Predating Woodstock, legions of world-class acts made their way to the stage at SIUE for the Mississippi Riverfestival during the years of 1969-1980. Eleven summers of the MRF left behind a powerful legacy.
Each summer, a quiet, picturesque corner of SIUE was transformed into a bustling center of music and activity. Grassy knolls and pleasing scenery created an added bonus for concert goers. The depressed area at the bottom of gently sloping hills provided attendees with a tiered overlook of the stage and the venue with a natural amphitheater.
SIUE University Archivist and Special Collections Librarian Stephen Kerber said the idea for MRF originated from the music department at SIUE and was spearheaded by the late William Tarwater, former chair of the Department of Music at the university, among other colleagues in the music department.
Following its first year, then-chancellor John Rendleman became a great proponent in keeping the festival alive.
“I would attribute the real credit to Tarwater, the music faculty, Rendleman and local volunteer support,” Kerber said.
Initially a partnership between the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and the university, the MRF quickly blossomed into a full-on performing arts festival, including all types of musical performances as well as theatre, dance and comedy.
“The symphony hoped to educate and acquire a new audience and to enable the musicians [to have] a much longer season, while the university hoped to get the publicity and high profile image throughout the region,” Kerber said.
In addition to orchestra performances, MRF welcomed a considerably wide variety of musical genres, including folk, jazz, country and rock.
People scattered themselves through the field, enjoying the relaxed vibe of the festival, while others took shelter from the sun under the giant circus tent in seats closer to the action.
Former SIUE adjunct professor Steve Horrell attended the festival in 1974 and 1975 while working for food service.
“The MRF was one of the best things that ever happened to SIUE,” Horrell said. “It was really a big thing in its day.”
The open-air festival became a summertime staple, not only for students but for citizens throughout the region.
“It’s remembered as a major life event for those who went to school here and lived here during those years,” Kerber said. “If you were in high school or college around here, it’s pretty much how you spent your summer.”
Top artists of the era traveled to the Midwest to hit the stage at the MRF, bringing in crowds upwards of 36,000 people. Huge acts such as The Who, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, The Eagles, BB King, Yes, REO Speedwagon and hundreds more decorated the stage, bringing rock’n’ roll and other soulful tunes to the heart of America.
Inexpensive ticket prices attracted a large crowds to the venue, at $2.00 a ticket for lawn seats.
“Anybody who loved music was turned on to the MRF. Ticket prices were extremely low, which gave everyone a chance to see the big names. It had a huge impact on the community,” Horrell said.
John Neiman offers praises and positive experiences from MRF attendees in his book, “In Concert: KSHE and 40+ Years of Rock in St. Louis.”
“The book was about the concert scene here in St. Louis, and that included multiple venues throughout the area, but MRF was like a jewel,” Neiman said. “It was such a beautiful place...there wasn’t many places like that.”
Working at the Roundtable Diner in Collinsville, Illinois during his late teens, Neiman came face to face with one of the biggest names in music during the 70s. The Allman Brothers were staying at a hotel behind the restaurant, and Neiman delivered a burger to Butch Trucks, the band’s drummer.
Later, after convincing the driver to tell him what time the lead singer was expected to depart for the performance at the MRF, Neiman waited outside the band’s limo with a cold beer.
“I walked this bottle over to Greg Allman and I asked him to sign my beer,” Neiman said. “I gave him the pen, but the beer was still wet; so, he couldn’t sign the label. He looks up at me and said: ‘Sorry kid, take it easy.’”
Many starry-eyed accounts like Neiman’s demonstrate that the Mississippi River Festival was a special event.
Logistics and financial strains for the festival became more pressing as time passed. Bands required a more extravagant stage presence and advanced technology for performances.
“The conditions that made it possible only lasted for a set period of time, and then the music business changed and so it can’t be replicated. It was a unique festival for its time,” Kerber said.
The MRF wrapped up its final season in 1980.
“It was a bit of a ‘make it up as you go along,’ sort of mom and pop operation, which I understand was part of the charm, but there were long-term limitations,” Kerber said. “Eventually the festival could not be sustained financially.”
Friends of Lovejoy Library and the Alumni Association will host “Night in the Stacks” to commemorate the anniversary of the MRF in October 2019 in the Lovejoy Library.
The tribute is expected to feature food, music and exhibits related to the history of the MRF.
For more information about the Mississippi River Festival, check out the SIUE archives page.