acceptable attire for a solo concert musician. He had a very cool dashiki (a shirt with an extremely colorful print from Africa); the necessity of which he thought was self-explanatory. George had to split and get to the stage, leaving instructions for Nick and I to buy our tickets and meet him at the stage once we were in.
So, after one more cup of celebratory coffee, off we went in Nick’s Karmann-Ghia. So, with a career that at that point had only been going on for about 9 months, I was on my way to perform at the One World Festival of Music!
We’ll see how that went in my next post, “Back in the Day (Part 3) – Thank God for Festival Seating!”
And, thank you for taking the time to visit this site!