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Canada's 'first pop festival' happened 50 years ago

Two young promoters were planning to bring in some big names for a two-day music festival in 1969.

Velvet Underground, Sly & the Family Stone were just two of 28 scheduled acts

CBC visits the offices of a pop festival that its promoters hope will become an annual event. 2:00

The outdoor music festival is a summer fixture in Canadian centres — big, small, and rural.

But in 1969, a multi-day concert in the open air was apparently something that had never been tried before.

"This is the office of two of the most unlikely show business impresarios you're likely to meet," said CBC reporter Ed Cosgrove, visiting the festival's Toronto headquarters. 

There was a day to go before the festival began, and the bare-bones office decorated with band posters and maps was abuzz with activity.

One of the impresarios was 22-year-old John Brower, who was described as the festival's "producer and talent scout."

'A talent lineup that hasn't been beaten'

"It's got a talent lineup that hasn't been beaten by any other pop festival," said co-promoter John Brower. (CBC News/CBC Archives)

"It's the first pop festival in Canada," he said. "And I think it's got a talent lineup that hasn't been beaten ... in this past year and a half to two years."

According to newspaper ads for the two-day festival, acts on the first day included The Band, Sly & The Family Stone and the Velvet Underground.

Chuck Berry, Blood, Sweat and Tears, Ronnie Hawkins, Steppenwolf and Tiny Tim — the latter two represented on posters in the festival offices — were among those on the second day's bill.   

"We're bringing in 28 groups and over 200 performers," Brower added.

The festival was held at Toronto's Varsity Stadium from noon to midnight each day on June 21 and 22, 1969. 

Ads for the festival offered to exchange tickets for bread, and some concertgoers took the promoters up on it. "I can't bank it, so I guess I'll have to eat it," said business manager Ken Walker. (CBC News/CBC Archives)

Brower's fellow promoter, 23-year-old business manager Ken Walker, demurred when Cosgrove asked him how much money the pair expected to make from the endeavour.

"I really don't know, and I'm superstitious so I won't say," he said.

But the signs of success were evident, given Walker's future plans.

"We plan on doing this as an annual event," he said. "We are thinking right now of maybe doing an event in the fall."

That event would be the Rock 'n' Roll Revival in September 1969 and featured a performance by John Lennon and Yoko Ono's Plastic Ono Band. 

It also featured Alice Cooper, The Doors and Little Richard, among many others.

The Plastic Ono Band, featuring Yoko Ono and John Lennon with guitarist Eric Clapton, performed at Brower and Walker's 14-hour Rock & Roll Revival concert at Varsity Stadium on Sept. 14, 1969. (CBC News/CBC Archives)