May 22, 2017

The passion of Stan Plesser

Stan Plesser on a trip to London in the 1970s, while representing the Ozark Mountain Daredevils.

Stan Plesser, who died Sept. 1 at age 79, arguably did more to foster the pop music scene in Kansas City than any other single person.
From 1963 to 1971, his Vanguard Coffeehouse, 4305 Main St., brought the stars and semi-stars of the folk movement to midtown. His subsequent (1971-74) Cowtown Ballroom, 3101 Gillham Plaza, and Good Karma Productions not only brought rock’s brightest stars to shine on local kids like me, but they gave Kansas City such gravitational pull that artists from elsewhere (e.g., Danny Cox, Brewer & Shipley) made their homes here. Plesser’s advice helped to shape southern Missouri’s Ozark Mountain Daredevils, and he managed them to Top 10 international success.

Detail from the back of a Vanguard Coffeehouse menu

Deservedly, he is the central figure in Joe Heyen and Tony Ladesich’s excellent 2009 documentary film “Cowtown Ballroom: Sweet Jesus.”
Plesser was a Jewish New York native who moved to KC as a high schooler, and passion was his byword long before it became a 21st-century buzzword. He often recalled how the Vanguard had no cash register – just a box – so that no clanging bells would intrude on performances.
He loved KC’s jazz and blues heritage, and believed it helped to create a discerning folk-rock audience. He brought the symphony orchestra to his hippie haven.

The Vanguard became a movie house shortly after this show in April 1971.

“There was something different about Kansas City,” Plesser said in a 2010 interview. “To me, it was always the people. The Vanguard sensitized people to embrace the new culture, and when Cowtown came along, they were ready to listen. The Vanguard was not an interesting building. What made it really good was the people. The artists noticed something different. … They were like friends to these people. It was not like just going to a concert.”
Plesser, who arranged for international radio syndication of concert recordings from Cowtown, likened Kansas City during his heyday to Austin, Texas, and the “Austin City Limits” public television show.
“They created something,” Plesser said. “They had a passion. That’s what makes things happen, especially in the arts. And Kansas City has the kind of history that will allow it to happen again.”

Detail from Vanguard Coffeehouse poster

The Day of the Locusts

The KC Star and Times' coverage of the OMF was sometimes positive, sometimes sneering.

Thirty-seven years ago this week, more than 100,000 young rock music fans descended on Sedalia, Mo., (population 22,000) for three days and nights of debauchery known as the Ozark Music Festival.

The event held at the state fair grounds July 19-21, 1974, has been called the height — or the nadir — of decadence in a decadent era. The 22-act bill included several destined to become Rock Hall of Famers (Eagles, Skynyrd, Seger) performing at their peak. Yet critics called it a disaster, likening the OMF to Sodom and Gomorrah, Hooverville and the aftermath of a tornado.

To be sure, the Ozark Music Festival featured epic quantities of sex and drugs and rock and roll. But there was also violence and overflowing toilets, injury and even one death. And heat. Everywhere throughout the fair grounds and the adjoining town, 100-degree, no-shade, oppressively humid, mid-summer heat.

High temperatures led to lots of nudity and semi-nudity among festival-goers. That probably freaked out the good citizens of Sedalia almost as much as reports of rampant drug sales and use in and around the fair grounds, even as outnumbered police and highway patrolmen sat on their hands outside the gates. The kids drank from people’s garden hoses and peed on their lawns; they stripped corn and pigs from farmer’s fields; they bum-rushed and broke windows at a grocery that had been limiting the number of entrants.

Things got out of hand rather quickly at OMF, given the number of people who showed up. But the actual attendance figure is impossible to know (estimates generally cite 100,000 to 150,000 or more over the three days) because, as KC-based promoter Chris Fritz noted, the perimeter fences were breached even before the doors officially opened on Friday morning of the festival weekend.

When the show was over, the event was probed by a special committee of the Missouri Senate, a Pettis County grand jury and a couple of lawsuits. In the end, nothing much came of it.

