The Origin of the Rooftop Concert: Before the Beatles Came Jefferson Airplane, and Before Them, Brazilian Singer Roberto Carlos (1967)

When did the first rooftop con­cert hap­pen? Prob­a­bly not long after con­struc­tion of the first rooftop. How could ear­ly humans resist such an oppor­tu­ni­ty to project sound over the heads of a crowd? But if we’re talk­ing about a Rooftop Con­cert, we’re talk­ing about a spe­cial genre of gig defined by The Bea­t­les’ farewell rooftop show in Lon­don on Jan­u­ary 30, 1969. Since that his­toric moment, each time musi­cians take to a rooftop, they inevitably face com­par­isons with the Fab Four, even if their rooftop con­cert hap­pened first.

Before Paul McCart­ney sang “You’ve been play­ing on the roofs again” in an impro­vised “Get Back” in Lon­don, Jef­fer­son Air­plane “per­formed on a New York City rooftop in 1968,” writes Rajesh Kumar Jha at The Cit­i­zen.

“The con­text for the con­cert was pro­vid­ed by events like the assas­si­na­tion of Robert Kennedy and Mar­tin Luther King, and the accel­er­at­ing Viet­nam War.” The affair was orga­nized by Jean-Luc Godard, who “want­ed to film the rad­i­cal mood of the times under his 1 AM. Project, for which the Air­plane were best suit­ed.”

Grace Slick opened “The House at Pooneil Cor­ners” by shout­ing from the roof, “Hel­lo, New York! Wake up, you fuc&ers! Free music! Nice songs! Free love!” They made it 7 min­utes into a set before the police broke it up and made arrests. Godard end­ed up aban­don­ing the film, leav­ing it to D.A. Pen­nebak­er to fin­ish and release it as 1 P.M. Can we cred­it Godard for the rooftop con­cert as a thing? Or did he steal it from an even ear­li­er antecedent, Brazil­ian singer Rober­to Car­los, nick­named “the Elvis Pres­ley of Brazil”? Car­los staged a rooftop con­cert liv­ing room set below for his song “Quan­do” in 1967.

Who­ev­er invent­ed the rooftop con­cert, by the time U2 did it on an L.A. rooftop — legal­ly — play­ing “Where the Streets Have No Name” to kick off the Joshua Tree tour, the trick had become old hat. Acknowl­edg­ing their debt, Bono joked in an inter­view, “it’s not the first time we’ve ripped off the Bea­t­les.” Lit­tle did he know, per­haps, that they were also rip­ping off Jef­fer­son Air­plane, who them­selves were only imi­ta­tions, when it came to rooftop con­certs, of “the Frank Sina­tra of Latin Amer­i­ca.” Rober­to Car­los might be lip synch­ing, and seem­ing­ly sans audi­ence in his appear­ance on a São Paulo rooftop, but we must admit he set a styl­ish stan­dard for the genre of the rooftop con­cert all his own, two years before the Bea­t­les made it theirs.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Watch The Bea­t­les Per­form Their Famous Rooftop Con­cert: It Hap­pened 50 Years Ago Today (Jan­u­ary 30, 1969)

Jef­fer­son Air­plane Plays on a New York Rooftop; Jean-Luc Godard Cap­tures It (1968)

Dick Clark Intro­duces Jef­fer­son Air­plane & the Sounds of Psy­che­del­ic San Fran­cis­co to Amer­i­ca: Yes Par­ents, You Should Be Afraid (1967)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Epaminondas says:

    In rober­to carlos´video, the clap­per­board guy is the great brazil­ian actor Regi­nal­do Farias (check ‘Lucio Flavio’ e ‘Pra frente , Brasil’ or ‘O assalto ao trem pagador’).

  • Virginia Abreu de Paula says:

    Rober­to Car­los did­n’t give a con­cert on the roof top. He sung only one song for a movie scene only. No pub­lic. It is not like what J. Air­plane and The Bea­t­les did at all.

  • Gregory Betts says:

    The Grate­ful Dead did a rooftop con­cert above the Chelsea Hotel in 1967. They intro­duced Jef­fer­son Air­plane to the idea of doing free con­certs.

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