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About Bert Sommer
Bert Sommer is often referred to as the lost star from Woodstock. Those who have only seen the documentary film, or heard the two sets released from the 1969 festival can be forgiven, however, if they are utterly unfamiliar with his name. Sommer was one of a tiny handful of performers who played the festival but never accrued career success, much less fame and fortune, coming out of it. Sommer was born in 1949, and grew up on Long Island. He was drawn to folk music as well as to pop and rock, and became part of the orbit of musicians that coalesced around that New York suburb's music scene. He was a natural musician who was self-taught on the guitar and piano, and who also wrote songs. By his mid-teens, he had become close to Michael Brown, later of the Left Banke, with whom he frequently performed in the early years. But he also traveled in circles that included Leslie West's much harder rocking band the Vagrants, for whom he wrote several songs. His first moment of potential fame as a performer came amid the tumultuous first year or so the Left Banke's fame, when Sommer replaced original lead singer Steve Martin on the single "And Suddenly." But the original lineup was back together soon after that, and that single -- which, thanks to the controversy (including a lawsuit) over the lineup and the use of the name, was never on any of their albums -- was more of a curio in their output than one of its highlights. Sommer was drawn to acting, as well, and by 1968 he had landed the role of "Woof" in the musical Hair, replacing Steve Curry, who had originated the role -- with his frizzed-out Afro, wide, open features, and gentle, cheerful demeanor, he seemed the epitome of genial hippie-dom in the prime days of the counter-culture.
He also landed a recording contract with Capitol Records in 1968 which led to the recording of an album, The Road to Travel, with Artie Kornfeld. That release, like so many other folk-cum-singer/songwriter recordings tried by Capitol in those years (records by Jake Holmes and Hilton Valentine come to mind), died on the vine. But his relationship with Kornfeld, who later became one of the prime movers behind the Woodstock Festival, seemed to pay off with interest on August 15, 1969 when Sommer took the stage in front of several hundred thousand people to perform.
Based on the recorded evidence, his performance was a match for much of the rest of the music displayed that day and that weekend. Sommer performed 10 songs at Woodstock, and the audience enjoyed what he did, though through a combination of technical malfunctions and record-company politics, until 2009 he was never included in any of the commercial releases, on film or record, to come out of the event. Warner Bros. ended up grabbing the rights to everything out of Woodstock, and Sommer, as a Capitol artist, would never gain a spot even on either of the album sets, not even on Woodstock 2, which was used to tie up loose ends (he was aced out of the movie on technical grounds, and by the time Woodstock 2 appeared, he -- unlike his fellow hippie/folkie Melanie -- had faded into obscurity, so he lost out twice).
Artie Kornfeld recorded him a second time on his own Eleuthera Records, but Inside Bert Sommer never sold. Sommer seemed to take all of this in stride, and during the mid-'70s returned to acting, this time on television as part of the Kroft Supershow. He cut more music later in the decade, and subsequently moved to upstate New York, where he continued to perform and write songs until his death, from a chronic respiratory illness, in 1990. He has retained a cult following across the decades, similar to other prematurely departed singer/songwriters of his era, such as Tim Hardin and Tim Buckley. In 2009, as part of the releases to mark the 40th anniversary of Woodstock, the first official release of Sommer's performance at the festival could be heard on the six-CD Woodstock: 40 Years On: Back to Yasgur's Farm. ~ Bruce Eder
- Feb 7, 1949
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