Say “Aerodrome” and the next words are usually “Led Zeppelin,” the British blues-rock thunderstorm who famously played the short-lived/legendary Schenectady rock palace on Robert Plant’s 21st birthday.
“I think Ugo Popolizio, who worked in the kitchen, brought out cupcakes to give to the guys in the band for Robert Plant,” recalled Ugo’s brother Frank Popolizio who, with cousin Pat Ragozzino, ran the former 32-lane Woodlawn Bowl as the biggest noise in town.
“I have a bit of a hearing problem,” Frank confided by phone recently. “You know why that is? I kept putting my ears up to the speakers to make sure they were working. That was maybe the dumbest thing I ever did.”
Maybe the smartest was lying about his age to get hired to work with the top acts of the late ’60s. From Jan. 26, 1968 (the Box Tops), to June 26, 1970 (Janis Joplin and the Full Tilt Boogie Band) — 50 years ago — the Aerodrome drew as many as 3,000 fans for such rock acts as the Jeff Beck Group, the Chicago Transit Authority, the Velvet Underground, Canned Heat, Vanilla Fudge, the Yardbirds, the Electric Prunes and the Ultimate Spinach.
As free-form FM radio played music of all styles, the Aerodrome also presented R&B, blues and soul stars including Wilson Pickett (who’d earlier played Union College’s Memorial Chapel), the Brooklyn Bridge, Archie Bell and the Drells, Wilmer Alexander and the Dukes, Clarence Carter, Peaches and Herb, Junior Walker and the All-Stars, Sam and Dave, and B.B. King.
When Led Zeppelin played the Aerodrome on August 20, 1969. Spyder and Last Thursday opened both shows, 6 p.m. for teens, 10:30 for adults.
Tickets cost $4 in advance, $4.50 at the door; and the band earned $8,000. So did Vanilla Fudge. (Underage fans admitted to early shows would hide under the stage to sneak into the adult shows.)
In its brief, loud, neon-splashed heyday, the Aerodrome in Schenectady’s otherwise quiet Woodlawn neighborhood was a mixed-media-ready showcase tour stop for the era’s biggest bands. It was also a business, a music Mecca for fans, a training ground for area bands, a powerfully evocative memory generator and a cultural time-capsule. Stylistically, it echoed the fabled Summer of Love San Francisco psychedelic palaces where anything went. And it only lasted a few vivid, noisy star-studded years.
Wild Child (Johnny Walker) hailed the place on WPTR in vivid DJ hype as “the most important announcement in Tri-Cities history! Aerodrome is here! Aerodrome with thirty-thousand dollars worth of lighting equipment! An acoustically perfect sound system! Aerodrome — the world’s most psychedelic nightclub!”
The garish magazine “Blow Your Mind” that quoted Wild Child introduced a blurry photo essay on the place noting “…six thousand watts of strobe lights, spinning globes, slide and movie projectors, and meditation wheels.” It claimed, “You see what an astronaut penetrating the deepest recesses of the universe sees.”
In more down to earth terms, “The place was big enough and bands made enough money playing there that it was a good gig for touring bands between New York City, Boston and Montreal,” said Nashville session musician Jim Hoke, whose high school band the West Side Highway opened many Aerodrome shows.
Ads in the Gazette and placards posted on poles urged “Get ‘IN’! Join the ‘OUT’ Crowd! BE WHERE IT’S AT!” invited fans into “The Psychedelic World of AERODROME” and promised “LEGAL BEVERAGES” and TOTAL ENVIRONMENTAL LIGHT SHOW!” — “FANTASTIC LIGHT WORKS!!!”
Those light-works were the work of teenaged Kevin Bartlett, who started presenting liquid light shows there at 14, then gradually worked his way up to running both sound and lights.
Bartlett also recounted another Led Zeppelin visit.
“When the Jeff Beck group played (July 9, 1969), that was the night three quarters of Led Zeppelin were there; I never saw John Bonham that night,” said the keyboardist, composer and producer recently from his home studio near Oneonta. “They weren’t gigging, they were just hanging out with their buddies,” said Bartlett.
“It was absolute chaos and debauchery, total rock and roll craziness.”
