A look back: When The Palm Beaches had its own “Woodstock”

March 9, 2018

The year hippies, free love, and rock and roll swept over Palm Beach County

This year, SunFest is set to rock the downtown West Palm Beach waterfront with a stellar lineup of exciting musical acts. During the four-day run, Pitbull, Billy Idol, Zedd and many others will fill downtown with their sound, extending SunFest’s 35-year tradition of being the preeminent music festival in South Florida. In 2018, fans of SunFest will enjoy top-name artists alongside the tropical waterfront of downtown West Palm Beach. The festival’s multiple stages, set against the shimmering Lake Worth Lagoon, makes for an unforgettable concert experience.  

But years before SunFest ever found its way to Flagler Drive, a huge music festival took place far west of downtown nearly 50 years ago. A festival so big that many legendary names of rock and roll descended on West Palm Beach… as well as 40 thousand enthusiastic music lovers.

It was called the “First Annual Palm Beach International Music and Arts Festival,” and it took place November 1969, just three months after Woodstock. More than 40,000 people descended on the Palm Beach International Raceway (about 25 miles north and west from SunFest’s current location) for three days of music, love and whatever else might transpire.

The lineup of acts was truly impressive -- a long list of iconic names from a golden era of music. Fans saw Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, Sly and The Family Stone, The Byrds, and many other rock acts of the late 1960s. The closing act was the biggest: The Rolling Stones was set to wrap up the event and send the fans home on closing day.

The festival didn’t go as promoters hoped. The weather did not cooperate, sending a badly-timed cold front through The Palm Beaches. Rain and unseasonably cool temperatures made things hard for festival goers, the grounds turned into a muddy mess, and hassles between hippies and police couldn’t be avoided.

The biggest problem involved The Rolling Stones themselves. A transportation issue in New York delayed their arrival by 11 hours. They took the stage at 4 a.m. and played for only a few thousand freezing, die-hard fans. The fans had set fire to anything available to keep warm, so the scene looked strange and apocalyptic, according to reports.
The show’s audio was recorded by amateurs and audio of The Stone’s performance from that night still exists.

While The Rolling Stones spoke well of their experience in The Palm Beaches, the festival would not see a second year, because of cost overruns. It was destined to be a unique moment in history, when “free love and music” took over The Palm Beaches for three days in 1969.  A worthwhile successor is SunFest, with a reputation for great acts, great facilities, and a venue that is as beautiful and tropical as The Palm Beaches itself.  2018 promises to be a year of great performances and even greater memories.

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