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Erie Canal Soda Pop Festival (Fri 9/2-Sun 9/4)

Black Oak Arkansas / Ramatam / Mike Quatro / Bang / Cheech & Chong / Foghat / Albert King / Brownsville Station / Santana / Canned Heat / Flash / Ravi Shankar / Rory Gallagher / Flash Cadillac & the Continental Kids / Lee Michaels and Frosty / Ted Nugent and The Amboy Dukes / Farm / CK Thunder / Gentle Giant / Vince Vance and the Valiants


September 2, 1972


Bull Island


near Griffin, IN,

Promoters: Tom Dunkin and Bob Alexander

Ticket courtesy of Bill Savage

Flyer front courtesy of Steve Bate

Flyer back courtesy of Steve Bate

Ad/flyer courtesy of Jay Black and Doug Dashiell

Photo by Bill Savage

Ticket courtesy of Jay Black (story below from Jay Black – the Courier & Press article)

4 Photos Below provided by Jay Black

The Erie Canal Soda Pop Festival was a rock festival held on the Labor Day weekend of 1972 near Griffin, Indiana on Bull Island, a strip of land in Illinois but on the Indiana side of the Wabash River. A crowd estimated at 200,000 to 300,000 attended the concert, four times what the promoters estimated. Food and water were in short supply, and the gathering descended into relative anarchy. After the show was finished, remnants of the crowd members burned the main stage.

The scheduled lineup included Black Sabbath, Joe Cocker, the Allman Brothers, John Mayall, Cheech & Chong, Canned Heat, Fleetwood Mac, Ballin’ Jack, Amboy Dukes, Bob Seger, Bang, Ravi Shankar, Albert King, Brownsville Station, Mike Quatro, Gentle Giant, Black Oak Arkansas, the Eagles, The Chambers Brothers, Boones Farm, Slade, Nazareth, and Delbert & Glenn. However, only bands that included Flash Cadillac & the Continental Kids, Black Oak Arkansas, Ramatam, Mike Quatro, Bang, Cheech and Chong, Foghat, Albert King, Brownsville Station, Santana, Canned Heat, Flash, Ravi Shankar, Rory Gallagher, Lee Michaels and Frosty, The Amboy Dukes, Farm, CK Thunder, and Gentle Giant actually performed. Vince Vance and the Valiants played after Ted Nugent of The Amboy Dukes.

The following article by Sean McDevitt was printed in the Evansville Courier & Press on Sep 2 2012, 40 years later to the day of the festival.  It details the story as told by the one of the festival promoters, Bob Alexander.

Erie Canal Soda Pop Festival AKA Bull Island
Labor Day weekend 1972. Indiana festival was actually in Illinois.
By Sean Mcdevitt

Evansville Courrier & Press

Bob Alexander was getting anxious. The scheduled start of his beleaguered Labor Day music festival, for which he’d already sold thousands of tickets and booked some of the biggest names in rock n’ roll, was less than 48 hours away.

At that moment, the 20-something music entrepreneur could feel it slipping out of control. He and co-promoter Tom Duncan had burned through piles of cash, much of it generated by advance ticket sales. They were entangled in more legal proceedings than they could track.

Meanwhile, thousands of long-haired youngsters, many of whom had learned of the event by word of mouth, were on their way to the Tri-State. Many were already in the area, setting up camp in places like Chandler, Poseyville and the Evansville riverfront.

The biggest problem: Alexander and Duncan still didn’t have a site. Their original plan for a Woodstock-style megafest at Chandler Raceway was blocked after encountering intense opposition.

It was Aug. 31, 1972, a Thursday, and Alexander was meeting with Evansville Mayor Russell Lloyd. It was a race against time.

“Mayor Lloyd called for a special meeting,” Alexander recalls. “And he said, ‘What are you going to do with this crowd?’ And I said, ‘Mayor, what are you going to do with it?’ Tom and I had it planned at Chandler Raceway, but then the injunctions came. We couldn’t stop the people from coming to town.

