Fifty Years of Peace & Music | 3. Bert Sommer

Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Woodstock festival, August 1969–2019


Day One, Performer Three
Bert Sommer
Performed Friday evening, August 15, 7:15–8:00 pm

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Bert Sommer on stage at Woodstock.

Bert Sommer: guitar, vocals
Ira Stone: guitar, organ, harmonica
Charlie Bilello: bass

Woodstock set list:

  1. Jennifer
  2. The Road to Travel
  3. I Wondered Where You’d Be
  4. She’s Gone
  5. Things are Going My Way
  6. And When It’s Over
  7. Jeanette
  8. America
  9. A Note That Read
  10. Smile

Almost forgotten today, Bert Sommer was on his way to musical stardom when he performed at Woodstock. He grew up on Long Island and began writing songs for other Long Island bands, including Leslie West’s first band, The Vagrants. West would later perform one of Sommer’s songs, “Beyond the Sea,” at Woodstock with his band, Mountain.

Another brush with success came to Sommer when he briefly became a member of The Left Banke (“Walk Away Renée), co-writing and singing lead on “Ivy Ivy” and “And Suddenly” in 1967. His work with The Left Banke attracted industry attention, and in November 1967 he was signed by Capitol Records for a recording deal, through which he met producer Artie Kornfeld. Bert’s first album, The Road to Travel, was released in 1968. The album features songs written by Sommer and performed in a mix of styles, from orchestral pop to acoustic folk. His songwriting and singing has been compared to Tim Buckley, but his music was difficult to pigeonhole at the time, and the album did not receive much attention.

Playbill cover for the West Coast production of Hair, featuring Bert Sommer’s hair

Also in November 1967, Bert landed the role of Woof in the West Coast “tribe” of Hair and he joined the cast in 1968. It is Bert’s forehead and large Afro that are featured on the official program for the musical on the West Coast. Bert later reprised his Woof character and understudied for Claude in the Broadway cast.

 

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Bert Sommer’s debut album, The Road to Travel (Capitol Records, 1968), produced by Artie Kornfeld.

In early 1969, Bert’s producer and good friend, Artie Kornfeld, booked him to play Woodstock, a gig with the potential to catapult Bert Summer into stardom. His performance at Woodstock was powerful and sensitive at the same time. He opened his Woodstock set with two songs from his debut album, “Jennifer” and “The Road to Travel,” followed by “I Wondered Where You’d Be,” a song that would be part of Bert’s self-titled third album (released in 1970). He then performed three more songs from the debut, “She’s Gone,” “Things are Going My Way,” and “And When It’s Over.” His next song, “Jeanette,” does not appear on any of his albums. A high point of Bert Sommer’s Woodstock set was his interpretation of Simon & Garfunkel’s “America,” which earned Bert a standing ovation. Bert included this moving song in his second album, Inside, released shortly after Woodstock in 1969. He followed “America” with “A Note That Read” from his debut album and closed his 45-minute set with another song from Inside, “Smile.”

If only his performance had been included in Woodstock, the Academy Award-winning 1970 documentary and the accompanying soundtrack album…

After Woodstock, Bert Sommer’s career floundered. His song, “We’re All Playing in the Same Band,” which he wrote at Woodstock about the great coming together he witnessed at the festival, peaked at #48 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1970, but his second album did poorly. He continued his acting career, taking a recurring role as Flatbush on the Saturday-morning kids’ show, The Krofft Supershow, but left the show after one season.

Bert Sommer, his health failing, settled in Albany, New York, and played in a number of local bands until his death in 1990. He is dearly missed by a growing number of fans, old and new, who will never know what he would have been capable of achieving if his talent had been recognized and the hand of fate had pointed him in a different direction.

Ira Stone, who played guitar and sang backing vocals for Bert at Woodstock, continued to perform with him through the years and continues playing music today. Bass player Charlie Bilello hasn’t been heard from for a number of years and is presumed to have retired from the music business or died.

Bert Sommer’s story is a tragic one. He was extremely talented as a songwriter and performer, he had the good looks to make it big in the music industry, and he had the support of record executive/Woodstock co-producer Artie Kornfeld. Despite all this going for him, his start never rose to the heights he deserved. The music he left behind is worth a listen.

 

Next performer: Tim Hardin

Wade Lawrence

Director & Sr. Curator, The Museum at Bethel Woods

Wade Lawrence – who has written posts on WoodsTalk | Bethel Woods Center for The Arts.


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2 Comments on “Fifty Years of Peace & Music | 3. Bert Sommer

  1. That was a great write up on Bert Sommer.
    His voice was amazing.
    His music was beautiful.
    Another Woodstock Artest taken to soon.
    RIP Bert

  2. It’s fascinating how the “Movie” catapulted some to stardom, while others of equally or greater talent languished. This was a result of the narrow information and media influence on the culture at the time. Bert was a total package that should have achieved greater success during his life. A tragic twist of fate.

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