Headlines from the aftermath of the OMF.

But what a difference a generation or two can make.

When Chris Fritz held an April 25 news conference at the Kansas Speedway to announce his Aug. 5-6 KanRockSas Music Festival there, KCK tourism officials were at his side to hail the economic impact of a hoped-for horde of 100,000 attendees.

Even Sedalia now looks at the OMF through rose-colored glasses. In 2009 the Chamber of Commerce mounted an exhibit at the Historic Katy Depot to mark the 35th anniversary. A related website remains up, containing among other things a guestbook filled with comments from people who attended. (See Links below and “We were there” below for excerpts.)

Jeff Lujin was born in Sedalia in 1971 and grew up hearing tales – some true, some apocryphal — of the OMF.

“It’s part of Sedalia’s lore; everybody’s heard about it,” Lujin explained.

Veteran KC promoter Chris Fritz, the man behind the Ozark Music Festival and the upcoming KanRockSas Music Festival.

He’s been working on a documentary film about the festival for a couple of years now, recording hundreds of hours of interviews and collecting a like number of photos, plus Super 8 movie film shot by attendees.

“There were some biker gangs … everyone talks about the tunnels, mostly with fear. Lots of violence happened there. Lots of drugs,” Lujin said. “It wasn’t quite Altamont, and it wasn’t quite Woodstock.”

Fritz today says the problems at OMF were mostly attributable to the unexpectedly large crowd that showed up – four or five times what he and his partners expected.

He insists he will be better prepared, should the crowds at KanRockSas rival those of the OMF 37 years earlier.

 

“We were there at Ozark Music Festival”

 

(Note: all misspellings sic)

 

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band on the OMF stage.

“I can remember Wolf Man Jack announcing the first baby being borned there during the Eagles concert … I was SO sunburned across my shoulders that I was blistered, but we were having the best time of our lives … Naked people were everywhere. People swam in the lagoon near the race track to cool off. Drugs were everywhere. The tunnels leading into the racetrack were lined with drug vendors selling anything I had ever heard of. People were passing out and being hauled off. The music was outstanding but conditions were horrid. If you needed to relieve yourself you did so openly in public. There was no other option … do remember Joe Walsh sing Rockey mountain way. The guy on the loud speaker selling everthing from Weed to Mexican junk red … I also remember the tunnell. Any drug you wanted was in that tunnell. Tables set up and guys with billboards on … People don’t believe me when I tell them that Marshall Tucker, Lynyrd Skynryd, Joe Walsh w/ Barn Storm and The Eagles played one after another in one night  … It is the first time I had ever seen anyone shooting up … It was clear that there was no police control. we were free for the first time in our lives … I remember seeing someone with a dog pulling a little red wagon filled full of bags of pot with a sign that said LIDS $15 … I can’t believe my parents let me go.  Maybe I didn’t tell them where I was going … By the time I left I was dazed confused and dehydrated and had to hitchhike all the way back home.”

Were you there at the Ozark Music Festival? Please leave a recollection below. And contact rick@kcrockhistory.com if you have photos or memorabilia to share.

 

Links:

 

Chamber of Commerce exhibit

http://www.ozarkmusicfestival.com/

 

OMF documentary film preview:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IWm51kJGIKo&NR=1

 

Home movie showing crowd:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1LLpgi8-xGY&feature=related

 

Home movie showing crowd, infamous tunnel, Electric Flag performing:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9sYy83nO-bY&feature=related

 

One guy’s recollection:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yKDPclPlIxE&feature=related

 

German group Locomotiv GT performing at OMF:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GAcndR5gUX0

 

 

 

The bands

Sure, some acts have come close, like Brewer and Shipley and the Rainmakers. And some natives, like Byrd Gene Clark and James Brown protege Marva Whitney, have gone on the star with top-flight groups. But no rock superstar has yet emerged directly from the Kansas City area. Still, many fine groups have risen and fallen over the years. Who are/were your favorites?