“We weren’t sleeping at night,” Alexander continues. “We thought that everything was going to just go down the drain. But we’d spent over $700,000, so our position was that we had to do this festival some way. Come hell or high water, the people were going to have an event.”

In the end, the people did have an event. Originally called the Erie Canal Soda Pop Festival, it was later renamed the Labor Day Soda Pop Festival once legal action forced it away from Chandler.

To those who were there, however, it will always be known as Bull Island.

Bob Alexander, born and raised in Virginia, had lived in places like California and North Carolina before a stint in the U.S. Army — stationed at Fort Campbell, Ky. — introduced him to Evansville.

A chance encounter with the late rock legend Roy Orbison served as the catalyst for his entry into the world of music promotion. In 1964, Orbison was in the process of changing record labels, leaving Monument Records for MGM, and MGM’s plans for the “Oh, Pretty Woman” singer called for him to make movies.

At the time, Alexander happened to represent a playwright whose script, he thought, may be to Orbison’s liking. After the script had made its way to Orbison, the two men met in Nashville, Tenn.

“Orbison said, ‘Bob, I don’t like your script, but you seem to have a great knowledge of music. Have you ever thought of being a concert promoter?’ I said, ‘Well, give me some dates.’ So he did.”

Orbison allowed Alexander to book several Midwest appearances, including one at the Evansville Coliseum in late 1964. After paying Orbison $2,000 for the Evansville date and enjoying a modest windfall for his efforts, Alexander had found a new career.

“That show was a complete sellout, and it whetted my appetite for the concert business,” Alexander recalls. “I was in it for well over 40 years.”

Alexander would bring dozens of acts to Evansville, including several of the Dick Clark’s Caravan of Stars package tours, but his promotions, like the music business itself, had become increasingly ambitious by the early 1970s.

One of them, in particular, set the stage for Bull Island.  Bosse Field rockfest.

The Bosse Field Freedom Fest, a single-day event that took place on Sunday, July 2, 1972, drew, at least by some estimates, as many as 30,000 people and featured performances by Ike and Tina Turner, Edgar Winter, Dr. John, Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker.

The 12-hour show was a first for Evansville, marking the city’s entry into the world of outdoor rockfests. For many residents who lived around Garvin Park, seeing the thousands upon thousands of long-haired young people who attended the event was also something new.

As many as 7,000 of them, according to published reports, were staying in Garvin Park in the wee hours of Sunday morning, hours before the rockfest was set to begin. The park’s swimming pool was in full use, and cars packed the Bosse Field parking lot and the park’s circular drive.

“Long-haired, bearded boys and girls wearing scanty clothes milled around the area,” The Evansville Courier reported. “Some were just sitting on the ground talking; others were dripping wet after taking a swim in the park’s small lake … But the mood was peaceful and the youths were for the most part very quiet.”

As for the show, it wasn’t without incident. Five people were arrested outside the ballpark in a scuffle with police, and the city immediately sued Alexander to recover the money it cost to clean Garvin Park and repair Bosse Field.

But overall, the event was a hit, and a lucrative one for Alexander and his co-promoter, Duncan, an Evansville resident. Its success immediately got the two men thinking big.

“I made the most money that I’d ever made in my life at that point by doing that event,” Alexander recalls. “I don’t remember exactly how much we made because it was so long ago, but I remember that I took my whole family down to Montego Bay, Jamaica, after it was over, and I had a real ball.”

Mayor Lloyd, however, wasn’t quite as enthusiastic. The day following the event, he announced that Evansville would not permit another rock festival of such magnitude.

Shortly after the Bosse Field Freedom Fest, Alexander crossed paths with the mayor, then in his first year in office. “He was asking me about the event,” Alexander remembers, “and I said, ‘Mayor, if you think that Bosse Field thing was something, just wait. We’re going to really put on a big festival here.’ And the mayor laughed and said, ‘No, you’re not!”

