'Father of festival' made sound decisions at Woodstock

Bill Hanley

By Jack Shea

CNHI News Service

MERRIMAC, Mass. — As Woodstock nears its 50th anniversary, music lovers around the country are celebrating the iconic festival’s message of “peace, love and music.”

Without Bill Hanley, that message might not have been so loud and clear in the first place.

Known as “the father of festival sound,” Hanley, now 82, designed, built and operated the concert sound system at the three-day event in 1969. He even helped select the farm in Bethel where it was held.

While Hanley admitted that his role behind the sound board made him something of a musician, he said his focus has always been on bringing what’s onstage to the ears of the audience.

“I can’t play an instrument and I don’t know much about making music, but I certainly enjoy dancing to it a lot,” he said.

Born and raised in the close-in Boston suburb of Medford, Hanley began playing around with electronics at an early age. He built his first radios when he was about 6.

He developed a penchant for audio equipment and accumulated a collection of high-fidelity speakers that he used to blare Christmas music during the holidays, much to the delight of his neighbors.

After becoming frustrated with the “hideous” quality of sound systems at roller rinks and other venues he frequented as a young adult, Hanley sought to bring clarity to the way people experienced music.

“It would be a good thing to do for society, I thought,” he said this past week. “Nobody was watching the levels or paying attention to the sound. Music wasn’t being brought out very well to the masses, and nobody seemed to really care.”

Hanley went on to innovate several techniques that revolutionized amplification at concerts, including improvements to speaker placement and putting microphones on each instrument onstage. He pioneered the sound engineer’s “front of the house” listening position, which gave him a better perspective when fine-tuning his mixes.

As word of his talent spread, Hanley was brought on to run sound during antiwar protests and even the 1965 inauguration of President Lyndon B. Johnson. From there, his trademark sound system was introduced to the world of rock ‘n’ roll.

“The louder they played, the louder their sound system had to be,” he said. “I was the only guy ... I made the marketplace.”

Before long, Hanley and his crew had the most sought-after service in live audio. He spent much of the ‘60s touring with the likes of Beach Boys, Neil Young and Buffalo Springfield.

One of his most difficult gigs, he said, was a string of about 10 concerts on the Beatles’ 1966 U.S. tour during which crowds’ cheers and screams made it hard for him to hear the band.

Another challenge came when Hanley was behind the sound board at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1965 for Bob Dylan’s controversial first performance with electric instruments.

“That was tough with Peter Yarrow rumbling around telling me to turn it up louder, and Pete Seeger was there trying to keep it down, trying to keep electricity out of that realm,” he said.

But, of course, his ultimate claim to fame is his role at Woodstock, where his speakers amplified performances from some of the most revered names in rock ‘n’ roll history, including his personal favorite, Janis Joplin.

“She was a very nice girl. I liked her music, her enthusiasm and excitement. It was very sad when …,” he said, his voice trailing off. Joplin died in 1970 at age 27.

While many regard Woodstock as the apex of 1960s counterculture, Hanley recalled viewing the festival as “just another project.”

His focus was on his work.

“I’m an engineer,” he said. “I think about it in speakers, how to hold them together from one end to the other, make sure the microphone’s in the right place. Those are what I concentrate on, not content. I never look at it from any other point of view other than making what happens onstage clear to the audience.

“It gets all tied together, the joy of doing music and making people happy and enjoying your workmanship. I don’t look back at the other parts of it, I’m immersed in electricity and electronics and electroacoustic devices.

When asked about his hearing, Hanley said it could be better, but he has yet to buy hearing aids.

“What’d you say?” he joked. “There’s some hearing loss, but I’m waiting for the price to come down so I can get a set.”