Bert Sommer: From Woodstock to Albany
Long one of Nippertown’s most colorful, charismatic and talented musicians, Bert Sommer is getting some long-overdue respect.
Sadly, it’s nearly 20 years after his death in Albany, where he spent the final seven years of his life playing solo and with such bands as the Fabulous Newports and B.W. & the Poor Boys around town at clubs like Quintessence and Doc McCutcheon’s.
But 40 years ago, the 20-year-old Sommer made his concert debut in front nearly half a million people at the 1969 Woodstock Festival.
Yes, his concert debut.
The young singer-songwriter didn’t have a band at the time, but he brought a couple of his musician friends along with him to Bethel – guitarist-keyboardist Ira Stone and bassist Charlie Bilello. Sommer was the third act to perform on the festival’s opening night – following Richie Havens and Sweetwater. He played a nine-song set of his original tunes plus a cover of Simon & Garfunkle’s “America,” which earned him a standing ovation.
Yeah, Bert Sommer should have been a star. But he didn’t make it into the Woodstock movie. Or the Woodstock album. Or any of the subsequent Woodstock releases. And, in fact, his name isn’t even listed on the official plaque that’s installed at the old Yasgur farm.
But for the 40th anniversary of the fest, Sommer is finally getting a moment in the sun. The Wall Street Journal printed a feature story about Bert last week, calling him “the forgotten man of Woodstock.”
More importantly, three songs from Sommer’s live Woodstock performance are finally surfacing on “Woodstock – 40 Years On: Back to Yasgur’s Farm,” the new six-CD box set compilation scheduled for release on Rhino Records on Tuesday, August 18. The set includes “Jennifer,” “And When It’s Over” (both from his 1968 debut album on Capitol Records, “The Road to Travel”), as well as “Smile” (from his 1969 sophomore album, “Inside Bert Sommer” on Eleuthera Records).
In his four-and-a-half star review of the upcoming box set in Rolling Stone, writer David Fricke wrote, “The folk-rock strains of ‘And When It’s Over’ and Sommer’s high, rippling voice suggest a Tim Buckley-in-waiting.”
In his liner notes to the upcoming box set, Bud Scoppa is even more enthusiastic, writing, “Then Bert Sommer took the stage and filled the 600-acre site with his powerfully melodious tenor and crisply constructed songs. The performance of this nearly forgotten singer-songwriter is downright revelatory – primarily because hardly anyone has heard what he was capable of until now. What this set suggests is that if Sommer had been on Elektra or Warner Bros. – or if he hadn’t been passed over for Wadleigh’s film – he might’ve wound up with a career like that of Tim Buckley, whose music and vocal acuity are the closest parallel to what he thrillingly delivers on these three songs. It’s now apparent that this talented artist, whom history has passed by, provided the absolute highlight of the first day.”
THE BLURB ON BERT
Bert scored his biggest hit with the anthemic “We’re All Playing in the Same Band.”
Bert recorded four major-label albums.
Bert starred in the original Los Angeles production of “Hair,” as well as the Broadway production.
Bert wrote songs for such bands as Leslie West & the Vagrants and Montage.
Bert was a member of the baroque pop group the Left Banke.
Bert starred in the classic kiddie network TV show, “Kaptain Kong & the Kongs.”
Bert’s music appeared in the soundtrack of such films as “The Patriot” (1986) and “Stella” (1989).
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