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Woodstock Performers: Bert Sommer

Rockin’ before she could walk, a vinyl hound who can’t remember a thing because the words to all songs from 1960-2019 are stuck in her head.

Bert Sommer Performing at Woodstock

Bert and his backing musicians onstage at Woodstock

Bert and his backing musicians onstage at Woodstock

This series of articles—32 in all—covers each of the artists who performed at the original Woodstock festival August 15-18, 1969. Appearing on Day 1 before Bert Sommer was California band Sweetwater, who also performed a version of "Freedom (Motherless Child)," a song Ritchie Havens had closed his set with. The next artist up after Bert was songwriter extraordinaire Tim Hardin, who wrote and performed the classic "If I Were a Carpenter."

In what should have been a massive break for Bert Sommer, this rising young star was scheduled for the opening day of the festival. His easy folk style fit in perfectly with the other folk and acoustic acts playing at the festival on Friday.

Who Was Bert Sommer?

Bert William Sommer was born February 7, 1949 and grew up on Long Island, NY. Somewhat of a musical prodigy, Sommer started writing poetry and music at a young age. He got his start in the business by writing songs for other bands that called Long Island home, including Leslie West's band the Vagrants. West, of course, went on to become leader of the band Mountain.

In 1967, Sommer enjoyed a brief stint with the band The Left Banke, who had recorded a hit in 1966, "Walk Away Renee." Sommer co-wrote and sang lead on the band's songs “Ivy Ivy,” “And Suddenly" and "Men Are Building Sand." His work with the band caught the attention of Capital Records, and producer Artie Kornfeld, who signed him to a deal in November 1967.

Sommer joined the cast of "Hair" in the west coast production of that musical in 1968. One of his cast mates was Jennifer Warnes, and he was immediately smitten, penning a song called "Jennifer" that appeared on his 1968 debut LP on Capital, "The Road To Travel."

In the summer of 1969, Sommer's producer Kornfeld became part of the production team that put Woodstock together, and Kornfeld immediately booked Sommer to appear at the festival. Sommer was only 20 at the time, and he was about to make his concert debut singing for the multitudes who had already made it to the concert site by Friday evening.

Bert Sommer Performing "Jennifer" at Woodstock

Bert Sommer's Woodstock

This young, sweet-faced kid took the stage just after 7:00 p.m. on Friday. Sommer opened the set with two songs from his debut album, “Jennifer” and “The Road to Travel.” He, Ira Stone (guitar and organ) and Charlie Bilello (bass) were onstage for about 45 minutes and performed a total of 10 songs. The highlight of their set was a cover of the Simon & Garfunkel tune “America,” for which they earned a standing ovation.

When the set was done, Sommer remained at Woodstock, hanging out and jamming with other musicians and enjoying the Woodstock experience.

Yeah, I got a standing ovation...on their way to the bathrooms!

— From the book "Woodstock: Three Days That Rocked the World"

Bert Sommer "America"

Life After Woodstock

He should have made it big. So much talent, such a great voice. Often compared to Tim Buckley, Sommer seemed to have all the ingredients necessary to make it to the top.

Sadly, it wasn't to be. His LP "The Road to Travel" didn't sell well and never appeared on the charts. Capitol Records was quick to drop him, and when Kornfeld moved to Eleuthra Records, Sommer followed him to that label. Kornfeld produced Sommer's next LP, "Inside Bert Sommer," which contained his one and only hit "We're All Playing in the Same Band," written by Sommer while he was at Woodstock. The single peaked at number 48 on the Billboard Hot 100 list and received respectable airplay.

Sommer's next LP for Eleuthra sold poorly. He paid the bills by acting, and even had a recurring role for one season on a kids' TV show, "The Krofft Supershow," and then as a member of the spin-off band from that show, "Kapt. Kool and the Kongs." In 1977, he teamed up with producer Ron Dante for what would be his final album on Capitol Records. Dante was also the producer behind Barry Manilow, and he and Sommer felt that a more adult-contemporary style would sell records. It didn't, and Sommer was dropped.

Looking for a place where he could really belong and just play music, Sommer moved to Albany, New York in the early '80s at the urging of a friend. There, he played with a number of area bands including The Fabulous Newports. Bert Sommer passed away from a respiratory illness on July 23, 1990.

Five Musical Facts

  1. Leslie West and his band Mountain performed a song at Woodstock that was co-written by Sommer, “Beyond the Sea."
  2. When Sommer joined the cast of "Hair" on the west coast in 1968, it was his large Afro that was pictured on the cover of the program.
  3. Sommer's set at Woodstock does not appear in the 1970 Woodstock film, but he was included in D.A. Pennebaker's Woodstock Diary. I highly recommend this DVD, as it also includes performances by Quill and Tim Hardin not found elsewhere.
  4. When the crowd at Woodstock gave Sommer the standing ovation for "America," festival announcer John Morris declared him to be "the rather magnificent Bert Sommer."
  5. Jennifer Warnes has another tie to Woodstock. In 1982, she released "Up Where We Belong" with Joe Cocker, who was one of the performers at the festival on Sunday, August 17th.

© 2019 Kaili Bisson

Comments

Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on March 17, 2019:

Hi Flourish, agreed, something was missing. He sure had talent, and lots of opportunity. He just never seemed to capitalize on it.

FlourishAnyway from USA on March 17, 2019:

When I saw the hair I immediately thought about the Broadway production. His career is the one the just never took off. I wonder if he just didn’t have that magic spark?

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