The festival nobody wanted

In early August 1972, just weeks removed from the Bosse Field triumph, Alexander and Duncan Productions announced plans for an event at Chandler Raceway Park. They said — in a fit of youthful hyperbole — it would be “bigger than Woodstock.”

Contracts were signed, helicopters were rented, and holes were being dug for some 500 portable toilets. More than 30 rock groups were booked, and tickets went on sale in several cities around the country.

But officials were concerned about traffic, security and the water and sanitation needs for 50,000 to 60,000 fans expected to attend. Just eight days after its announcement, a restraining order was issued against the event.

By the time an injunction hearing began six days later in Warrick Circuit Court, the promoters had sold 8,500 tickets at $20 each. The opposition to the Erie Canal Soda Pop Festival was just getting under way.

“As I look back, probably the biggest mistake that I made as a young man was that I didn’t know how to maneuver and work within the political system,” Alexander says. “And even if I had at that time, we would have not been given the necessary permits.”

On Aug. 23, the Warrick County injunction was granted. That same day, Evansville officials, not wanting Alexander and Duncan’s festival in their back yard, either, filed an injunction petition of their own.

Officials in Posey County and Vanderburgh County also got into the act, taking legal steps to block the festival in their jurisdictions. Injunctions eventually were filed in Gibson and Pike counties, too.

Warrick County didn’t stop at simply barring the event. The court order there barred Alexander and Duncan from even promoting it or selling tickets. With sales climbing, it wasn’t long before Alexander and Duncan were ordered to appear to face contempt charges.

As the legal struggles mounted, something much bigger was taking shape below the surface. On-air personalities at WLS Radio in Chicago, a station with a signal powerful enough to reach listeners all the way down to New Orleans, took an increasing interest in what was now being called the Labor Day Soda Pop Festival.

The station’s ultimate influence, as it turned out, brought Alexander and Duncan Productions much more than the $2,800 full-page ad in Rolling Stone magazine they’d purchased.

Recalls Alexander: “They were on WLS about every 15 minutes talking about the festival — for free! So they started spreading the word nationwide, and we knew people were coming because of all the phone calls we received. They just kept talking about it on the radio — ‘Where’s it going to be?’

“So inadvertently,” he continues, “all of the injunctions, and all of the negative press from the police and the state, that’s what really drew the crowds. There was no Internet or websites or anything at that time. If it were today, we’d have drawn a million people.”

A storm gathers

About a week before the festival was set to begin, the first rock fans arrived in the area. More than 100 took up residence at Chandler Raceway Park, most of them unaware the event was barred from the facility.

Others soon arrived in Poseyville, where Gene Nix, president of the town board, opened the town park overnight to the new long-haired visitors. Hundreds more made their home on the Evansville riverfront.

“They’re part of the growing army of nomadic young people roaming the country,” the Evansville Press reported. “Food and a place to stay are minor concerns.”

With uncertainty hanging in the air — and rumors flying about where the embattled festival may be held — Alexander and Duncan remained silent as they considered possible sites. As long as they held off, they reasoned, it was impossible for someone to go to court to stop them.

Even in their silence, however, the legal onslaught against the rockfest continued.

Four days before the scheduled start, and with rumors swirling that the promoters may shoot for a patch of land on the Wabash River known as Bull Island, a temporary restraining order was issued in Posey County. Hours later, a similar order was issued in White County, Ill.

Bull Island, the promoters said at the time, was just one of “many decoys,” but an increasing number of people knew they were bluffing.

‘Bulldozers at work’

Under normal circumstances, it would have been a curious choice for a festival site. Bull Island, which wasn’t really an island at all, was a remote peninsula located in the Wabash River. Of its 1,100 acres, 920 were in Illinois, the rest in Indiana.

