California Jam, 1974: Coachella-Like Festival Marked The End Of An Era

Music | April 6, 2020

Earth, Wind and Fire on stage at California Jam in 1974. Photo by Walt Disney Television via Getty Images Photo Archives/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images

The era that began with Monterey Pop, Woodstock and Isle of Wight came to an end with California Jam in 1974, the last of the classic giant music festivals. Today, Coachella headlines the major California music festivals that draw tens of thousands from all over the country. But the 1974 California Jam set the standard for music festivals and makes Coachella today look tiny by comparison. While California Jam was not the first music festival to draw hundreds of thousands of people like Woodstock, it was the first concert to do so efficiently, safely and most importantly for the music festivals of today, profitably. Without the raging success of California Jam, music festivals might look far more different. 

A Scene For The Ages

A lineup that drew over 200,000 (bravewords)

According to David Shaw of the Los Angeles Times, “Even from a vantage point 40 feet above the stage, the sea of humanity stretched as far as the eye could see. With temperatures hovering near 85, bikinis, shorts, and bare chests were plentiful, and the scene at times looked more like a Sunday afternoon at the beach than a rock festival.”

The excitement was so palpable, bands stayed at a Holiday Inn that organizers draped with a sign reading, “Welcome Western States Police Officers Assn” to discourage fans from loitering. They also flew the bands in by helicopter.

Learning From Woodstock’s Mistakes

California Jam: more rock, less damage (youtube)

Unlike Woodstock, California Jam did not see looting, dysentery, and overall chaos. Employing a team of 700 security guards, the organizers kept the order and stopped the majority of people from getting into the show for free. Nearly all of the 200,000 people who flocked to Ontario, California plopped down $10 to see an incredibly star-studded line perform with clinical efficiency. 

Masterfully Organized

The event went off very smoothly for 1974 (dailybulletin)

ABC Entertainment gave the attendees Earth, Wind and Fire, The Eagles, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Seals & Crofts, Jackson Browne, and Black Oak Arkansas. The highlights of the show were then aired on ABC over four nights. The organizers set up two stages and used them in quick succession. So while The Eagles jammed on one stage, the other was being prepped for the next act. That meant no downtime between one incredible act to the next. The setup went so smoothly the opening act went on 15 minutes early.

More than double Coachella's draw for a weekend (rockshowvideos)

The only element organizers couldn’t account for was parking. The expansive 42,000 car parking lot filled up in minutes, backing up traffic on Interstates 10 and 60 for 13 miles, in both directions. People ended up parking their cars along the I-10 freeway 3 and 4 cars deep, making the rest of the journey on foot. Unfortunately, for them, many cars were ticketed or towed but that’s a small price to pay for seeing such a historic concert.

Hell Of A Finish

A time before cellphones (twitter)

To close out the day, Keith Emerson and his piano began levitating and spinning as he continued belting out his song. The magic act blew at least one man’s mind as he wrote, “I had to turn to my friend to ask to make sure he was seeing the same thing. Considering the day’s acid consumption, it was entirely possible that I was just seeing things,” Griffin wrote. “Once the piano started doing somersaults with him riding it like a carnival ride my mind was blown. Now I’ve seen it all. ELP truly took the honor from the battlefield that day.”

In a turn that could never happen today for liability reasons, the crowd was allowed to stay and party all night because the traffic was so bad. One woman told a story of her husband’s California Jam trip, “The crowd was so large, he got up, went to the restroom, came back and never could find his friends. This was before cell phones. So you’d just find a new spot and make new friends.” Those were the days. 

Tags: Black Sabbath | California Jam | Deep Purple | Earth Wind and Fire | Emerson Lake and Palmer | Seals And Crofts | The Eagles

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Kellar Ellsworth


Kellar Ellsworth was born and raised in Hawaii. He is an avid traveler, surfer and lover of NBA basketball. He wishes he could have grown up in the free love era!