He added, “There was no door on the men’s room. so Ron Wood (then of Beck’s group, now with the Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart and the Faces in between) had to use the urinal, so he had me stand guard outside so nobody could come in; I was on guard duty.”
Bartlett admired Beck’s all-star band with Wood, singer Rod Stewart, pianist Nicky Hopkins and drummer Mickey Waller.
As for debauchery, Bartlett recalled those young rock stars hosted frequent women visitors to the dressing room.
Cleaning up the next day, “I found a [Gibson] Les Paul [electric guitar] in many pieces in a trash barrel; it must have been Beck’s guitar.” He lamented, “I wish I’d grabbed all of it, but I found a volume knob on the floor; I saved it and I still have that” — perfect memento for a noisy night. (Today a 1969 Les Paul would sell for $15,000 to $30,000.)
“The Pepsi machine in the dressing room, that must have been hammered by that guitar because it was all dented, smashed and broken,” marveled Bartlett. “I’d heard of guys smashing guitars but never saw it until that night.”
“They were kids,” said Bartlett, a kid himself then. “They were away from the UK, they were loose in America, they were famous rock stars, so there were no holds barred.”
A kid himself then, Bartlett led a double life that ping-ponged between hanging with rock stars at night and getting home at all hours, then in high school while living with his parents. After working with top rockers, first-period homeroom at the Milne School in Albany “felt so foreign,” he said.
Inspired by the Joshua Light Show in New York’s Fillmore East and Electric Circus, he started presenting his own in his early teens, projecting pulsating colored blob-images onto rock-club walls with an overhead projector.
“You gotta have this,” he told the Aerodrome guys. “You have these two 50-foot walls [as screens]; I’ll bring in my stuff and do it.” He presented his first Aerodrome liquid light show in the Vanilla Fudge show. “They loved it and I got a job doing it.” They paid him $15. Soon he was operating sound and lights: $90 a week for three or four shows.
“It was about the thrill of being there, and the money didn’t matter,” said Bartlett. He loved the music, the musicians and the scene but had to fight the limitations of the powerful but primitive sound system.
“We had two [Altec Lansing] Voice of the Theaters [folded-horn plywood speaker boxes] hanging from the ceiling and a [150-watt] Bogen amp with eight or 10 inputs and no EQ [equalization, or tone controls],” said Bartlett. “There were no monitors onstage and we could only handle five or six mics.” He said, “Singers would want us to turn it up to hear themselves and we’d turn it up and try to not get feedback.” For example, “Rod Stewart wanted his vocals louder so we’d turn it up until it feeds back, then back off.” This delivered music unprocessed; crude, but with a raw kind of truth.
“All we had was the volume control,” said Bartlett, “No reverb none of that.” He said, “Singers in the bands really sang. When you heard Janis Joplin, you just heard the voice.”
Fans and local bands that opened for touring stars were awed by the Aerodrome, a giant promotion from area bars and halls. “We were knocked out by the totally pro light show and sound,” said Jim Hoke.
“It was cool,” said Albany keyboardist and later record producer and scene archivist Al Quaglieri. “I was 18, there was nothing like it here. The sound was surprisingly good, considering it was a converted bowling alley. Plus you could walk right up to the stage and be immersed.”
Quaglieri loved the Sam & Dave Revue. “They brought an entire R&B show: comic, MC, opening acts, band, stars, It was thrilling,” he said. “Close runners-up: Chicago Transit Authority; they were new [their first album had just been released] and hungry and only got paid $1,200 for the appearance. There were maybe 200 people there.” Quaglieri recalled, “I loved Pacific Gas & Electric and Canned Heat, they were both fantastic. And, believe it or not, the Lemon Pipers — after they got ‘Green Tambourine’ out of the way [they apologized for it], they were a creditable blues-rock band.”
But he found Vanilla Fudge “insanely loud, plodding, interminable … I left after the first four hours.” He added, “Tim Hardin, who I loved, was a heartbreaker; so drunk he could hardly keep from falling over.”
Fan and sometime lights operator Tom Aldi (now a Raleigh resident) recalled, “Some bubblegum group [Ohio Express?] showed up and played their hit(s) in the first half of the show and then played Miles Davis in the second. Totally pissed off the crowd, and they let the group know it,” he said. “The group responded by basically snarling back and continued with their music education, lost on brainless teens looking for a good beat to dance to. I got a real kick out of that.”