While it was under the legal jurisdiction of Illinois, it was only accessible from Indiana. To get there, you had to travel along Interstate 64 or the since-decommissioned U.S. 460 near Griffin, Ind.

“A Posey County official said he flew over the area known as ‘Bull Island’ last week in a State Police helicopter,” the Evansville Courier reported on Aug. 29, 1972. “He reported he had seen bulldozers at work and apparent drilling for water with a sandpoint, a tool used in bottomland areas to tap water.”

The next day, police and prosecutors from Evansville, Mount Vernon, Ind., and Carmi, Ill., met with Indiana and Illinois state police in New Harmony, Ind., to discuss options for stopping the festival.

Meanwhile, Alexander and Duncan went on television to make a public appeal for the event to go forward. Thousands were traveling to the area, they said, noting that as many as 500,000 could ultimately arrive. And if there were no festival, all hell could break lose.

That’s when Mayor Russell Lloyd summoned Alexander for what proved to be a fateful meeting on Aug. 31. Although Lloyd was unwilling to help make the event happen in Evansville or Vanderburgh County, he was nonetheless intent on finding a resolution.

“He understood that all those people were here, and they were obviously going to have an event someplace,” Alexander says. “And I said to him, ‘You know, if you have any way of helping us…’

“And you know, I really believe that some way, it was Mayor Russell Lloyd who got us to the judge over in Southern Illinois,” Alexander continues. “Russell was a lawyer. I think that he may have been instrumental — I don’t know it for sure. But I know that after that meeting, we were suddenly going before a judge over in Southern Illinois.”

Even as Alexander and Duncan were on the verge of a deal, their legal problems, which were handled by the late Evansville attorney John Clouse, continued unabated. On the same day Alexander met with Lloyd, the promoters were targeted in a $500,000 class-action lawsuit filed in Vanderburgh Superior Court that accused them of misrepresentation.

But by Thursday night, a deal was finally in place that would allow the event to move forward. Bull Island, the promoters announced, would be the site of the Labor Day Soda Pop Festival of 1972.

And on Friday morning, after the promoters appeared in White County Court to post a $200,000 bond, it became official — but not before Alexander and Duncan had to address one other detail.

An Illinois law passed in 1971 prohibited gatherings of more than 5,000 people without obtaining a permit 60 days in advance. The violation would cost the promoters another $15,000 — $5,000 for each day of the three-day festival.

Alexander was eager to get the required permit. He had an investor ready to sink another $50,000 into the venture, capital that was sorely needed. But he couldn’t touch a dime of it until the paperwork was all in order.

“The minute that I got that permit in my hand,” Alexander recalls, “the investor transferred the 50 grand, and we were off.”

‘No place to put the cars’
It didn’t take long for word to spread that Bull Island would be the site of the rockfest. By Friday afternoon, all incoming routes were jam-packed with automobiles.

Interstate 64 was at a standstill. Many festival-goers, carrying backpacks and sleeping bags, abandoned their cars on the side of the road and walked for miles to get where they were headed.

Carrie Jane Roper of Evansville, then a 20-year-old student at the University of Tennessee, was among them. Traveling to the rockfest with college friends from Knoxville, Tenn., she remembers the remarkable scene on I-64.

“We arrived to this major backup to where there was no traffic getting through,” recalls the 1970 Harrison High graduate, who now lives in Palm Harbor, Fla. “I remember that we were all stopped, and then some of the cars started overheating…

“So with all these cars stopped on the interstate, lots of drug deals were going on,” she continues. “There were people selling hash, LSD, anything. All these people were just having a big party out on the interstate.”

By nightfall on Friday, Sept. 1, as workers raced to get the remote location ready, some 50,000 people were already there. For miles along the routes leading to the site, people were sleeping in tents, sleeping bags, in cars or anywhere they could find.

“The mass influx of festival-bound youths brought stares, pointed fingers and curious questions from nearly everyone,” the Evansville Courier reported in its Sept. 2 edition. “The local grocery stores did a record trade, selling supplies to festival goers who stopped along the way.”

