Photographing Jimi Hendrix at the Radical 1968 Miami Pop Festival

Fun fact: Miami—yes, Miami—was home to the first ever rock festival on the East Coast, which also happens to be the precursor to a little festival called Woodstock. The Miami Pop Festival of May 1968 rolled out the grassy knoll for such music superstars as Jimi Hendrix, Chuck Berry, and John Lee Hooker, to name a few. Luckily, there are pictures to prove it, thanks to music photographer Ken Davidoff. The photographs, along with archival footage and memorabilia, will be on display at the “Miami Rocks: Miami Pop Festival, May 1968” exhibit at HistoryMiami starting May 18th, 50 years after the festival that started it all.
Davidoff gave Standard Culture the lowdown on how he talked his way into the festival and what it was like to photograph Hendrix at his peak.
THE STANDARD: They say that the Miami Pop Festival made way for Woodstock. How did the festival open the doors for other great artists?
KEN DAVIDOFF: The idea of having a multi-day rock festival was unique to promotors. Michael Lang and Ric O’Barry were friends living in Coconut Grove. Michael had just opened the first Head Shop in South Florida and Ric was the trainer for all five dolphins in the show Flipper, along with close friend Fred Neil. They would hang out with the dolphins and play music for them. One day they came up with the festival idea and ran with it. They first thought it would be at the Seminole Reservation, but the timing was too short. They decided on Gulfstream Park and booked the acts with the help of Marshall Brevitz, who ran one of the biggest concert venues in Miami called Thee Image. Michael Lang said that the May 18, 1968, Miami Pop Festival was “where the seeds of Woodstock were sown.”

It’s been said that you talked your way into the festival and the rest is history. Is that true?
I did sort of talk my way in. I had a press ID from the sheriff’s department in Palm Beach County that pretty much got me in anywhere I wanted to go in South Florida and I took advantage of that fact. As far as going to Miami to photograph Jimi, I was preparing for that festival several weeks in advance. I made arrangements to meet some friends that lived near the venue and I went with my two best friends at the time. My buddy convinced his girlfriend to drive us to Gulfstream Park, and soon after, Jimi Hendrix was in my camera viewfinder.

What was it like getting those shots of Jimi?
Photographing Jimi Hendrix was one of the highlights of my career in rock concert photography and was a great way to start it off. I had only photographed concerts in closed venues and this was on a whole new level. The atmosphere of the open-air venue and the solid vibes of hardcore Jimi fans was as intense as Jimi’s performances. That’s right—Jimi played twice on May 18th: once in the daytime and again that evening. I had two opportunities, but in reality, I would only have one. At the evening performance, I was using a very powerful strobe to light my shots. I took a full length of Jimi and moved in for a close-up. Then, pow. From maybe just 10 feet away, I hit Jimi with this powerful amount of light. There was a pause and I thought I heard him say, “No more flash,” so I stopped taking pictures. In reality, we found out by researching for my book, The Miami Pop Festival, A Photographic Experience, that Jimi was complaining about the spotlight that was zooming in and out on him. The lighting director, Zed Bennett from Thee Image, was running a spotlight as well as the Liquid Light show, and Jimi was having none of that bright light in his face.

What was it like backstage at the festival? 
I had a very strange event happen backstage. My camera bag was just that, a bag with no compartments. Just throw everything in it and go. A bad decision to say the least. There were some drawbacks with the camera that I had at that festival. I had to pre-focus, walk backwards and shoot. My film only let me take 12 photos at a time, and then I had to put in a new roll, usually while walking backwards to keep up with Jimi’s arrival. As I was in the middle of all this confusion, this guy walks up to me with an outstretched hand with my film in it. It seems like with all of that jostling for position I must have tipped the camera bag or something because I was just handed back unexposed and exposed film. What a disaster that would have been to lose all of that hard work.
Did Jimi ever see your work?
Jimi never saw my Miami Pop Festival photographs, but I licensed my photos to the Jimi Hendrix estate. Sony Records produced a live double vinyl album in 2013 [called Miami Pop Festival] with only my photos. I also license my images to Andrew Pitsicalis and Leon Hendrix of Purple Haze Properties. Leon will perform a tribute to his brother at the opening party for my HistoryMiami exhibit.
Which artist would you say was your favorite to shoot over the years?
My concert photography has given me the opportunity to interact with many of the rock legends, including the Allman Brothers, Richie Havens, Janice Joplin, Johnny Winter, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, and Johnny Cash, to name a few. I took photographs of John Lennon during an interview and he was definitely a highlight, but as far as performances, it was Jimi, hands down. He was and will always be the greatest rock guitarist ever.
Jimi Hendrix Performing "Foxey Lady" at the 1968 Miami Pop Festival


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