Aldi also said, “The place was exciting in that they were booking talent from outside the area and had a good sound and light system. There was nothing else like it then.”
As Justin Mason reported in a 2008 retrospective, New York dress manufacturer Nat Rubin (Rembrandt Frocks) and Rochester attorney Jack Herman converted the 25,000 square-foot Woodlawn Bowl into the Aerodrome where the Popolizios and Ragozzino soon became indispensable. “There were about 25 to 30 people who worked there,” Frank Popolizio said in a written remembrance. Depending on crowd size, five or six worked the door dealing with tickets, seven to 10 tended bar (including Ragozzino), with an equal number of servers and “four or five bouncers walking around to be sure everyone behaved.” He said, “Tickets were about $5 to $8…cheaper for the under-18 shows.”
“People would drive from hours away to see the amazing bands who played at the Aerodrome every week,” Frank said. “There were lines of people waiting blocks down the road to get in. The local bands who played there opened many of the big-name shows.”
He remembered some acts fondly; others, less so. “One of the nicest people was Billy Joel [then with Long Island rockers the Hassles],” he said. “He was very polite and nice. He was easy to talk to and work with.” But he said B.J. Thomas was “difficult,” unhappy with his food, demanding guards for his dressing room.
Despite the occasional demanding artist, Frank said, “I enjoyed every show we had.” He added, “The most exciting out of all the bands [and wildest] was Janis Joplin!” He said, “She was unique and unforgettable to this day. Janis always spoke her mind, adding a lot of f-words.” He regrets that a photo of Janis kissing him on the cheek had been stolen. It hung in Drome Sound which, like the headshop Crystal Mansion, operated in the front of the Aerodrome building and continued operations after owner Nat Rubin’s health problems forced the venue to close.
Fifty years later, the Aerodrome still evokes fans’ vivid memories.
“I saw the MC5 there in May of 1970,” Rick Hartt said on Facebook. “Vocalist Rob Tyner walked off the stage onto the tops of tables and performed,” said the former impresario of RPIs McNeil Room and other on-campus venues, now retired near Rochester. “Saw Steppenwolf there also; wish I had the photos.”
Rotterdam native Cindy Nelson Erdmann [now a Waterloo resident] also saw Steppenwolf at the Aerodrome, Janis Joplin, too. “Janis went to a local bar and sang some more after the concert.”
Clifton Park-to-Nashville-to-the-world guitarist David Malachowski, who formed and led Shania Twain’s first touring band and now calls Manhattan home when not on tour, said, “I saw the Jeff Beck Group, Steppenwolf and Janis Joplin.”
Kevin Bartlett’s Aerodrome memories may be more plentiful and detailed than most. He saw nearly every show, he wrote recollections in a notebook in the sound-and-lights booth, and even played onstage there once, blues-jamming on bass with the band Spyder.
He called drummer-singer Buddy Miles (July 25, 1969) “a sweetheart;” so was B.B. King (July 3, 1969), “an incredible gentleman,” said Bartlett. “He sat down with me and maybe two or three others in the smaller of the two dressing rooms and told us the entire Lucille [his famous black Gibson ES-355 hollow body electric guitar] story. He had Lucille there with him and must have spent 15 or 20 minutes telling us that story.”
“The guys from Chicago — Chicago Transit Authority then — they were completely appreciative of everything we did for them,” said Bartlett. “They went out of their way to thank us for the job we were doing.”
Bartlett also praised the Buddy Miles Express. “That was one of the best shows ever; they really clicked, they were amazing, totally in sync.”
So was NRBQ, at the Aerodrome on Woodstock weekend. “They were really tight, and really loose because they were enjoying themselves so much onstage,” said Bartlett. “It was a joyous show, infectious, because they were so enjoying themselves.” One fan didn’t get it. “Somebody was heckling the band down front, so one guy came out from behind his rig [likely keyboardist Terry Adams, who still leads NRBQ] and did this crazy monkey dance right in his face.”
NRBQ also inspired musician Hoke.
