Despite its small size and remoteness from the urban scene, Princeton University has hosted some unforgettable musicians. This was especially true in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, which in retrospect were a golden age for popular music performance on campus — perhaps never to be repeated.
Those decades saw a renaissance that was orchestrated, to no small degree, by Bill Lockwood ’59, hired as program director and publicist at McCarter Theatre four years after graduating. Half a century later, Lockwood still works at McCarter and looks back fondly on the extraordinary musical acts he brought to town. “Those were the golden days,” he says. “McCarter had more time for concerts then. And before CDs or the Internet, live music was the place you had to go.”
Lockwood hoped to make money by signing up popular acts, whether they played at McCarter or in campus venues. He was building on a vibrant musical tradition going back to the Jazz Age, when eating clubs brought terrific artists to Prospect Avenue.
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Houseparties weekends in 1929–31 featured Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, and Benny Goodman — the latter making his world debut as a band leader by playing at Cottage Club. Ella Fitzgerald sang at the Prince-Tiger Dance amid the bleachers of the gymnasium in 1936; Count Basie and Billie Holiday appeared there a year later.
Jazz remained popular at Princeton well into the rock era. Basie and Dave Brubeck were regulars; Ellington played McCarter in 1966; and four years later, Miles Davis grooved at Alexander Hall, sporting an orange leather jacket and going two hours without a break.
Even as an industrious undergraduate who organized concerts from his dormitory room, Lockwood (with classmate Tom Sternberg) had hired out McCarter for concerts by Pete Seeger and the Weavers. A few years later, working for McCarter officially, he tapped more fully into the growing craze for folk music. In 1963 he organized a Saturday midnight concert by a college dropout who played clubs in Greenwich Village, a talented 22-year-old then gaining attention for songs such as “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Tickets to Bob Dylan were $3, chargeable to your U-Store account.
“We had people seated on the stage behind him; it was just him and his guitar,” Lockwood remembers of that legendary night. “He had dark glasses on.”
As folk and folk-rock grew increasingly popular, legends played Princeton, including Arlo Guthrie (“Alice’s Restaurant”) and teenage Joan Baez, who visited the little theater at Murray-Dodge Hall in 1960. Mike Parish ’65 saw her at McCarter two years later, a “small, slender person emitting such delicate, angelic sounds. It bound the performer with the audience in a way I’ve only seen once or twice since over the last 50 years.”
Judy Collins came to Alexander Hall in 1968, in a red velvet gown, strumming two guitars and avoiding political pontificating. Collins had played Princeton before: On a single weekend on Prospect Avenue in March 1964, one could have heard Collins at Tower, bluesman John Lee Hooker at Colonial Club, and the Drifters (“Under the Boardwalk”) at Cottage.
“I had the honor of seeing Jerry Lee Lewis perform from 10 feet away in Cloister’s basement,” says Bruce Price ’63. “He performed standing and banged one heel on the keys. Most thrilling, he played heavy with the left while sweeping a comb delicately back through his killer pompadour.” Selden Edwards ’63 rocked to Chuck Berry at Tower Club. “Somehow, I got in and stood so close to him as he was playing that when he changed chords, his elbow brushed my leg. I could smell his pomade.”