The Summer Jam at Watkins Glen was a 1973 rock festival which once received the Guinness Book of World Records entry for "Largest audience at a pop festival." An estimated 600,000 rock fans came to the Watkins Glen Grand Prix Raceway outside of Watkins Glen, New York on July 28, 1973, to see the Allman Brothers Band, Grateful Dead and The Band perform.
The concert was produced by Shelly Finkel and Jim Koplik, two promoters who previously organized a successful Grateful Dead concert at Dillon Stadium, Hartford, Connecticut, in 1972. At the Dillon Stadium concert, the Grateful Dead were joined on-stage by Dickey Betts, Berry Oakley, and Jai Johanny Johanson, members of The Allman Brothers Band. This impromptu jam planted the seeds that would eventually spawn the "Summer Jam" concert in Watkins Glen, NY.
Similar to the 1969 Woodstock Festival, an enormous traffic jam created chaos for those who attempted to make it to the concert site. Long and narrow country roads forced fans to abandon their vehicles and walk 5–8 miles on that hot summer day. 150,000 tickets were sold for $10 each, but for all the other people it was a free concert. The crowd was so huge that a most of the audience was not able to see the stage. However the sound from the stage speakers was doubled 200 feet from the stage by four delay towers, towers with speakers wired to the stage amps but with a 0.175 second delay built in, so that by the time the sound from the stage speakers reaches the tower area through the air, the sound from the delay towers will be synchronized with the stage sound. There were six more delay towers arranged radially 200 feet further from those towers - 400 feet from the stage - and six more towers 200 feet further out. Sixteen delay towers in all, plus the main PA. They were driven by about 24,000 watts of power.
Although the concert was scheduled to start on July 28, thousands of music fans were already at the concert site on the 27th. Robbie Robertson of The Band requested to do a soundcheck, but was perplexed that so many people were sitting in front of the stage. Bill Graham allowed the soundcheck with the crowd of people in front, and The Band ran through a few numbers to the delight of the audience. The Allman Brothers Band did their soundcheck next, playing "One Way Out" and "Ramblin' Man". The Grateful Dead's legendary soundcheck turned into a two set marathon, featuring their familiar tunes such as "Sugaree", "Tennessee Jed" and "Wharf Rat". They also performed a unique jam that was eventually included on their retrospective CD box set So Many Roads (1965-1995).
On July 28, the day of the concert, 600,000 music fans had arrived in Watkins Glen. Grateful Dead performed first, playing two long sets. They opened with "Bertha" and played many hits such as "Box Of Rain", "Jack Straw", "Playing in the Band", "China Cat Sunflower" and "Eyes of the World".
The Band followed the Dead with one two-hour set. However, their set was cut in half by a drenching thunderstorm, in a scene again reminiscent of Woodstock, people were covered with mud. During the storm, keyboardist Garth Hudson performed his signature organ improvisation "The Genetic Method"; when the rain finally let up, the full Band joined Hudson on stage, and segued into their signature song "Chest Fever", in a manner similar to how the songs were presented on The Band's live album Rock of Ages.
Finally, the Allman Brothers Band performed for three hours. Their performance included songs from their soon-to-be-released album Brothers and Sisters, along with their standards "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed", "Statesboro Blues", "Les Brers in A Minor" and "Whipping Post".
Following the Allmans' second set, there was an hour encore jam featuring musicians from all three bands. The jam featured spirited renditions of "Not Fade Away", "Mountain Jam", and "Johnny B. Goode".
Although there were no reports of violence at Watkins Glen, the day was marred by the death of Willard Smith, 35, a skydiver from Syracuse, New York. Smith dived from an airplane carrying flares. One of the flares ignited his body suit, and he was engulfed in flames. Smith's body was eventually found in the woods near the concert site. There is also the unsolved disappearance of two high school teenagers from Brooklyn who were hitchhiking to the concert.
Many historians claimed that the Watkins Glen event was the largest gathering of people in the history of the United States. In essence, that meant that on July 28, one out of every 350 people living in America at the time was listening to the sounds of rock at the New York state racetrack. Considering that most of those who attended the event hailed from the Northeast, and that the average age of those present was approximately seventeen to twenty-four, close to one out of every three young people from Boston to New York was at the festival.
In 2013, a maintenance crew from Watkins Glen International found abandoned cars from the event in the woods on track property.
A pirate radio station out of Hartford, Connecticut operated for seven days from the site of the concert. Broadcasting as CFR AM and CFR FM, they pulled a camper with a fully equipped radio studio into the concert's press area five days before the gates opened and were accepted by the other media as a Canadian radio station setting up to do a remote broadcast of the concert. Broadcasting commenced almost immediately after arrival at the site and consisted of live disc jockeys (10 people were involved with the pirate station, including several prominent Hartford DJs at the time). As opening day approached, station personnel interviewed Bill Graham, Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead and various musicians as the studio/camper was set up along the access road between the heliport and the stage. Adjacent to the press area were a detachment of New York Mounted Police who appeared to be thrilled to have a station broadcasting from the site. In exchange for free food, the radio station relayed New York State Police announcements about traffic congestion every thirty minutes. Due to Watkins Glen Race track being on a hill, the station's AM and FM signals traveled several dozen miles. The station interrupted its regular programming to carry the last two days of the concert live and continued to broadcast for four days after the show ended to provide information and entertainment to the departing crowd.The Allman Brothers Band - Wipe the Windows, Check the Oil, Dollar Gas (Capricorn Records, 1976). "Come And Go Blues" was recorded on July 28.
The Band — Live at Watkins Glen (Capitol Records, 1995). A 10-song excerpt from their set. Although this album was purported to be "Live at Watkins Glen," it was revealed to be a fraud in the liner notes of the remastered Moondog Matinee CD released in 2001 by Capitol. The following quote is from the liner notes, "Chuck Berry's Going Back To Memphis, on the other hand, was completed and ready for inclusion on the album Moondog Matinee but ended up being shelved in favor of Promised Land. This version has been released before complete with overdubbed audience sounds as the opening track on the fraudulent Live at Watkins Glen CD. No one in The Band was connected with that particular release which had been originally mastered sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s, although not released until 1995. The outtake of Endless Highway included here, which was recorded sometime between Cahoots and Moondog Matinee, was similarly included on the Watkins Glen CD with overdubbed audience."
Grateful Dead — So Many Roads (1965–1995) (Arista Records, 1999). This 5-disc box set includes an 18-minute jam performed as part of the Dead's sound check the day before the concert.
Recorded by the Record Plant NY Remote Truck with Jim Reeves, Frank Hubach and David Hewitt