“No Hassles Guaranteed”, the Ozark Music Festival of 1974, How did I not know about this?

Ozark_Music_Festival_Stage_Left*photo from Wikipedia

As time goes by it seems I become increasingly lazy about my social life. I don’t plan ahead much, preferring to let the weekends “flow” over me. Luckily my wife does a lot of social planning for me or I’d likely become my neighborhood’s Boo Radley. In June of this year The Rolling Stones ZipCode Tour rolled through Kansas City. My wife, being the social planner that she is, arranged a pre-party here at the house. The Stones put on a mind blowing show at Arrowhead that night. The entire city, including the small crowd we’d pre-partied with were still buzzing a week later into the 4th of July weekend.

One of the couples that pre-partied with us was kind enough to reciprocate and invite us to their house the night of the 4th for a dinner party. I typically shy away from that sort of thing, preferring to meet people at the bar. However, I dug the host and hostess and agreed wholeheartedly with the plans my wife made, like I had a choice in the matter. I warmed up before the dinner party with a nice, tall glass of Woodford Reserve, neat. There were going to be two other couples at the party that I didn’t know, so I was taking all the necessary drinking, social precautions.

The hosts at the dinner party were playing the Stones’ Hyde Park show on the DVD player and as often happens to me at a party where I don’t know people, I’d drifted out to the deck with my bourbon glass secured and let myself float away watching the Stones tear through Midnight Rambler, a track they’d played only a week earlier at Arrowhead.

Before I’d even realized it, a tall, older guy was standing next to me, watching the Stones. I wasn’t even sure how long he’d been standing there. I looked up at him and smiled, and introduced myself. His name was Patrick (*names changed to protect the guilty). We chatted briefly about the Stones and out of nowhere he said, “Well, the Stones concert sounds like it was cool, but it’s nothing compared to the Ozark Music Festival. Surely you’ve heard of that one, right?”

Well, much to my surprise as a self-appointed Rock ‘n’ Roll Historian, I had never heard of the Ozark Music Festival, which had taken place a few miles down the road, in the sleepy little burg of Sedalia, Mo. “Uh, no Patrick, what’s that? The Ozark Music Festival, when was it, this summer?”

Patrick, who had the look of a man who’d been around the block a few times chuckled at my cluelessness. “Oh, no, the Ozark Music Festival I’m talking about was in 1974, I was only sixteen years old.” I knew he was older than I was but in ’74 I was in grade school. “Oh yeah, it was an education for me, there were naked people everywhere. I saw some things I’d never seen before. People were fornicating right out in public. It was awesome.”

I have to admit, I was a tad incredulous. I’d never even heard of this “festival” and this guy was making it sound like Woodstock. When I got home I googled it, and damn, was Patrick right. On the Missouri State Fairgrounds in Sedalia, Mo from July 19th to July 21st, 1974, the Ozark Music Festival took place. The event was organized by some sketchy music promoters from Kansas City who had billed the event as a “blue grass and soft pop” festival. On the heels of Woodstock and more ominously Altamont, nobody was big on having a giant, druggy, hippy rock festival so the organizers had done a con job. They had told Sedalia’s Chamber of Commerce that they’d only print 50,000 tickets when in reality they printed and sold an estimated 250,000. Sedalia was only a town of 20,000 people back then so the infrastructure wasn’t prepared for what was about to descend upon them. The promoters actually took out a full page ad in Rolling Stone magazine, hoping that people from all over the nation would descend upon Missouri. The slogan from the rock festival was, “No Hassles Guaranteed” which virtually guaranteed every drug dealer from Florida to New Mexico was going to show up. Rock music, an Andy Griffith-like police squad, and located in the middle of nowhere – it sounds like the plot of a James Franco, Seth Rogan movie.

What blew me away most was the line-up of artists who played at this concert. It reads like a who’s who of 70’s rock: Bachman Turner Overdrive, Aerosmith, Blue Oyster Cult, the Eagles (pre-Joe Walsh), America, Marshall Tucker Band, Boz Skaggs, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Electric Flag (Michael Bloomfield’s often overlooked post-Paul Butterfield Band group), Bob Seger, Charlie Daniels, Joe Walsh and Barnstorm (his first post-James Gang group), the Jefferson Starship (what festival didn’t those guys play?), and REO Speedwagon, amongst others. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band were scheduled to play but were no shows. Chances are by the Thursday night before the festival the jammed highways made it difficult for the Boss to even get near St Louis, let alone Sedalia. With a line up like that, how is it that this festival isn’t far more famous in the lore of rock ‘n’ roll?

The “No Hassles Guaranteed” moniker did as it was intended to do. It attracted the nefarious. Apparently the fairgrounds became like a mini “Chicago Board of Trade” for drugs. To advertise, the drug dealers enlisted naked women who would paint drug advertisements on their body. Many of the concert goers were naked and many of the women would exchange sex for drugs or the money to buy drugs. Apparently on one part of the fairgrounds a motorcycle gang converted two school buses into a brothel where the hookers were plying their wares for $2 a throw, as they used to say. The cops, cowed by the huge crowd, were apparently helpless to stop any of this mayhem. Many officials commented on the alarming amount of heroin that was present at the Fairgrounds.

After it was over, in October of 1974, the U.S. Senate appointed a special Senate Committee to report on the Ozark Music Festival. I love this quote from the report, “The Ozark Music Festival can only be described as a disaster. It became a haven for drug pushers who were attracted from through out the United States. The scene made the degradation of Sodom and Gomorrah appear mild. Natural and unnatural sex acts became a spectator sport. Frequently, nude women promoted drugs with advertisements on their bodies.” Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, yes! I have to admit, the “unnatural sex acts” still leaves me curious.

I was wondering how Patrick had attended at the tender age of sixteen, so after he was done regaling me with stories about what he had seen at the concert (sadly he couldn’t remember much of the music, but at 16 I’d probably have been watching the nude chicks too), I had to ask, “So, Patrick how did you convince your parents to let you go to this crazy, hippy rock festival down in Sedalia? Did you just make something up? Was it you and a bunch of your high school buddies who went down there?”

Patrick, with a conspiratorial look, glanced around the room almost reflexively and said, “Well, uh, not exactly. My father, was, uh, an accountant. He had a client who ran carnival rides and he owed my father money. He was running a few rides at the Fairgrounds. Dad always said, if someone owes you money, go collect it when they’re making money. So, he asked me to down there with him.”

I glanced quickly down at my bourbon to makes sure no one had slipped me a Mickey. His father had taken him to this Sedalia, rock ‘n’ roll “Sodom and Gomorrah?” Apparently, as muscle to collect money from a guy? I didn’t want to offend Patrick but I have to admit I was having a hard time believing that his father was an “accountant.”

“So, Patrick, how did that conversation go down,” I chuckled, “Son, come on, get your baseball bat, we’re going to collect some money. Be prepared, you’re going to see some things we’re not going to be able to tell your mother about.” I wondered if Patrick got a cut of any of the money his dad was collecting, or was being at the show enough of a reward. Patrick was pretty mum on the subject after his wife came out on the deck to join us, so that part of the mystery will likely remain, alas, unsolved.

In the end, what have we learned? First, people still like to tell me the weirdest stories. Secondly, the midwest actually can rock ‘n’ roll, considering it can lay claim to hosting the rock festival that has been described by festival M.C. Wolfman Jack as the “peak of rock ‘n’ roll decadence”, and finally, I should never say “no” when my wife tells me we’re going to a dinner party.


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