While some set up camp, others set up shop — literally. For many, even 40 years later, the name Bull Island remains synonymous with rampant drug use. Everything from marijuana, cocaine, heroin, LSD, mescaline and much more was openly and freely sold, most notoriously on a stretch of the festival site known as “Alice in Wonderland Avenue.”

Kevin Swank, today the visuals editor at the Evansville Courier & Press, was a 20-year-old sophomore at Indiana State University in 1972 and vividly remembers the scene.

“As you walked into the festival, there was a fence with a gate,” Swank recalls. “The gate was open, and on the outside of that fence there were all kinds of police. But once you walked through that gate, not 10 feet in, there were people with all kinds of drugs for sale.

“Whatever you wanted, it was there. There were people sitting there with pipes, rolling papers, marijuana… If you wanted to shoot up heroin, it was there. They had all kinds of pills. It was spread out on the hoods of cars, it was laid out on blankets on the ground, it was everywhere.”

As for the music, it started Saturday, Sept. 2, the festival’s first official day. The performances, which included an early set by the bluesman Albert King, began some three hours late. It was an ominous sign.

Late Saturday afternoon, it was announced that Joe Cocker, one of the festival’s most anticipated performers, would take the stage in the evening, but he never did, despite the fact that he already was on the ground in Evansville.

Alexander and Duncan would later allege that Cocker’s management, upon arriving at the site Saturday, surveyed the massive crowd — which by then had topped 200,000 people — and demanded another $30,000, which would have doubled the British singer’s original agreed-upon price.

The crowd reportedly chanted “Cocker!” for more than two hours. No announcement about his status was forthcoming, and by the next afternoon fans were still wondering when he’d perform.

‘Stressed to the nines’

Black Sabbath, which featured a young Ozzy Osbourne, also became embroiled in a dispute with the promoters. They, too, according to published reports at the time, demanded another $30,000 — and they, too, never took the stage.

Forty years after the fact, Alexander acknowledges it wasn’t as simple as the artists being greedy. “They were contracted to play for 50,000 to 60,000 people,” he says, “and they showed up to find 200,000 at the site.”

As the headliners began to bail, the tension increased for Alexander, Duncan and Sid Clark, who’d been hired to produce the festival.

“We were all stressed to the nines,” Alexander recalls. “Thank God we were young. We did not have a clue how many lawsuits were going to follow. It just became an absolute nightmare, and all we ever set out to do was to have a great show and make a lot of money, or so we hoped.”
s the festival’s first day progressed, the ultimate cost of the promoters’ protracted legal battles became increasingly clear. Infrastructure and organization was at a minimum. Alexander and Duncan, instead of having weeks or even months to prepare the site, were essentially given a matter of hours to accommodate a crowd that was roughly twice the population of Evansville.

The promoters desperately tried to keep selling tickets, but the overwhelming majority of attendees crashed the gate.

Traffic on I-64 remained a mess, which made it hard to get food and drink supplies into the site. There was also a shortage of water. While there were reportedly 12 wells onsite, few were working. And the glaring lack of toilet facilities led festival-goers, many of whom spent the day cheerfully skinny-dipping in the Wabash River, to answer nature’s call wherever and whenever.

“It was a mess,” recalls 80-year-old Sonny Brown, a retired Evansville Courier photographer who captured some of the event’s most memorable images. “Personal hygiene was just non-existent because they didn’t have any facilities out there. And for waste — human waste or whatever kind you had — they just had trenches out there.”

But despite its many difficulties, the festival, at least to that point, was still viewed as a qualified success by many who were there.

“By 7 or 8 p.m. Saturday,” the Courier reported, “the feeling of officials, law enforcement spokesmen and festival-goers alike was that the degree of organization had reached a level beyond any they ever thought would be achieved.”

