Opinion

John Morris, Who Brought Rock Legends to the Stage, Dies at 84

John Morris, who brought an element of spectacle to the rock explosion of the 1960s as a coordinator and M.C. for the era-defining Woodstock festival, and who also helped run the storied rock venues Fillmore East in New York City and the Rainbow theater in London, died on Friday at his home in Santa Fe, N.M. He was 84.

The cause was complications of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease following treatment for lung cancer, his longtime partner, Luzann Fernandez, said.

A New York native, Mr. Morris got his start as a lighting designer — first for theater productions in his home city and on London’s West End, and later for rock concerts — before he began producing concerts himself. He gained prominence in 1967 when he organized a free concert by Jefferson Airplane in Toronto that drew some 50,000 people, and he went on to mount tours by that band, as well as by the Grateful Dead and others.

In 1968, Mr. Morris cemented his place in rock lore when he helped Bill Graham, the powerful and feared West Coast rock impresario, open an East Coast answer to his hallowed Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco. Fillmore East became a magnet for top acts like Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and the Allman Brothers, who recorded a searing live album there, and was often called “the church of rock ‘n’ roll.”

Still, no Fillmore East concert could come close to matching the impact of Woodstock, where legions of rock disciples turned a mass migration to a dairy farm in upstate Bethel, N.Y., into a pilgrimage that marked the apotheosis of the hippie era.

The crowd on the first day of the festival. It was Mr. Morris who announced, as unanticipated masses converged on the festival, that Woodstock was “a free concert from now on.”Credit…Clayton Call/Redferns, via Getty Images

Mr. Morris served as the production coordinator for the three-day event, formally known as the Woodstock Music & Art Fair, which featured more than 30 acts. Organizers originally sold tickets for $18 (the equivalent of about $150 today), anticipating a crowd of about 50,000.

Before the festival began, Mr. Morris helped the festival’s creators lure cutting-edge talent, using every means at their disposal given budgetary restraints. “We famously got the Who for $11,000 because that was all we had left in the budget,” he said in a 2019 interview with the music site Pollstar, “and we plied Pete Townshend with wine to get him to agree.” (Other sources give the amount as $12,500.)

The festival, of course, became a signature event of the 1960s, a rain-soaked counterculture convention at which an estimated 400,000 people or more got high, listened to wailing guitars and lived communally in muddy fields, as memorialized in the Academy Award-winning documentary “Woodstock” (1970), directed by Michael Wadleigh.

Mr. Morris, who usually worked behind the scenes, found his own taste of fame after Michael Lang, one of the festival’s organizers, without warning deputized him and Chip Monck, the lighting director, to serve as masters of ceremonies.

It was Mr. Morris’s voice that echoed over the hillsides, in his famous announcement, as unanticipated masses converged on the festival, that Woodstock was “a free concert from now on,” to which he added: “That doesn’t mean that anything goes. What that means is that we’re going to put the music up here for free.”

But, as he later clarified, it was Mr. Monck, not he, who made the equally famous announcement warning festival goers to avoid the unreliable batch of LSD known as the “brown acid.” “I did not do drugs,” he said, “because I was usually in charge and I didn’t feel I could. So me saying the brown acid is not particularly good would be very out of character, because I would not have the vaguest idea.”

However transcendent Woodstock proved to be for the hordes of revelers, Mr. Morris had to deal with continual crises. “You can see me in that film announcing and coming as close to a nervous breakdown as humanly possible,” he said in a 2017 interview with The Malibu Times. “On Sunday, we had what was later on called a tornado that shot through the festival, poured rain, wind — the stage started sort of sliding, feeling dangerous.”

However chaotic things got, Mr. Morris later expressed pride in pulling off the seemingly impossible.

“We dealt with what became one of the largest cities in New York State at that point,” he said, and “managed to put on one of the best music concerts of all time.”

Mr. Morris, center, shared his Woodstock memories at a 2019 panel discussion in Los Angeles with Bill Belmont, left, the festival’s artist coordinator, and Joel Rosenman, one of the festival’s producers.Credit…Alison Buck/WireImage, via Getty Images

John Hanna Morris Jr. was born on May 16, 1939, in Manhattan, the elder of two sons. His father was a deputy New York City police commissioner and later an advertising executive. His mother, Louise (Edwards) Morris, had run national youth programs under the New Deal during the Great Depression.

The family eventually settled in Pleasantville, a village in Westchester County. After graduating from high school in Somers, N.Y., Mr. Morris spent two years studying theater production at the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) in Pittsburgh.

Following his tenure at Fillmore East, Mr. Morris spearheaded the reopening ofLondon’s Rainbow theater in Finsbury Park as a rock temple in its own right, starting with a fiery opening show by the Who in November 1971.

In addition to Ms. Fernandez, Mr. Morris is survived by his brother, Mark.

Mr. Morris continued producing concerts by major acts, including David Bowie, Pink Floyd and Stevie Ray Vaughan through the 1980s. He later produced antiques shows and was a dealer of Native American art and artifacts.

For all his later accomplishments, he never stopped expressing pride in helping to make Woodstock, a festival created by the young and for the young (its principal organizers were in their 20s) an unlikely success.

“I was the adult in the room, charged with keeping the thing running,” he told Pollstar. “I was older than most everybody else, all of 30 at that point.”

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