By Andy Piascik
When Bridgeport’s Kennedy Stadium opened in 1964, there was as much excitement in the city as there was three decades later with the construction of the Ballpark at Harbor Yard and Webster Bank Arena. There were plenty of parks in the Park City at the time including many that were used by the Senior City League and other local athletic teams. But since the removal of the grandstand at Newfield Park, a long-time home to minor league baseball whose field was graced by Lou Gehrig among others, and the demise of Candlelite Stadium, which also hosted minor league baseball as well as semi-pro football teams, Bridgeport was without a similar venue until the construction of Kennedy.
Named for the recently assassinated President John F. Kennedy, the stadium immediately became home to the University of Bridgeport and Bassick and Central High School football teams as well as, a short time later, the Bridgeport Hi-Ho Jets of the Atlantic Coast Football League. The Jets and UB football are long gone but the stadium today is as busy as ever, hosting high school and local club soccer teams as well as youth football leagues.
Rock and Roll
Kennedy also played host to a number of big-name rock and roll acts for a brief period. In 1968 and 1969, these included The Doors, Blind Faith, The Young Rascals and Joan Baez. There were also composite shows in later years such as by Herman’s Hermits, Chubby Checker and others as part of the 1974 coronation of the Barnum Festival King and Queen, and Rita Coolidge, Kris Kristofferson and Harry Chapin appeared together on June 1, 1975.
Perhaps the best known band to play Kennedy was The Jimi Hendrix Experience featuring Jimi Hendrix, hailed in many quarters as the greatest rock and roll guitarist ever. The Experience’s other members were Mitch Mitchell on drums and Noel Redding on bass and back-up vocals, and they came to town on August 26, 1968 as part of the band’s four-month U.S. tour. (1) There were ads in the Bridgeport Telegram and Bridgeport Post in the weeks leading up to the concert and tickets were priced at $4, $5 and $6. The band’s fee was reportedly $14,000.
An unsigned article in the next day’s Post reported a crowd of 7,000, less than half of Kennedy’s seating capacity. (2) Because the stage was set up in the middle of the football field with the band facing north toward Central High School, presumably all of those in attendance were sitting on only that one side of the stadium.
The band’s set list included a number of songs that fans would have recognized immediately and which remain staples of classic rock radio stations today, including Purple Haze. The Experience was preceded by warm-up acts Eire Apparent and Soft Machine, neither of whom made much of an impression on the anonymous reporter from the Bridgeport Post who was in attendance. (3)
A Tumultuous Era
The concert in Bridgeport came during one of the most tumultuous eras of modern history. The preceding months saw the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia, prolonged upheaval in Japan and a near-revolution in France. Five days before Hendrix and his mates took the stage at Kennedy, Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia. Just the day before in Chicago, a gathering of tens of thousands people protesting the Vietnam War at the Democratic National Convention was attacked by police, resulting in hundreds of injuries.
Bright Lights, Lots of Cops
The volatility in the country played out in a small way at Kennedy. According to Thomas Hammang, who states he was at the concert, the lights were left on during all the performances. Writing many years later on a blog devoted to Jimi Hendrix, Hammang speculated that was because the police were expecting trouble. He also noted that having the lights on made it “very hard for the band to make any kind of audience contact,” a situation compounded, Hammang states, by the fact that the stage was 50 feet from the audience. (4)
The reporter from the Post also commented on the lights as well as the presence of the police, noting that “the precautionary over-lighting and over-policed atmosphere of the show added nothing to the performance.” (5) One blog entry citing an interview done by Hendrix biographer Harry Shapiro with the Experience’s manager Chas Chandler (previously a member of the Animals) quotes Chandler as saying he was arrested just prior to the set at Kennedy for complaining about the lights. (6)
The Post reporter wrote that “one really couldn’t hear his [Hendrix’s] voice for the whining and droning of his guitar. He opened with ‘Are You Experienced?’, continued through ‘Foxy Lady’, ‘Hey Joe’ and ‘Spanish Castle Magic’, somewhat lacking in his legendary verve.” He or she did add, however, that “Hendrix is one of the best, and the concert the best attended in Kennedy Stadium this season.” (7)
Over-lighting and over-policing aside, the shape of Kennedy created certain problems. Performers situated on a stationary stage are far different from a football game or a marching drum and bugle corps. Because the stadium is rectangular rather than oval, there was apparently little choice but to position the stage in the middle of the field with the performers facing toward one side. Rather than selling tickets for the whole stadium, where attendees on one side would be looking at the backs of the performers all evening, the choice apparently was to make seating available only on the north side.
The option of positioning the stage in one of the end zones was probably ruled out because that likely would have involved setting up temporary seating on the grass field in front of the stage and also because it was deemed unlikely that enough tickets would be sold to justify doing so. That the Experience concert was “the best attended” at 7,000 supports the latter supposition and it must have been a bit eerie to see a rock concert in a venue with nearly ten thousand empty seats.
Probably for some combination of these reasons, the brief heyday of rock and roll at Kennedy ended in 1969. The handful of shows held there since notwithstanding, the stadium just never caught on as a concert venue. Local popular music fans were thus among those most pleased when Webster Bank Arena opened 30+ years later.
- Jimi Hendrix: Electric Gypsy by Harry Shapiro (St. Martin’s Press, 1991)
- “The Hendrix Experience Plays to 7,000 in Stadium,” Bridgeport Post, August 27, 1968
- Eire Apparent did “the worst ‘Baby Blue’ ever, and ‘Gloria’ with a great deal of noise but no control whatsoever” while Soft Machine featured an “excellent drummer” but was “otherwise no more impressive than the Irish group.” (Bridgeport Post, August 27, 1968).
- Bridgeport Post, August 27, 1968
- 7. Bridgeport Post, August 27, 1968