‘Let the buyer beware’

On Sunday, Sept. 3, as some 150 cars were being towed from I-64, food was increasingly scarce. People were getting hungry — and angry.

Early that morning, the festival’s lone food center, which was operated by Reis Catering Service, was looted by an estimated 2,000 people. Two catering trucks were torn up, and a reporter on the scene said looters took bread racks to use as grills and anything wooden for fires. Some festival-goers said the destruction was in response to the caterer’s decision to keep raising prices.

Later that evening, tensions escalated as the same trucks were set ablaze. Gas tanks exploded and tires burst as smoke blanketed much of the crowd. Two Sunbeam Bakery trailers plus a soft drink trailer and cab were destroyed in the chaos.

“Witnesses said they saw a man enter one of the trailers and swish gasoline or possibly diesel fuel on the interior of the trailer,” the Courier reported. “A trailer was then set to fire, and the flames steadily grew… The crowd cheered the fire on, clapping and shouting, ‘higher, higher.'”

The music, meanwhile, plodded along, but the stage was plagued by long periods of inactivity. Indian sitar master Ravi Shankar played first on Sunday, and he was followed by rockers Canned Heat and Black Oak Arkansas.

Sunday also marked yet another lineup disappointment. The Faces, which featured Rod Stewart and were one of the biggest draws in all of rock n’ roll at that time, failed to appear. It was a stinging blow to Alexander and Duncan, who had paid the band a whopping $100,000 in advance.

“As I recall, their manager flew over the site in a helicopter and deemed that the site was not safe,” Alexander says. “We started to negotiate immediately, and nothing was concluded. I actually went to New York and filed a lawsuit against them, and out of that came a makeup date.”

The Faces eventually made good on the date, taking the stage at Roberts Stadium in 1973.

The crowd continued to grow and reached its peak on Sunday — somewhere between 200,000 and 250,000, depending on whose estimates you wanted to believe. No one really knew for sure.

By 1 p.m., Alexander opened the festival gates and declared the event free, much like had happened at Woodstock in 1969. “It got too big, too fast,” Alexander said at the time.

While food and water were at a premium and music was sporadic, illegal drug use continued unfettered.

“Capitalists never had it so good,” the Courier reported. “If you couldn’t buy it at Bull Island Sunday, it couldn’t be bought. From dope to cigarettes, strobe candles, T-shirts, apple wine, cold beer, warm beer, the hawkers sold their wares to any taker.

“The maxim, ‘Let the buyer beware,’ took on new meaning as reports of strychnine-laced LSD were announced to rock fans over the festival’s public address system. Youths were advised to throw away the LSD they had bought. Some drug sellers were representing bleach as drugs.”

John Neidig, who retired from the Indiana State Police in 1994 after 30 years of service, was a 30-year-old trooper assigned to Bull Island in 1972.

Dressed as a festival-goer, he spent most of his time roaming the grounds on a Honda motorcycle and gathering intelligence on drug users, which included taking photographs and writing down license plate numbers. The information, he said, was later disseminated to some 35 states.

But actual drug-related arrests were almost non-existent. There was simply too much activity and too few troopers.

“It was just everywhere,” recalls Neidig, a 70-year-old resident of Wadesville, Ind. “Every place you turned, everywhere you went, every vehicle you visited, it was just all over the place. Anything from marijuana to heroin. It was a mess.”

‘No music is the big hassle’

The festival wasn’t supposed to end until midnight on Monday, Sept. 4, but the crowd began to leave en masse during the morning and afternoon hours. Among those who remained, the frustration level had risen considerably.

If Alexander and Duncan were getting the benefit of the doubt on Saturday, it’s safe to say the goodwill had eroded by Monday. For many, the festival was all about the music — and they went home unfulfilled.

“I’ve been to about seven rock festivals,” one young man told a reporter, “and this one is the most disorganized yet. Sure, there are problems with no toilets and no food, but no music is the big hassle.”