“[NRBQ] did Sun Ra’s ‘Rocket Number Nine,’ for a long time; followed by a letter-perfect ‘Cathy’s Clown,’ ” said Hoke. “They had a single out that they performed, which summed up the band pretty well …. ‘I’ve got this joy, joy, joy, joy, down in my heart, down in my heart, down in my heart.’ My reaction was complete, instant awe. It blew away everything that’d come before. It was total musical freedom.”
That versatility fit the Aerodrome perfectly. “The sheer diversity of bookings was reflective of the musical times,” said Quaglieri, who lamented how short-lived this openness would be. On the same weekend when NRBQ personified versatility and freedom at the Aerodrome, Woodstock ignited the show-biz Big Bang that shattered pop music into marketable shards.
“Before Woodstock, anything went on top 40 radio, and even in burgeoning progressive FM,” Quaglieri reflected. “Woodstock made the big music companies start taking the music of America’s youth seriously, and the first thing they did was chop it up into easily-defined genres that they could target-market,” he observed. “They essentially killed the freewheeling, anything goes music scene of the 1960s” — the scene that flourished at the Aerodrome.
The Aerodrome, Hoke said, “happened on the cusp of the huge cultural shift between two styles of music/dress/youth culture in general.” He said. “One night it’s Wilmer Alexander and the Dukes … soul-slick class personified.” (The Dukes keyboardist rescued him when he borrowed the Dukes’ organ for the West Side Highway’s opening set and accidentally turned it off. The Dukes’ keyboardist ambled onstage in a sharp sharkskin suit, carrying a short glass of whiskey, to fix things.) “The next night, it might be the Bougalieu, all grunge and stringy long hair, playing their … I don’t know what, but it wasn’t slick,” Hoke recalled. “I sensed that something big was happening.” West Side Highway opened for both the Bougalieu and the Dukes; also for the Yardbirds (March 28, 1968), Ohio bubble-gum popsters the Music Explosion and Ohio Express, and others.
“For us rock star wannabes, that felt like the big time we’d dreamed of,” he said of hanging with touring bands. The Music Explosion and Ohio Express “guys were about our same age and were delightful company: local knuckleheads like us who got lucky and had a few hit songs.”
Hoke recalled, one afternoon, “We happened upon the Boxtops [whose soulful singer Alex Chilton later founded Big Star] sitting around on chairs in front of the stage, practicing some really good four-part harmony; which was odd, since none of their records had any harmony.”
Diversity of music
While the Aerodrome built fans’ and musicians’ memories, it also pointed to a previously unimagined future for some.
“It solidified my love and attraction to that lifestyle,” said Kevin Bartlett who later co-founded the conceptual Albany band od, recorded nine albums over 13 years with the ethereal singer Happy Rhodes, and now makes music for films. “So many different types of bands played the Aerodrome: Wilmer Alexander, Wilson Pickett, Joe Tex, great soul acts,” he explained. “So I learned respect for the diversity of music, of music talent and how hard they worked and watching what it was like to be in a band and setting up a band.”
He singled out Johnny Maestro and the Brooklyn Bridge, an old-school rock and soul revue. “They had 12 people on the stage. They had backup singers and horn players. They just did it and they sounded amazing. They knew what they were doing. The technology wasn’t there, so they just had to do it for real.”
“It gave me reverence for talent, for presentation and for musicianship,” said Bartlett of his noisy Aerodrome nights. “It gave me a sense of a standard.”
Al Quaglieri compiled this roster of Aerodrome acts over 20 years of research. He kindly provided it for this story.
January 25 — The Box Tops [grand opening night]
March 14 — The YWCA Co-Ed Club dance
March 21 — The Aerodromes
March 22-23 — The Electric Prunes, Aerodrome
March 24 — The Electric Prunes performing “Mass In F Minor” [“guys, jackets a must!”]
