Where We Live: Portland’s claim to Woodstock fame


Bobby Torres played conga for Joe Cocker's The Grease Band

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Fifty years ago, a Portland musician performed at what many call the greatest music festival of all time.

Bobby Torres played the conga with Joe Cocker’s The Grease Band at Woodstock in 1969.

It was an event that drew more people to a farm in New York than many, including Torres, ever expected.

“We didn’t realize how much of an event it was until we got onto the helicopter and saw the crowd,” he said. “It was amazing — it was the most amazing thing I’d seen in my life.”

The Woodstock music festival 1969. (Courtesy KOIN)

Some 500,000 people descended on the 600-acre farm and were greeted with heavy rain, huge crowds and some of the world’s greatest musicians.

“I mean, it was the resurgence of rock-and-roll,” Torres reminisced. “I mean, the resurgence of Joe Cocker, Carlos Santana, Richie Havens; all of those became much more popular — you know, even Janis Joplin.”

Cocker’s performance was among the top highlights. Torres described it as “phenomenal.”

“As soon as [Cocker] stopped — thunder. It’s like God was applauding,” Torres said.

Woodstock took place during the Vietnam War. The songs that were played were part of an anti-war movement led by the youth and were punctuated by anti-war lyrics.

Torres believes the music “helped the rebellion.”

He also believes that Woodstock changed his life and propelled him into a brief — but bright — spotlight.

“Everybody knew my name for about 2 years.”

Eventually, the conga player met a Portland woman and moved to the Rose City. But Woodstock remains a part of him: Torres remains an active performer — playing with his Latin jazz group, Bobby Torres Ensemble, at venues around Portland.

“I mean, it’s 50 years ago and it only feels like 50 minutes ago, you know?” he said.

A proposal to hold a 50th anniversary Woodstock festival in New York in August was in the works but the town of Vernon has twice rejected permit applications.

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