Added a teenage girl: “People can do their dope back home, but they came here for the music, and there isn’t any. None of the big groups that were supposed to be here have come. Most of the time, all you hear is silence.”

By the time the event neared its end, an estimated 20,000 to 50,000 people were still on Bull Island. As the festival began to drift into history, Alexander and Duncan, fearing reprisals from angry rock fans over a star-studded lineup that never materialized, left Bull Island.

“We had a helicopter backstage, and we had them fly us back into Evansville,” Alexander recalls. “And we started dealing with the problems — paying people off and that kind of thing. Immediately, there were lawsuits filed. It became just an absolute ongoing situation of dealing with that.”

Tuesday morning, with Bull Island covered with tons of trash and the stench growing increasingly worse, a few of the festival’s final holdouts, aggrieved about the absence of big-name performers, burned the stage in symbolic retaliation.

Out on the roads, the traffic congestion was gone. Police said hundreds of hitchhikers were out looking for a ride.

It would be months before Bull Island was cleaned up. “This 900-acre ‘island,’ although not completely evacuated,” one news report said, “looked like a sanitary landfill … Piles of trash covered hundreds of acres, and the smell of campfires, burning garbage, marijuana and human waste permeated the area.”

Ervin Hagedorn, the property’s owner, eventually had the land bulldozed and buried tons of trash. He sent Alexander and Duncan a bill for $20,000, which was never paid. The promoters were out of money.

When all was said and done, Alexander said the festival had resulted in a loss of some $200,000.


While the lawsuits would continue for another nine years, Bull Island marked the end of the brief but eventful partnership between Bob Alexander and Tom Duncan.

“Tom and I never did anything else after that,” Alexander says, “but not for any reason other than we just had different goals and ambitions. We were two totally different types of guys who had a common vision, and we worked very well on two projects. That’s all we ever did. But I look back on my relationship with Tom very fondly.”

Duncan, according to a newspaper report published in late May of 1973, had a change of heart when it came to rockfests, saying he believed they weren’t “morally right.”

Attempts to contact Duncan, who is reportedly living in Arizona, were unsuccessful.

Bob Alexander, now 68 years old, has lived in Southern California for the past 25 years. Formerly a successful television producer, he’s the president and founder of the Motion Picture Hall of Fame in Palm Springs, Calif.

What occurred at Bull Island, as it turned out, didn’t stick to his feet. He stayed in the business for years afterward and continued to work on other high-profile productions, including the Electric Cowboy Festival, which took place in Columbia, Tenn., in 1983.

When he looks back on Bull Island, he’s saddened that two deaths occurred — one from a drug overdose and one from a Wabash River drowning. But he also sees successes.

Not only did he and Duncan overcome seemingly insurmountable odds to bring the festival to fruition, they introduced many music fans to some then-unheralded acts that later became rock icons, including the Eagles, the Doobie Brothers and a 27-year-old Michigan native named Bob Seger.

“Overall, there was a tremendous amount of frustration,” Alexander says. “It had the possibility of being one of the greatest festivals ever in America because of the lineup we had booked. But I’m still very proud of the show that we had put together to present to the people. I was amazed at the crowd that we drew, and equally amazed that we were able to find a place at the last minute.

“I think that the mere fact that we’re talking about this 40 years later says something about it as a major cultural event that happened in Middle America,” he says. “You know, I’d love to try it again, in the same location.”

