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Monthly Memoirs Wednesday, 11/01/2023

How Sly Stone shook up Paerson one hot July evening.

November 2023 Monthly Memoir

How Sly Stone shook up Paterson one hot July evening:
At a party in Mayor Lawrence (Pat) Kramer’s backyard in the early fall of 1969, I stumbled into a conversation with some neighbors who were involved with a group having something to do with the Great Falls, the engine that spawned this country’s industrial independence. I frankly have little memory of what – if anything – I may have contributed to the venture, but perhaps a year later, I found myself being quizzed by a young, corpulent reporter from (I believe) the Paterson Evening News.
He had been sniffing out anyone that had anything to do with the redevelopment of Paterson, and somehow had come across my name, At some point in the interview, he asked me what I wanted to see happen to bring some respectability back to the city; and how I’d proposed doing that. Almost without thinking, I blurted out that the first order of business was to bring people back to town; and the best way of doing that would be in the form of entertainment. At the time Manhattan’s summer evenings glistened with outdoor entertainment, including the then massively popular series known as the Schaefer Concerts at the (7,000 seat) Wollman Rink in Central Park.

Well, Paterson had just the place to conduct its own concert series: the even larger 10,000 seat Hinchliffe Stadium, that precious little concrete oval which at times had been the home field for several Negro League baseball teams as well as the Paterson Panthers of the American Professional Football Association, a forerunner of the NFL. Before it was miraculously saved from the wrecker’s ball by Paterson’s current mayor André Sayegh in or around 2020, it had long been left for dead: Trees grew through the concrete stands; the turf had been dug up, the “field” used as a dumping ground. But in 1969, the place was regularly used – and rented out – for all sorts of events.
In short order I had joined a Chamber of Commerce group dedicated to redevelopment (aptly named, “Paterson Now”), and they solidly supported the idea. Soon I was meeting with Jim (‘something or other’), the general manager of WPAT (then a popular metropolitan AM and FM broadcaster) at their office, across the street from the New York Public Library on West 40th Street in Manhattan. Their license was coming up for renewal and participating in a local eleemosynary exercise would enhance their chances of obtaining FCC approval. Quickly, the outline of a venture was hatched: I would promote a series of concerts at the stadium; WPAT would supply the main promotion; and they would get a local heavyweight to capitalize the venture. Within weeks, Jim advised that Coca Cola (which had a bottling plant on McLean Blvd) would become the major sponsor; and I brought in a professional promoter – American Concert Association – to co-produce the events.

Lining up the real estate proved easier than anticipated: I was assured – by Bob Schwarz, the attorney for the Paterson Board of Education (then and still the stadium’s owner) – that no special permits were required; and a lease was quickly drafted and signed. The first concert – scheduled for July 10, 1971 – would feature “Sly and the Family Stone,” a popular but notoriously unreliable rock group. But hey, everything was settling into place; and we were sure to come out of the box blazing! And while the Chamber of Commerce was enthusiastically on board, we clearly outran the interference: that is, the concert was put together before our grand plan was put into effect. So we were on our own. Not a bad place to be (or so we thought!), since everyone would have a chance to watch a test run before making any commitments. In the end, the Chamber of Commerce’s sole contribution was a line – at the foot of our principal advertising poster (a so-called “3-sheet”) – that immodestly claimed the concert to be: “A Paterson Now Project”!
The concert was scheduled for the very heart of Summer ... during a heat wave. What could go wrong? Well, no sooner did we begin advertising the show than the Catholic Church decided they didn’t want a rock concert – or at least that rock concert – interfering with the quietude of our town. So they embarked on a full-court press strongly objecting to the concert, complaining – among other things – that there would be “nude swimming” at the foot of the falls. “Nude swimming?” In the Passaic River? A river recognized as one of the most polluted rivers in the world? ((If only! What great publicity that would’ve been!) Clearly the clergy had never been “down by that riverside!” But that was not their only complaint. No indeed: their continuing attacks included unsubtle suggestions of disorder, rowdiness and violence. Just the sort of press that virtually guaranteed to put a damper on the crowd size ... which it ultimately did! And, unfortunately, the Catholic Church had more political influence than little old me. So within days I got a letter from the Board of Aldermen advising that they were “canceling” the concert.

Fortunately they were meeting the following evening, so I attended and presented an impassioned argument in support of allowing the show to proceed. Of course, one of my arguments – the principal argument – was the danger of attracting a large throng to the concert, only to find out, at the very last minute, that the concert had been canceled. (It’s not a guarantee of a riot, but it’s a pretty good start.)
“How many tickets have you already sold?” was the next question. I frankly had no idea, and told them so; tickets were being handled by my co-promoter, Bert Horowitz. Could my inquisitor have been so credulous as to then ask me to call him and find out? Thankfully, yes! Which is exactly what I did: I excused myself; called Bert from a phone booth right in City Hall (remember phone booths?), told him what was going on; and then asked him – with a straight face –  “Bert, how many tickets have been sold?” “We’re practically sold out already” was his answer, an answer I duly reported back to the board. Consternation among these political giants followed; and then a resigned decision: “Given the risk of an unruly crowd reaction, the board reluctantly will allow the concert to take place!”

In fact, after the hullabaloo generated by the Catholic Church, only 4,000 paying customers moved through the turnstiles. (Perhaps another thousand climbed over the fences.) And to make matters worse, by 11:00, the main attraction had still not arrived! Sly and his family/gang were holed up at the Marriott Hotel on Route 80 in Saddle Brook; and when he hadn’t turned up by 11:00 PM, a phalanx of police cars – led by the chief of police and Pat Kramer’s wife Mary Ellen – headed out to get him to the concert. As was described to me later that evening, this contingent blew past the group’s private security and into a room, where they found the band (including Sly in his underwear) smoking some very strong “weed” and laughing it up, with no apparent concern for the gig.. Our police chief (another “Jim”) minced no words: pointing his index finger directly at Sly, he announced, “You’re either going to the concert. . . or you’re going to jail!” At which point, Sly gets up off his bed and says, "C'mon, guys, we're going to work!" (No kidding, I got this from the horse's mouth!) And that is how our main attraction wound up going on-stage at around 12:15 AM.

Perhaps not surprisingly, that was the last time I was ever let near Hinchliffe Stadium! Too bad too: We had 3 acts lined up in the coming months. The next “act” was to be Tina Turner, at the time one of the hottest acts in show business. So instead of a steady menu of first-class concerts (that pretty much would have drawn large crowds to the falls area), the city (actually Pat’s wife Mary Ellen) got WPAT to promote a single concert later that Summer. (It may have been Duke Ellington) What I do remember is that the city pulled out all the stops, advertising for sponsors, at $1,000.00 a pop, who got a fancy catered dinner on the power plant lawn and front row “house seats” for the concert. I drove over to the lookout late on the afternoon of the concert. All I could see was perhaps 8 or 10 8-seat round tables, meticulously dressed with white table cloths, china and flatware ... but no diners!  I suppose they could all have come late ... but I was told that when the concert began, almost none of the reserved seats had been filled! Clearly, all those businessmen that Mrs. Kramer hit up for their “voluntary” donations just mailed them in ... and left it at that.
 WPAT got its license renewed (the bait they were offered to get involved) . . . and, there may have been one or two subsequent concerts at the aging facility (one accompanied the city’s Great Falls Bicentennial Celebration in 1976); but any enthusiasm for turning Hinchliffe Stadium into a major concert venue died the day the city fathers’ knees trembled from a silly – and baseless – fear of kids skinny-dipping in the pool at the foot of the falls.

Flyer Sly & the Family Stone