From the time photographer Ken Davidoff was a child, he lived a Forrest Gump existence of sorts. His father Bob was a photographer for the Kennedys, and he often brought his son along to shoots during defining moments in American history. Davidoff attended the launch of Apollo 11 in 1969 and met John Lennon and May Pang when his father photographed them in Palm Beach in 1974. The pair also documented the 1972 Democratic and Republican National Conventions in Miami Beach. But it was the younger Davidoff's coverage of the 1968 Miami Pop Festival that sealed his place in history.
He first learned about the festival via a radio spot, when it was announced that Jimi Hendrix would headline the two-day concert, which also included performances by Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention, John Lee Hooker, and Chuck Berry. Miami Pop took place at Gulfstream Park less than a year after the groundbreaking Monterey Pop Festival, but it predates Woodstock by more than a year, making it the first rock festival on the East Coast. HistoryMiami's new exhibit, "Miami Rocks: The Miami Pop Festival, May 1968," on display May 18 through September 30, pays homage to the vital role the Magic City played during a pivotal era in American music history. Michael Lang, the famed promoter of Woodstock, also organized the South Florida festival. He would later go on to say that "the seeds of Woodstock were sown” here.
Davidoff remembers the freewheeling approach Lang and Ric O’Barry (better known for his activist work with dolphins and his prominent role in the Academy Award-winning documentary The Cove) took in putting Miami Pop together. All performers played on flatbed trucks that doubled as stages. "I don’t know if they even knew what they were going to do or how this was going to affect rock 'n' roll history," Davidoff says. "They booked it for two days, and Michael did not take out an insurance policy against the weather... On the second day, the weather was so bad that they only let one act play to the crowd because he was acoustic: it was John Lee Hooker."
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Though Davidoff didn't comprehend the event's historical significance at the time, certain memories are etched in his mind 50 years later. The music of the band Blue Cheer blared from Marshall stacks. "There was so much force coming from those speakers that it would flap the pants on your legs like the wind," he remembers. "They were so loud. It was basically like witnessing heavy metal being born right there."
A Hendrix diehard, Davidoff vividly recounts the moment he witnessed one of the greatest guitarists of all time approaching the fairgrounds. "All of a sudden we heard helicopters. Just in my head, I knew, That's got to be Jimi coming in." Davidoff left his friends and was following Hendrix around the festival when an attendee stopped him. The photographer had dropped a substantial amount of film from his camera bag — a detail from that day that's also documented in his pictures. "In looking at the photographs of Jimi Hendrix walking backstage, there are actually pictures of my film on the ground, right by Jimi’s foot," he says.
Those photos and many others from that weekend will be on display at HistoryMiami beginning this Friday, May 18, exactly 50 years to the day after the debut of the Miami Pop Festival. Hendrix's brother Leon will play a tribute to the late guitarist alongside Lee Tiger's band Tiger Tiger — members of the Native American Music Hall of Fame and original Miami Pop performers. Guests are encouraged to wear '60s garb to the opening reception.
"Miami Rocks: The Miami Pop Festival, May 1968" Opening Party. 6 p.m. Friday, May 18, at HistoryMiami, 101 W. Flagler St., Miami; 305-375-1492; historymiami.org. Tickets cost $10 via historymiami.org. Exhibit on display through September 30.