Evansville CourrierPress September 2, 2012


The following is a description by Jay Black

Indiana Rock History and Landmarks…… By Jay Black Dubbed “The Worst Music Festival Ever.” The Erie Canal Soda Pop Festival was held on the Labor Day weekend of 1972 near Griffin, Indiana on Bull Island, a strip of land in Illinois but on the Indiana side of the Wabash River. A crowd estimated at 200,000 to 300,000 attended the concert, four times what the promoters estimated. Food and water were in short supply, and the gathering descended into relative anarchy. Several months before the Festival, promoters Tom Duncan and Bob Alexander held a very successful small festival at Bosse Field in Evansville, Indiana. Based upon that success, Duncan and Alexander planned a bigger festival. The Erie Canal Soda Pop Festival was originally slated for Chandler, Indiana, a small town near Evansville, Indiana. However, various court battles stopped the festival from performance anywhere in Indiana. Shortly before the start of the concert, the promoters decided upon a site near Griffin in Posey County, Indiana referred to locally as “Bull Island”. Due to the changing course of the Wabash River, Bull Island is located east of the Wabash River but is part of the State of Illinois. Thus, Bull Island was out of the jurisdiction of the various Indiana courts. The White County, Illinois government in the city of Carmi was surprised that the venue had suddenly ended up in its backyard, and was unable to stop the concert. The promoters initially estimated a crowd of 55,000. As the Labor Day approached, it became obvious that a much larger crowd was coming to the festival. As Bull Island was accessible by only two roads, traffic was backed up for 20 miles from the festival. Since Bull Island was technically part of Illinois but the only access was through Indiana, police protection and crowd control during the festival were non-existent. Coordination between the Indiana police and the Illinois police was woefully inadequate. The only police on the festival grounds were three county deputy sheriffs from White County, Illinois trying to police a crowd of 200,000 to 300,000. The scheduled lineup included Black Sabbath, Joe Cocker, Allman Brothers, John Mayall, Cheech & Chong, Canned Heat, Fleetwood Mac, Ballin’ Jack, Amboy Dukes, Bob Seger, Bang, Ravi Shankar, Albert King, Brownsville Station, Mike Quatro, Gentle Giant, Black Oak Arkansas, The Eagles, The Chambers Brothers, Boones Farm, Slade, Nazareth, and Delbert & Glenn. Among the no-shows were Black Sabbath, Joe Cocker, the Allman Brothers, John Mayall, Fleetwood Mac and The Chambers Brothers. Cocker cancelled after his management saw the appalling conditions of the site and demanded double the pay. When the demand was refused, Cocker walked. In the end, only a handful of bands played. And one of those few bands, Gentle Giant, bailed after only a couple of songs because the sound was so bad. Over the three days, the festival drifted steadily into anarchy. Food and water were in short supply. A torrential rain soaked the festival. Tommy Chong mused, “The place looked like Woodstock, only wetter.” A truck bringing food into the festival was hijacked, looted and burned. When vendors overcharged for food and drinks, the folks turned over many of the RVs and robbed the vendors. Drugs were freely available in a makeshift “shopping district” where pushers proudly displayed their wares. The Wabash River swelled so much from the torrential rains that it swept a fan away to his death. Another fan was run over by a car while in his sleeping bag. In all, there were three deaths over the weekend. As the festival ended, the remnants of the crowd burned the music stand. The promoters explained later that they had sold 30,000 advance tickets for $20 and $25 each, and estimated a crowd of 55,000 would attend. They were therefore woefully unprepared when more than 200,000 people arrived. Following the concert, the promoters were ensnared in multiple lawsuits by the owner of Bull Island, vendors, the Internal Revenue Service, the State of Illinois, and the State of Indiana. The promoters were eventually found in contempt of court and fined several thousand dollars. There were attempts to revive the festival in 2011 in its intended location of Evansville, which never happened.




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  1. Dan Davis

    I was there in 1972. My memory is a little fuzzy on the details while I was there, but I managed to remember enough to write a book about it. It includes my memories, plus the memories of several other people that attended this event. Plus, several pictures are in it that I obtained, courtesy of the University of Southern Indiana archives. If anyone wants to read more about it, just google “The Bull Island Rock Festival book”.

  2. Paul Mattingly

    I could tell you several engagaing storied about the fest. But the one thing I will always remember is the there are some people that should never take their clothes off!

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