WEB EXTRA: Rock and Roll Riot, extended play.
What might have become a milestone in Richmond's cultural history and the beginning of a musical tradition ended in blood, fire and wreckage at City Stadium on a beautiful Saturday afternoon in April 1974.
"It was strange," recalls Marc Arenstein, promoter of the Cherry Blossom Music Festival. "[The authorities] acted like it was Vietnam. It was just kids sitting around listening to music."
The day before the festival, Arenstein gazed at the City Stadium through the window of the chartered plane bringing him to Richmond from Louisville, Ky., where he'd organized a Bobby Womack concert. An R&B artist, Womack was scheduled to perform during the second day of the Cherry Blossom Music Festival.
A Richmond native, Arenstein, then 24, wanted his city to become known for something cool and exciting — for something other than being the former capital of the Confederacy.
He'd already organized concerts at Richmond's Tantilla and the ballroom at the Mosque (now the Landmark Theater). He'd brought Ray Charles, Curtis Mayfield, and Sly and the Family Stone to the city. But "the really big rock acts — The Who, Led Zeppelin — were bypassing Richmond for larger venues," Arenstein says.
His Cherry Blossom Music Festival on April 27 and 28 would be an unprecedented event for the city, a general-admission, two-day, open-air concert with an all-star lineup: Boz Scaggs, Steve Miller, Dr. John, Mandrill, Kool & The Gang, and George Clinton with the Funkadelic.
And now, after a year of planning, it was about to happen a few blocks from Arenstein's childhood home on Malvern Avenue.
He envisioned the stadium packed with 40,000 people soaking up sun against the backdrop of their favorite music. To encourage the vibe he wanted, he used a phrase from a New York City concert bill, "No Hassles," on advertising for the festival.
People came from Pennsylvania, the Carolinas and as far away as Texas, packing Richmond hotels. The managers, who knew Arenstein, told him their places were filling "with polite people paying cash." On Saturday, when some 14,000 people gathered at the stadium, even nature offered a blessing. "It was gorgeous," Arenstein says, "April-in-Richmond perfect."
But he didn't anticipate the anxiety of city officials and police. The "No Hassles" line had raised a red flag for city manager William Leidinger, public safety director Jack M. Fulton and commonwealth's attorney Aubrey M. Davis Jr.. The city fathers met with police, deciding there would no tolerance for pot smoking, media reports said.
Richmond's vice squad set up a processing center in the stadium, while 13 officers with dogs patrolled the grounds, and undercover officers kept watch, the reports said.
During Boz Scaggs' set, Bill Beville, who worked for Arenstein, noticed a disturbance way up in the stands. "You could see cans with the fishtail of beer coming out and dozens of them getting tossed," he recalls. "While I was standing there, the violence expanded like a summer storm."
A plainclothes officer, brandishing his pistol, attempted to arrest a shirtless spectator for smoking marijuana. "The guy pulled a gun!" Arenstein exclaims in disbelief 40 years later. "In front of 14,000 people and newspaper photographers?"
Beville dashed to Steve Miller's trailer, asking him to try to calm the crowd with a rock version of the national anthem. "[Miller] took one look out his door and said, ‘No way. Soon as we get paid, we're leaving,' " Beville recalls.
With 50 handcuffed people in tow, police retreated into the stadium's field house. When officers tried to emerge — at one point, they strapped on University of Richmond football helmets — they, too, were pelted with rocks and bottles.
Two busloads of city and state officers arrived. More mayhem ensued, as they waded into the crowd with clubs and dogs, while a police helicopter buzzed overhead.
By the end, the ruckus destroyed 11 police cars, sent 15 people to emergency rooms and racked up $50,000 in damages (Today, almost $250,0000). Officials later estimated that “only a few hundred” audience members participated in the worst of the violence.
Arenstein had hoped to stage four concerts a year at the stadium, which, he says, could have generated $250,000 for the city. Instead, outdoor rock concerts were banned for three years.
The festival made national headlines, but not the kind that Arenstein sought. Rolling Stone magazine published this line — "A Real Rock & Roll Riot in Richmond" — over a photograph of a wild-haired, shirtless man jumping on a car roof while a young woman cheered him on. Later, Life magazine used the image for its end-of-the-year photo issue.