In the winter of 1968, Herb Spivak and brothers teamed up with promoter Larry Magid to book psychedelic rock band the Chambers Brothers to play in a converted Philadelphia tire factory.
Every week after, it was somebody else: Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Bruce Springsteen. The shows expanded from every week to every night, and even stars from other orbits took the stage: the bluesman Muddy Waters, trumpeter Miles Davis, and local jazz crossover star Grover Washington Jr.
Not everyone was a fan. Neighborhood groups formed, and meetings were held. The mayor was petitioned. The police were on constant call.
Until one day, they agreed to move. The Electric Factory producers needed more room to stack amplifiers and more space for more people to experience the shows, anyway. They uncovered other spaces across town. They fine-tuned the tech and unbound the sound.
They turned the house lights down and a huge bank of stage lights up. And the city shook, and fans flocked to the dark venue floors.
And the rock concert industry as we know it was born.
It seemed every rock band in the U.S. and U.K. wanted to play the Electric Factory — and many of them did. Until finally, in the summer of 1985, the crew staged the largest concert in the world. It was called Live Aid.
And Electric Factory Concerts became the biggest backstage legend in the history of rock.
The world-famous Philadelphia production company is the subject of “Electrified: 50 Years of Electric Factory” at Drexel University. Curated by Derek Gillman, it runs through Dec. 30.
The exhibition is housed in several gallery spaces in two buildings: the striking red brick Paul Peck Alumni Center Gallery, and the Bossone Research Center.
Across an array of original posters, photographs, and concert apparel, the presentation zooms in and out between large and intimate scales.
The first room in the Paul Peck gallery sets the tone, employing colorful wall-sized graphics to tell the story while music emanates from a vintage jukebox.
Among other songs in the mix, Joe Cocker’s knock-out performance of “With a Little Help from My Friends” envelops the room. The acoustics are clear and rich in the high-ceilinged rotunda.
The next gallery, which is more intimate, features photographs and original posters arranged salon style across two walls. Taken by Philly area photographer J. Paul Simeone and a bunch of others, they’re not just frozen moments — they’re bottled up pure energy of those many performances.
The posters are a graphic treasure trove, mostly on loan from Temple University’s Special Collections and Research Center.
Here mid-floor, the electric guitar takes center stage with instruments like Bruce Springsteen’s iconic Fender Telecaster from the cover of “Born to Run,” and a late 1950s Gibson Les Paul, wielded by Mick Taylor during that Rolling Stones tour at the Spectrum in ‘72.
In the Bossone building, there’s a full sound stage loaded with speakers and gear. It underscores the evolution of concert sound systems and Electric Factory Concerts’ reputation among musicians for impeccable sound engineering and technical know-how.
Floating above the stage, there’s a massive projection of Live Aid, playing on a loop, including a clip of Mick Jagger and Tina Turner belting out “State of Shock” with sass.
The exhibition is a retrospective, but it also portends a look ahead to future initiatives that encompass even more of Philadelphia’s impressive music history.
From the era of Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra to the avant-garde sounds of the Sun Ra Arkestra, the city boasts a stunning array of wealth and talent. Consider luminaries like Marian Anderson, Pearl Bailey, Jimmy Smith, John Coltrane, Al Martino, Frankie Avalon, and the iconic “American Bandstand” hosted by Dick Clark.
Leon Huff and Kenny Gamble’s Philadelphia International Records. The renowned Sigma Sound Studios. Contemporary artists like Questlove, Jasmine Sullivan, and Christian McBride. Beloved all-stars like Patti LaBelle, Sister Sledge, and the dynamic duo of Daryl Hall and John Oates.
Electric Factory cofounder Larry Magid, speaking on the Drexel exhibition’s opening night on Sept. 21, teased three projects that will form compendiums of this musical breadth and depth.
“Next fall, there’ll be an amazing coffee table book, 300 great musicians and artists representing our city so well,” Magid said. “Amazing just to look through the history of what has been contributed by these great artists.”
He’s also consulting on a five-episode docuseries on the history of music of Philadelphia, Magid said, led by documentarian Sam Katz of History Making Productions. Further, the duo is working with Drexel on a virtual museum to showcase the people and events of Philly music history.
“So I think we have a great future,” Magid said. “It’s nice to look at the past, but it’s better to look ahead.”