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June 10, 2011
by Nate Seltenrich

I wanted to know how it all it began. I wondered when and why live concerts first appeared in Lower Sproul Plaza, and how that seed grew into the rich tradition we recognize today. The trouble was, so did everyone else—even those who were there from the start.

My quest began with Country Joe McDonald, the Berkeley folk legend who played Woodstock. A website called Chicken on a Unicycle suggested McDonald had performed in Lower Sproul Plaza as early as 1965: On October 15 and 16 of that year, it says that he played for the International Days of Protest and Vietnam Day Committee Teach-in.

I called McDonald at his home in Berkeley. He didn’t recognize the name of the purportedly exhaustive website, and recalled this particular teach-in having been held in Zellerbach Auditorium. But subsequent research revealed that Zellerbach wasn’t built until 1968; go figure.

McDonald referred me to his old friend Barry Olivier, who attended Berkeley from 1953 to 1956 and later served as an ASUC staff member from 1960 through 1963. He may well have been SUPERB’s original concert manager, and remains a font of folk-related information. Back in 1958, Olivier founded the University of California Folk Music Festival, which at its peak brought tens of thousands of people to campus for five days of music and workshops each summer.

On opening day of the 11th Annual Berkeley folk festival—July 4, 1968, to be exact—he unceremoniously pressed Lower Sproul Plaza into service for the first time. If you’re looking for an origin story, that just might be it. Olivier couldn’t recall anyone ever having used the plaza for amplified concerts prior to that fateful day, nor did he stage another performance there before his ASUC-sponsored festival folded in 1970.

Seeking corroboration, I turned to a few members of the current concerts crew. They knew that their organization dated to the early ’60s, but couldn’t remember the precise year until they read it on the back of their staff sweatshirts: 1964, four years before Olivier’s festival. They also said they had no clue as to when SUPERB started producing live music.

The students directed me to the microfilm room in the basement of Doe Library, where I could scour every issue of The Daily Cal from 1964. I gladly obliged, but found not a single article about SUPERB, nor any evidence that it was then producing live music on campus.

So I chased more leads: former SUPERB concert managers, longtime ASUC staff members, past and present general managers at campus radio station KALX. Each offered bits and pieces from their own experience, but not nearly enough to complete the puzzle.

Finally, I called unofficial campus historian Steven Finacom. I told him what I knew about live music in Lower Sproul, and what I still wanted to figure out. His answer shouldn’t have surprised me: He knew only as much as I’d explained, and had nothing to add to my disjointed history. Perhaps some mysteries are meant to go unsolved.

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