March 28 — The Yardbirds, The Aerodromes
April 4 — The Aerodromes
April 5-6 — Ultimate Spinach & Aerodromes
April 7 — Aerodromes & Ultimate Spinach all ages
April 12-14 — The Beacon Street Union, The Aerodromes
April 18 — Aerodromes
April 19-21 — Aerodromes, Tyrolean Flower Act
April 25 — The Aerodromes, “Dating Game Night”
April 26-27 — Jimmy Angel with The Distant Sounds & Aerodromes
April 27 — Jaycees Battle of the bands [afternoon show]
April 28 1-7 — All teenagers Jimmy Angel with The Distant Sounds & Aerodromes
April 28 — The Yardbirds
May 2 — The Aerodromes
May 3-5 — The Hassles, The Aerodromes
May 9 — The Bougalieu
May 10-11 — Oxford Watch Band, East Coast Clique
May 12 — Oxford Watch Band
May 29 — High School Night (sponsored by the Schenectady Deanery Catholic Youth Organization)
May 30-June 1 — Burgundy Sunset, East Coast Recital
June 2 — Burgundy Sunset
July 5-6 — The Bougalieu, The Page One (Syracuse)
July 12-13 — The Bougalieu
July 19-20 — The Bougalieu
July 23 — Battle of the Bands: Tempered Blues, Love’s Ice Cube, Second Level, Royal Blush, Mixed Emotions, Boston Tea Party, Men Form Sound, Strangers, Stained Glass Encyclopedia (benefit for the Eugene McCarthy-Paul O’Dwyer campaign)
July 29 — Wilmer Alexander Jr & The Dukes (benefit for the Eugene McCarthy-Paul O’Dwyer campaign)
August 26 — Archie Bell & The Drells
August 30, 31 — Wilmer & The Dukes, Karyn
September 1 — The Doors [unconfirmed, also listed for September 2]
September 16 — Joe Tex
October 25-26 — The Fuzzy Bunnies
March 28 — Johnnie Taylor
April 12 — Wilmer & The Dukes
May 10 — Peaches & Herb, Maurice & Earl, The Mark IV and David Ward
May 25 — Clarence Carter
July 3 — B.B. King
July 9 — The Jeff Beck Group
July 11 — The Lemon Pipers, Pacific Gas & Electric
July 16-17 — Majic Ship
July 18 — NRBQ, Majic Ship
July 19 — Johnnie Taylor
July 25 — The Buddy Miles Express, The Oz’n Ends
August 1 — The Oz’n Ends, Free
August 2 — Free
August 9 — Chicago Transit Authority, Spyder
August 14 — Wilmer & The Dukes
August 15-16 — JJ & The Impacts, NRBQ
August 20 — Led Zeppelin, Spyder, Last Thursday
August 23 — Jr. Walker & The All Stars
August 24 — The G.E. Pursuit of Happiness Show
September 19 — Canned Heat
September 20 — The Sam & Dave Revue
September 26 — Velvet Underground
October 10 — Canned Heat
November 7 — Tim Hardin
November 26 — Country Joe & The Fish
Dec 6 — The Kinks [cancelled]
December 13 — The Zombies (imposter group)
April 4 — reopened on a month to month basis under new ownership
April 11 — MC5, Snake
May 29 — Steppenwolf, Friends of Whitney Sunday
June 26 — Janis Joplin, Snake [last show, closed after this]
Promised but never appeared:
Strawberry Alarm Clock
Robert Plant: ‘It’s so nice to be in sunny Schenectady’
Al Quaglieri provided links to Aerodrome radio spots he produced at Union College’s radio station, WRUC. The voice is that of Phil Alden Robinson, Quaglieri’s fellow Union student and his protege at the station.
After Union, Robinson worked at WGY radio, then went to Hollywood where movie (“Field of Dreams”) and TV projects he produced and/or directed have earned major industry honors and critical and popular success. He is vice president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Kevin Bartlett tried to record radio spots promoting the Led Zeppelin show on Aug. 20, 1969, bringing a tape recorder to the Aerodrome the night three Led Zeppelin members showed up to hang out with their friends in the Jeff Beck Group. He said Robert Plant couldn’t pronounce Schenectady despite persistent coaching, but the Led Zeppelin singer evidently figured it out when Led Zeppelin returned to play their own Aerodrome show on his 21st birthday. Jim Furlong, musician and proprietor of the Last Vestige record shop in Albany, said, “I remember Robert Plant smiling and saying, ‘It’s so nice to be in sunny Schenectady.’ ”
The setlist.fm website lists song-by-song show information for several Aerodrome shows:
This Flicker collection includes a treasure trove of Aerodrome visuals: https://www.flickr.com/search/?user_id=97716831%40N04&sort=date-taken-desc&text=aerodrome&view_all=1
— Michael Hochanadel