Woodstock Performers: Sweetwater
Sweetwater Performing 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 as the opener, Richie Havens gave the crowd the first anthem of the festival, a song called "Freedom (Motherless Child)." The next artist up after Sweetwater was New York native Bert Sommer.
It could have been Sweetwater's day in the sun. Knowing what we know now about the immensity of Woodstock and its cultural impact, what greater honor or career-propelling event could there have been than to open the Woodstock Music & Art Fair on August 15, 1969?
But it wasn't to be.
A Band Called Sweetwater
Sweetwater emerged from the music scene in Los Angeles in 1967. Known for their eclectic sound that incorporated what were then unconventional instruments like flute and cello, they had a huge fan base on the west coast and were often compared to Jefferson Airplane. Fusion was just emerging as a style, and Sweetwater was definitely one of the first bands to adopt it
Like the Airplane, Sweetwater's music was a melding of psychedelia, folk, R&B and pop, with some latin and jazz influences thrown in for good measure. Their most interesting tunes tended to blend all of those genres together. Also like the Airplane, they had a female lead singer who had an incredible voice and a strong stage presence.
Sweetwater was made up of eight musicians, about double the usual number for a band in those days. Nansi Nevins was their Grace Slick, and she was ably backed by August Burns on cello, Al Malarowitz and Elpidio Cobian on drums and percussion, Albert Moore on flute, Fred Herrera on bass and Alex Del Zoppo on keyboards and harmonica. Most of the band members also helped out on backing vocals.
The individual members of the band had started out playing coffeehouses in and around Los Angeles and came together as a band in 1967. They were signed to a record deal with Reprise almost immediately, as Reprise was eager to get in on the success that psychedelia was seeing. In 1968, they released their first album "Sweetwater," which managed to hold the #200 spot on the Billboard album chart for two weeks.
Two singles from their debut LP received a lot of airplay in the LA area, "Motherless Child" and "My Crystal Spider." Though neither of the songs made the individual song charts, they were hugely popular and "My Crystal Spider" became the song that was most associated with the psychedelic sound of the band.
Eager to promote the album, Reprise set Sweetwater up to open for The Doors at every opportunity. Sweetwater also appeared on the same bill as all of the big names of the day, including Jimi Hendrix, Big Brother & The Holding Company, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Jefferson Airplane, Zappa and Spirit. The band also became regulars at the venerable Whisky a Go Go in the early years of that club.
They were on their way to Woodstock.
"Have you seen my crystal spider
He has eyes of mercury
He has left his web of paisley
Be aware, if you care
Would you please
Send him back to me"
Sweetwater Performing at Woodstock
We hit the ground running around five or six thinking we were going to have to run immediately onstage and play, and all of a sudden somebody said 'No, the Swami's going to go onstage before you.'"— Fred Herrera of Sweetwater, from the book "Woodstock: Three Days That Rocked the World"
They were on their way, except they had no way to get there on time. Sweetwater had originally agreed to play Woodstock only if they could be the first act on the bill. This was out of necessity, as Alex Del Zoppo had signed up for the Army reserves and was due at training camp back in California the very next day.
The organizers of Woodstock had hired off-duty New York policemen, over 300 of them, to provide traffic and crowd control. On August 14th, the day before the festival was due to begin, their Police Commissioner issued a "reminder" that policemen were banned from moonlighting. “When we lost the cops,” said assistant producer Stanley Goldstein, “we lost the roads. When we lost the roads, we lost control of the traffic. When that happened, we lost our supply lines.”
Stuck in that massive traffic jam, along with the sea of fans headed to the concert site, was Sweetwater and all of their equipment. They were ultimately plucked out by helicopter and brought to the stage. But they missed out on being the opening act, though technically they were still the first band to appear at the festival.
Sweetwater took the stage just after 6:00 p.m. on Friday, August 15th. By all accounts, their set was eclectic for sure, with perhaps a touch too much psychedelia and fusion for that early in the day. Long solo jams in some of the songs had people unfamiliar with their music wondering what on earth was going on.
They played a total of 10 songs, including six from their debut album. "Motherless Child" had already been performed by Richie Havens as his closing number, with embellishments added by him that made it unique. The only song in Sweetwater's set that really seemed to capture the audience was "My Crystal Spider."
They left the stage after about 45 minutes and, for the moment at least, things at Woodstock seemed to be getting back on track.
Sweetwater "Motherless Child" on The Hollywood Palace TV Show 1969
Life After Woodstock
Where they could have gone career-wise as a band after appearing at Woodstock is a question that will have to remain unanswered.
Just four months after Woodstock, and three days after taping an appearance on "The Red Skelton Hour," Nevins was involved in a horrific traffic accident. On December 8, 1969, a drunk driver slammed into Nevins' car while she was driving down the Ventura Freeway in LA, leaving her with brain damage and the permanent loss of one of her vocal chords.
Nevins fought back from the accident, but with her out of commission, the band was simply sidetracked for too long. Such was their love for her that they never replaced her, and the group finally disbanded in 1971.
Three surviving members of the band (Nevins, Herrera and Del Zoppo) actually reunited in 1994 for the 25th anniversary of Woodstock. And on January 17, 1999, the band reunited once again for the 35th anniversary of the Whisky a Go Go.
Five Musical Facts
- Sweetwater does not appear in the 1970 Woodstock movie. However, their cover of "Motherless Child" (not recorded at Woodstock) was included on a compilation called This is not your typical compilation, and includes all sorts of great songs from bands like Iron Butterfly and Vanilla Fudge, to name a couple. I highly recommend it for fans of '60s music. Hippie - Music from the '60s Generation.
- Nevins liked to perform "Motherless Child" as a solo artist before Sweetwater got together, and it naturally became part of the band's repertoire.
- Del Zoppo left the stage right after their set at Woodstock in a panic to get back to California to the Army reserve camp. As it was, he didn't make it back until the Sunday night, and he was sure they would ship him off to Vietnam as punishment. Lucky for him, he was only docked two days' pay.
- Nevins had already recorded enough tracks prior to her accident to be included on the groups two final albums, 1970's "Just For You" and 1971's "Melon."
- Nevins, Herrera and Del Zoppo had been planning to participate in events to mark the 2019 50th anniversary of the festival, but Woodstock 50 at Watkins Glen has now been cancelled. They will instead be appearing July 19th at the Port Washington, New York Library for a live music event and on July 20th at the Great South Bay Music Festival on Long Island, New York.
© 2019 Kaili Bisson