The Historical 1916 Courthouse (3rd floor courtroom) in downtown West Palm Beach is probably the most unusual rock photo exhibit space I’ve ever seen. The court room is straight out of a movie set – all gleaming wood and grand high ceilings with a balcony. The jury seats are elegantly carved and the Judges seat grandly presides over it all.
So to see photos of a cold, wet, muddy, hairy bunch of hippies camped out in a field west of I-95 off Indiantown Road lining the courthouse walls seems almost against the law. It’s also hard to imagine the county being so freaked out by a rock concert coming to town as monster gatherings like SunFest are now such an accepted and welcomed annual event.
The show, “Gimme Shelter” at the Richard and Pat Johnson Palm Beach County History Museum through November 30 is an acid flashback exhibit featuring a group of photos taken by Ken Davidoff and his father, Bob Davidoff, that were almost lost, showcasing the three-day festival held in an unseasonably cold and rainy week during November 1969 at what is now Palm Beach International Raceway.
The Nixon-era, one year post-Woodstock event brought a lot of public controversy over fears of violence and drugs, opposition by the Palm Beach County “Committee for Decency”, and a heavy show of law enforcement.
But the real treat is to see the headliner acts of the day, including The Rolling Stones on a pivotal tour that rock critic Robert Christgau called “history’s first mythic rock and roll tour”, and rock critic Dave Marsh of Rolling Stone Magazine would say was “part of rock and roll legend” and one of the “benchmarks of an era.” Janis Joplin, Sly & the Family Stone, Grand Funk Railroad, and Johnny Winter were also part of the lineup. Several crowd shots and backstage candids round out the show.
The Rolling Stones’ had not played the US since July 1966, with the absence due to drugs charges and court orders that kept them off the road. But in their absence they had gotten big – instead of performing in small- and medium-size venues to audiences of screaming girls, the band was playing to sold-out arenas with more varied crowds. The final show of the tour as initially planned was on 28 November in New York City, but November 30 in West Palm Beach was added as a gesture to the tour organiser. In a move that would become a dark part of the band legend, the band also organised and headlined the free concert at Altamont on 6 December, which was tacked on at the end of the tour as a response to the high ticket prices of the tour itself.
“We were the center of the world for three days,” says Davidoff, the long-time Palm Beach County resident, second-generation photographer and official shooter for the festival, which had all the makings of a mini-Woodstock, from rain and mud to a threatened sheriff, but never got the royal film treatment so has been somewhat lost to the ages.
“The festival was a thing of its time, and we look at it for its impact on society,” Benjamin Salata, the museum’s curator of collections said. “Here you had people protesting against it being here, and decades later, SunFest shuts down the streets every year, with full cooperation of the authorities.”
“Gimme Shelter” Photo Exhibit at the Richard and Pat Johnson Palm Beach County History Museum through November 30
The exhibit captures a brief chapter of Davidoff’s story. “When the photos came out, people would say to us, ‘My sister told me about this festival, but I told her she was crazy!’” says Davidoff’s friend and business partner Jack Connell, with whom he runs OldRockPhoto.com.
Ken Davidoff is the son of Bob Davidoff, house photographer of The Breakers and visual archivist of the Kennedy clan’s life in Palm Beach. The family moved south from New York after Bob decided he was tired of winter.
The younger Davidoff was given his first camera at 8, began studying art at 12, going first to Palm Beach State College and then to New York City’s School of Visual Arts.
He loved music so he decided to shoot photographs of musicians. The self-described hippie started shooting shows on his own time and own dime, and then going to the artist’s next show, “holding the slides up in the light” so the musicians could see them as they entered the venue and invite him backstage to talk business. What’s important about the festivals he shot is the timeframe — Miami Pop happened in Hallandale’s Gulfstream Park in May 1968, more than a year before the events on Max Yasgur’s farm in Woodstock, New York in August 1969.
Woodstock was three months before Palm Beach, which in turn was just six days before the Rolling Stones would head to another ill-fated gig at a speedway, in Altamont, Calif., where four people died, including a concertgoer stabbed to death by one of the Hell’s Angels hired to provide security.
The trailer for a never-completed documentary he and Connell intended to make about the festival show wildly inflammatory reports from local news outlets reporting the potential of “an uncontrollable orgy.”
The not-yet 20-year-old Davidoff heard about the Palm Beach festival and called the promoter to say that he wanted to be the official photographer. He got the gig, and it soon became larger than they imagined, swelling to 50,000 people.
It was an unseasonably cold Palm Beach County Thanksgiving weekend, which, “by the time the Stones played, was rainy and close to freezing,” Davidoff recalled. But he got his shots and recorded a rare slice of rock history.
Davidoff, 66, who now lives in Palm Springs went on to exhibit his photography at several local venues: Royal Trust and Sunbank locations, Jerry Wilson Gallery, Worth Ave, The Breakers Hotel, Palm Beach, and The Palm Beach County Governmental Center. Beresford Galleries of Potomac Maryland and Zolan Galleries of Palm Springs, CA. A one man show of his Polo Photography at Palm Beach Polo and Country Club in Wellington,Fl., was a high point in Ken’s artistic endeavors. He also put in stints with the Palm Beach Post, The Miami Herald, and United Press International.
He also taught Photography at The Armory Art Center in West Palm Beach for 5 years. Over the years he has worked as a printer, and portrait photographer. For the past 4 years Ken has worked at The Camera Shop in North Palm Beach learning about the workings of Digital SLRs, while still shooting assignments for Davidoff Studios at The Mar-a-Lago Club. Donald Trumps Palm Beach Palace. The publication of ” The Kennedy Family Album”, a book containing almost 300 images of his Fathers work chronicling the J.F.K. and Kennedy Family Years in Palm Beach. Several of his photographs appear in the book including images of his father with both Jackie and Aristotle Onassis.
The Historical Society of Palm Beach County presents “Gimme Shelter” at the Richard and Pat Johnson Palm Beach County History Museum, 300 North Dixie Highway, WPB. The images will be on public display in through November 30.