Bobby Torres' Woodstock Memories
Fifty years ago, Bobby Torres was preparing to play in a concert with a guy named Joe Cocker in upstate New York, and he wasn't expecting anything out of the ordinary.
"It was like another gig with a lot of people," the longtime Portland musician and percussionist said. Then he and Cocker and the others arrived, via helicopter. "When we first got there, it was this ocean of people. It was amazing, that vision."
Woodstock, the legendary music festival, Aug. 15-18, 1969, clearly became a once-in-a-lifetime experience. And Torres was there, banging congas right next to Cocker in The Grease Band. Three songs he played in The Grease Band/Cocker's 13-song set, Torres remembers, and it was fantastic. He still talks about it with such reverence.
"I loved that I was part of that," Torres said. "It's a great memory for me. Amazing period of time."
Now 76, Torres has told the Woodstock story to family, friends, acquaintances and pretty much anybody interested in his part in the historical event, which firmly galvanized the counterculture and included epic performances from the who's who of 1960s music, including Richie Havens, Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, Santana, the Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin, Sly and the Family Stone, The Who, Jefferson Airplane and Jimi Hendrix.
Cocker had picked up Torres, a New York City native, for the band earlier in 1969, and he immediately played on a European tour, performing a concert in France and then another in England while also visiting Cocker's home.
Cocker, who had a transcendental voice to go with distinctive onstage movements while performing, showed himself to be a prince of a man right away, Torres said.
"To me he was like a god. Not so much for worshiping, but a guy so generous and kind, like a teddy bear," he said.
Torres started to learn the magnitude of Woodstock walking through the hotel lobby in Liberty, New York, alongside the likes of Jerry Garcia.
He remembers the band members doing some drugs — "I just wanted some hash," Torres said — and then flying in a helicopter to the concert grounds at Max Yasgur's farm outside Bethel, New York. One of the band members ended up barfing out of the helicopter, which still makes Torres chuckle. The car ride to the concert venue included the police chief and fire chief, which also makes Torres laugh.
It was hot and humid. And Aug. 17, 1969, started on stage when Yasgur, who had lost two fingers on his right hand in an accident in the barn, got up on stage and thrust his right hand into the air for a peace sign. Then, as the crowd roared at the attempted peace sign without the ring and middle fingers, Yasgur threw up his left hand with the correct two fingers.
"People went nuts, the sound lifted me off the stage," Torres said.
The Grease Band played two instrumentals and then backed Cocker on an 11-song set, capped by "With a Little Help from My Friends."
"He was perfect. He was great," Torres said. As Cocker and The Grease Band finished, a thunderstorm halted the festival for 40 minutes — how appropriate, Torres said.
The band flew out from Yasgur's farm, and Torres became part of Cocker's new band, Mad Dogs and Englishmen, which put out a live album and movie by the same name. (Both helped launch the career of Leon Russell).
Torres went his own way in the early 1970s, eventually living in Los Angeles playing alongside Jackson Browne and others; he hooked up with Tom Jones and played with the singing superstar for 11 years, even after moving to Portland. He stayed in touch with Cocker, even as the singer encountered problems with drugs and alcohol. He recalls a time when Cocker visited him in L.A. and many times just sat by himself in a corner.
But age tamed the men, and Torres saw Cocker in 2009 and later mourned his friend when he died at age 70 in 2014.
What typified Cocker, he said, was when the two of them sat and watched a Woodstock documentary clip on Cocker together. Cocker apologized to Torres because the percussionist wasn't included much in the documentary.
"I was totally in shock, sitting next to this guy and watching it on screen, couldn't believe that I was friends with him," Torres said. "That's the kind of guy he was."
Torres has called Portland home for almost 40 years. He maintains contact with a Grease Band member, keyboardist Chris Stainton, who still plays with Eric Clapton.
Torres has been a staple of the Portland music scene throughout the years, mostly with the Bobby Torres Ensemble. He still plays a couple times a month, including with jazz legend Mel Brown.
To commemorate Woodstock, Torres will play at the Montavilla Jazz Festival on Aug. 18 and, two days later, play songs by Woodstock artists at Lan Su Chinese Garden.
"It's still great to be playing," he said. "I was such a spring chicken back then. It's amazing how different I am now."
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