Unbelievable Woodstock Stories You’ve Probably Never Heard, from the Musicians at the Original 1969 Fest
Richie Havens Makes the Most of a Traffic Jam
The late folk star was the very first musician to hit the stage during Woodstock weekend. Originally, there were four acts ahead of him but due to a massive traffic jam that caused major delays for artists to get to the concert site, Havens took the stage and stretched his 20 minute set to last almost three hours to entertain the audience until event organizers could track down the second act, Havens revealed on The Tavis Smiley Show in 2004.
“So I’d go back and sing three more [songs],” Havens said. “This happened six times. So I sung every song I knew.”
At that point, Haven scrambled to think of what to play next. That’s when he started to improvise a melody and ad-lib lyrics to “Motherless Child,” a song he would later call, “Freedom.”
“The word ‘freedom’ came out of my mouth because this was our real particular freedom,” he said of the festival, which took place during a time when the country was grappling with the Vietnam war, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the Stonewall riots and other human rights issues. “We’d finally made it to above ground.”
The song helped propel Havens into his long career as a musician until he died on April 22, 2013 from a heart attack at 72.
Sweetwater's Big Break
Lead singer Nancy Nevins was only 19 years old when she arrived to play at Woodstock. Fifty years later, she and her former bandmates can say with pride that they were the first band to open the iconic festival, following solo act Richie Nevins. In a 2012 interview with CBS2 News, Nevins revealed how a schedule conflict helped Sweetwater become “the soundcheck of Woodstock.”
“We had to get back to Los Angeles because the keyboard player was in the Air Force Reserves to stay out of Vietnam, and it was that weekend he had to be in Riverside at six in the morning to report to uncle sam,” Nevins told the outlet. “So we said, when we got the call for Woodstock, ‘Sure, we’ll go on but we have to go on first.’”
The famed appearance and coveted spot helped the band land several major gigs, until a drunk driver hit Nevins from behind on the Glendale freeway in California just four months after Woodstock. The accident destroyed her vocal chords and the band eventually called it quits.
Jimi Hendrix's Major Nerves
The legendary self-taught guitarist closed Woodstock with a bunch of fan favorites, including “Hear My Train a Comin’” and “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” before famously playing his own interpretation of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Hendrix later revealed on The Dick Cavett Show that he had only gotten eight minutes of sleep the night before he hit the stage and his exhaustion fueled a nervous breakdown.
“I didn’t know what was happening, I was so exhausted, you know. It’s like a — a nervous breakdown or whatever,” he said, confessing to Cavett that he had suffered from them in the past.
The Grateful Dead
The band’s lead drummer Bill Kreitzmann went on Conan to explain that they were bombing their performance even before terrible weather conditions almost took the band from The Grateful Dead to The Electrocuted Dead.
“We had this thing about the big shows — ‘blowing the big ones’ — and I’m not sure why that was,” Kreitzmann said, as he recalled the band’s subpar set.
Host Conan O’Brien wanted to know more, so Kreitzman revealed “We were getting electrocuted on stage … We couldn’t even do a soundcheck because you couldn’t get near the microphones without drawing an eight-inch arc of fire.”
“It was so bad that we couldn’t allow it to be in the movie,” Kreitzmann said, referring to the famous Woodstock documentary that was released a year after the festival took place. “It was terrible.”
Creedence Clearwater Revival's Rock-n-Roll Lullabyes
During a separate appearance on Conan, CCR’s lead vocalist and guitarist John Fogerty revealed that the Grateful Dead’s chaotic set led to his own band’s seriously delayed performance … in front of a sea of sleeping concertgoers.
“Things went sorely wrong after they hit the stage,” Fogerty said. “About the middle of their set, it went dead silent … It was quiet for about an hour and then they started playing again.”
By the time their set was over, it was “literally 2:30 in the morning” when CCR was able to go on.
“I come running out and I look down there and I see a bunch of people [who] look a lot like me, except they’re naked and they’re asleep,” Fogerty said. “So we started rocking out in the middle of the night and in the middle of nowhere, trying to get things going here.”
Fogerty thanked the sleeping crowd in an effort to drum up some excitement. “Then waaay out there, about a quarter mile out, some guy is flicking his lighter,” the rocker remembered. “He says, ‘Don’t worry about it John! We’re with yaaa!’ So in front of a half a million people, for the rest of my big Woodstock concert, I played for that guy.”
Sly & the Family Stone's Peace and Love
The pioneering band from San Francisco were funk and soul superstars, slated to close out night two of the festival … until their spot got swiped.
“We really didn’t care [when] we went, but a lot of people did. I remember one particular person, that group, I won’t say the name, because —,” said the band’s vocalist and trumpeter Cynthia Robinson during an interview with radio station WGBH for their Make It Funky series said, while her bandmates chimed in to confirm she shouldn’t “kiss and tell.”
According to Robinson, the Woodstock organizers wanted them to close the show, but another group objected on grounds that they were “the stars of the show.”
The band simply agreed because they weren’t as focused on the fame. “It wasn’t about what we were going to do to somebody else. I’ve played in groups where people say, we’re going to burn them up. We never went out with that attitude.”
Although the bandmates never revealed who demanded their spot, the Woodstock day two setlist placed The Who behind Sly & the Family Stone.
Sha Na Na's Dream Day
The band, whose sound was nostalgic of the 1950s, reached immediate fame after playing Woodstock and being featured in the famous Woodstock documentary.
Their appearance at the festival kicked off a career that included several albums and their own self-titled television variety show starting in 1977, according to the New York Times. Not bad for a group hadn’t even played through a dozen shows prior to playing the festival.
“Woodstock was only our eighth professional gig!” said founding member Jocko Marcellino during a 2014 interview with the San Diego Union-Tribune. “Because we played there and made it into the movie, it instantly gave us a career that is still going on, 45 years later.”
Melanie's Time to Shine
The then-22-year-old went from unknown singer to full-fledged superstar after her Woodstock performance, which almost didn’t happen.
The singer, whose life story was turned into a 2012 musical called Melanie and the Record Man, dropped several gems about her life-changing festival experience during a 2018 interview she did with Best Classic Bands.
The first: She and her mom drove to Woodstock together but were separated once she had to get settled backstage to perform.
“I never really asked her how she spent the day,” the star recalled. “I know how I spent the day. It was in a little tent. I didn’t even think about it; it didn’t even faze me.”
The second: Just whe she feared heavy rain might send concertgoers heading for their cars, she saw something surprising instead.
“Right as I’m waiting [to go on] I hear Wavy Gravy making an announcement about his collective passing out candles, and something inspirational happened: the crowd started lighting the candles,” said Melanie. “So when I got on the stage, the candles were being lit. So forever after, I was associated with the lighting of things at concerts.”