BYRON -- Alex Cooley said the last time he was in Byron he was two steps ahead of people wanting to tar and feather him.
This weekend, Cooley was back but this time as honoree at ceremonies unveiling a Georgia Historical Marker at the location of his July 1970 Second Atlanta International Pop Festival, an event the marker says remains one of the largest public gatherings in state history.
What did the Atlanta-based promoter think?
Im dumbfounded, Cooley said before ceremonies Saturday at Middle Georgia Raceway, home to the festival 42 years ago. I might have thought a hanging tree, but this is really great. I appreciate it.
Cooleys tongue-in-cheek references to being in trouble in Byron came from the fact he received a cool reception in some circles prior to his hot summer festival, which only worsened when farms, fields and recreational areas along U.S. 41 and Ga. 49 were overrun with hundreds of thousands of young people.
Byron Mayor Larry Collins alluded to the controversy when he told the 100-plus people attending the ceremony how he, as a new Byron lawyer, was courted by one camp wanting him to help stop the festival in the courts and another wanting him to promote it.
Collins said he ended up taking a more generous approach.
It was certainly something new for us, and no one knew what to expect, Collins said. My wife and I attended the festival, but we did so working with area Methodists at a tent set up to help with health issues. But I got to enjoy the Allman Brothers when they played.
How many actually attended the festival has been debated through the years. Collins said Air Force friends of his who deal in aerial interpretations of land area assure him there were 500,000 at the event.
At the ceremony, Collins gave Cooley the key to the city and pronounced him a Baron of Byron.
The idea for the historical marker originated with Tim Thornton, managing partner of Macons Thornton Realty Co. whose family now owns Middle Georgia Raceway. The economic slow down ended original plans to develop the property, but showing a creative flare of his own, Thornton turned the run-down racetrack into a reunion spot for drivers and has leased it for use in automobile commercials.
As the celebrations master of ceremonies, Thornton paused several times as his emotions got the better of him as he talked of the propertys significance. Thornton said he enlisted the Byron Area Historical Society to sponsor the marker effort.
Flip Jones, guitarist for the areas well-known 1960s-1970s rock and roll group the U.S. Kids, played a medley of tunes while the marker was unveiled. The U.S. Kids played an early morning set on the festivals main stage.
I was too young to be as scared as I should have been in front of all those people. I should have been scared to death, Jones said. But it was great being on stage and being backstage with all those amazing bands. It was a great experience.
A modern version of the U.S. Kids played at a festival symposium Friday that drew about 200 participants to the Perry Arts Center. The symposium featured a discussion with Cooley and filmmaker Steve Rash, who shot footage at the festival that has lain dormant for four decades.
Rash recently restored and edited the footage and there was an invitation-only test screening of it Saturday in Macon and Monday in Atlanta.
The film is titled Hotlanta, and Rash said he hopes to release it within a year if interest prevails. Rash was a music-television pioneer in Atlanta in the 1970s and then directed a string of films from The Buddy Holly Story with Gary Busey in 1978 to this years Crooked Arrows.
But Cooley was clearly at the center of attention at all events, and this time around it was all good. He said his own remembrance of the festival included a cold front that came in during the second day of the 100-degree event that brought temperatures down to the 60s at night.
But the music stayed hot all festival long.
I cant really say who my favorite act was, Cooley said. I usually dont do favorite bands, but I have to mention (Jimi) Hendrix and Procol Harum -- and I should say Poco, they did a jam that was remarkable. There was a lot of good music.
Contact Michael W. Pannell at firstname.lastname@example.org