Day of Joy: Remembering Houston's First Outdoor Music Fest
Day of Joy band Ginger Valley
Photos courtesy of Vicki Welch Ayo
"It was definitely a labor of love. It cost me $5,000, I'll put it that way; and, looking back on it, I'm not sure I didn't get my money's worth." -- Jim Tucker
We're living in the festival era of popular music. In the U.S. alone, there are more than 200 major music festivals annually. Some, like Bonnaroo and Coachella, have transcended from mere concerts to cogs in the modern zeitgeist.
In Houston, we're doing our part, with Free Press Summer Fest and new additions like last weekend's Whatever Fest. Our grassroots music community doesn't need benevolent corporate sponsors to do its thing, either. Practically every weekend, some group is resourcefully staging a festival, like last month's Grace Note, this month's Melt Fest or next month's Untapped Festival.
Does Houston have a good fest history? The short answer is yes. And, if you're the right age, you might think back -- way back -- to a time before the long-running Westheimer Street Festival and the Houston International Festival to recall a singular offering dubbed Day of Joy. The ambitious event was held at the long-gone Almeda Speedway and brought local and national acts together to perform for gathered masses under Houston's blistering summer sun.
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If that sounds a little like FPSF, that's roughly where the similarities end, according to some who were there July 19, 1970. At the time, Jim Tucker was a thirtysomething Houstonian with a growing law practice and a failed nightclub. But his short-lived Highland Village nightspot, Poverty's Project, had given him access to Houston music insiders. According to Tucker, he and a group of partners used those ties and each staked $5,000 to create a music festival similar to Woodstock, which had been staged just one summer earlier.
With no corporate sponsors and no experience, Tucker says he and partners Tom DeShazer, Harold Lloyd and Sam Alfano were able to present a festival that which included Rock and Roll Hall of Famers Albert King and Leon Russell, plus a host of bands with Billboard hits at the time, like Mott the Hoople and Rare Earth.
"I had a law office on the corner of Westheimer and Montrose, back when it was a hippie area," Tucker recalls. "I had so many marijuana cases, it was unbelievable. I just got a bunch of my clients together and they built a big stage out there and put some temporary fencing up."
Tucker says another client, George Maxey, booked bands through their respective talent agencies. They ran radio ads on KNUZ and KILT and grew a crowd by word of mouth. The admission was six bucks a head, seven dollars at the gate. Cheaper than the price of a beer at any modern music festival.
It was just that simple back then, Tucker claims.
"I don't recall any Woodstock-type fests in the Houston area, so this was kind of a big deal for us," says author Vicki Welch Ayo, who attended the event. "Everyone was talking about the magic created at Woodstock and wanted to lock onto that vibe."
At the time, Ayo was a Pasadena-area teen. She followed local music well enough to write Boys From Houston, a loving, first-hand look back at Houston's 1960s rock scene.
"I know there were other outdoor festivals like the Texas International Pop Festival at Dallas International Speedway in Lewisville and another on Mustang Island as well as a couple in Louisiana, but this was pretty much it for Houston at that time," she says.
One-time festival promoter, Jim Tucker
Tucker says the festival kicked off in the afternoon and ran into the night, with relatively few hiccups. ZZ Top, not yet headliners but already well-established in the area, dropped from the bill, he recalls.
"Flash Cadillac & the Continental Kids drove all the way from Denver and when they got there, I remember opening the door of the van and it just reeked of body odor," Tucker laughs. "I remember chatting with Leon Russell, who had extremely long, white hair, and he had a girl combing it out for him. He was very silent, he didn't talk much.
"When he came on in the evening, he followed somebody that was real uptempo," he adds. "He came on and the lights shined on him and he just sat there for a minute behind the piano,...and then he goes into 'Blues Power,'....'I bet you didn't think that I knew how to rock and roll!'"
John Kenney was there, too. Not as an organizer or fan, but as a member of the band Ginger Valley, who played that day.
"I don't remember a lot about Day of Joy besides playing," says Kenney. "Haven't a clue what or even if we got paid. I remember doing the gig. It was a long, long time ago. As far as I remember, no notables had much to do with little local bands like us. Flash Cadillac & the Continental Kids did stay at our house for a few days. Nice guys."
"Although I mainly went to the Day of Joy festival to see Ginger Valley, I was happy and excited to learn that there were so many good groups playing that day," Ayo offers. "As I recall, all of the bands were different degrees of better and better, and everybody really shined."
Tucker says some mistakes were made, as might be expected. For one, the stage faced west, which proved brutal for the bands who had to stare into the sun all afternoon.
"To kick it off, we had a friend of mine, a little lady named Tommie Lee Bradley, she was with a band called Buttermilk Bottom at the time," Tucker says. "She had a tremendously powerful voice, still does, and she was out there belting it out and sweat was just dripping off her."
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Tucker says all the bands were paid, but an electrician who lighted the event was not, which resulted in some minor legal stuff down the line. A "roach coach" made a killing off water. (This was before bottled water, he notes.) The makeshift stage bowed under the pressure of bands like Alive and Kicking, Pacific Gas & Electric and Zephyr, which featured a pre-James Gang, pre-Deep Purple Tommy Bolin.
Backstage, Tucker alleges he tried to put the moves on Russell's backup singers, a blonde cutie named Kathi McDonald and the ultra-sexy Claudia Lennear. Lennear is said to have inspired the Rolling Stones' "Brown Sugar" and was featured in last year's Academy Award-winning documentary, 20 Feet From Stardom. Tucker's attempts were foiled when Russell's band went onstage, he sighs.
What everyone definitely remembers is the heat.
"The intense heat reflecting from the asphalt blacktop was sometimes overwhelming," Ayo says. "Another kind of 'heat' was present that day but there was not any trouble that I knew of, so it seemed very peaceful."
She's referring to law enforcement, in case you're not up on your 1970s cop slang.
"The whole field was full of people in their teens and twenties," Tucker recalls. "There was a bunch of pot smoking and some people brought some coolers with beer in and we didn't care, we didn't check any IDs," Tucker recounts. "We had some uninvited guests, which were the dreaded Texas Rangers.
"We had a lot of people just working for free," he continues. "Our stage manager, Cecelia Cook, went out and asked what they were doing. They promptly arrested Cookie and took her across Almeda to their so-called command center."
Tucker says he went to rescue Cook, to no avail, but at least spared himself so he could get back to the music, which was the point of it all. Long before the festival, he'd already seen dozens of rock and blues acts live, heavy hitters like B.B. King and James Brown and Chuck Berry, many at the old City Auditorium. He even invited a down-on-his-luck Hank Ballard, yet another R&R Hall member, to be his houseguest for six months when Tucker lived in Los Angeles later in life.
"I loved the vagabond style those musicians lived," he says today. "I was having to get up every morning and shower and shave and put a suit on," he said. "These guys got up whenever they wanted, and I guess they took a shower whenever they wanted. I enjoyed being around them."
He was right in the thick of something special for one Day of Joy, as were others. That feeling, as Ayo describes it, is still the reason so many of us flock to music fests today.
"There was an amazing amount of energy that day," she says. "I remember the heat seemed to melt the sky at sunset into hues of cotton candy, gold and azure. With the music pulsating, there was a moment that kind of hung in suspension where I felt really connected to the changing times, like an emerging butterfly."
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