December 8, 2021

SUNY Cortland’s sonic legacy

Alumni working to record history of college’s 30-year musical run

Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

SUNY Cortland yearbooks dating from 1968, left, and 1970, showcase Board of Governors musical guests like Anthony and the Imperials, top left, Neil Diamond, bottom left, and the Hollies, bottom right.

Life could be heavy in the mid-1960s, when Rocco Scaptura was a student at SUNY Cortland: the pressure of college, the war in Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement.

“In 1968, another student, Jack Oldrin and I were representatives for the Board of Governors,” he said. “We were not happy about the entertainment the college was planning.”

Scaptura, a 1968 graduate and retired math teacher now living in Owego, said they wanted musicians beyond the folk singers protesting the political situation.

They went to the student-run Board of Governors, which planned social events, and asked for other entertainment. “They didn’t have any money, didn’t have a committee.”

Scaptura and Oldrin were named co-chairmen of the Board of Governor’s “Circulating Fund” tasked with bringing in musicians. But they couldn’t use college funds.

“We had to sell enough tickets to pay for concerts. A lot of students didn’t like it. They (already) paid a student activity fee,” Scaptura said.

It was the beginning of a 30-year musical legacy, from 1960 to 1990, celebrated this year.

Scaptura and others brought in Simon and Garfunkel, The Lettermen, Led Zeppelin, B.B. King, The Association, Don McLean and even The Grateful Dead.

Image provided by Sonia Socha

Jack Samuels, then co-chair of the Circulating Fund in the early 70s, went through hoops to get the Grateful Dead to SUNY Cortland.

“It became so much more significant the further we got away from it,” said Sonia Socha, assistant director of campus activities and adviser to the concert and lecture committee in 1973-74. “The year was exciting.”

Preserving a legacy

She and other alumni are working to preserve these years.

“I was only 23 then. I was learning myself, right along with the students,” she said. “We are just trying to collect people’s stories and photos, before the people go away.”

A special Tom Chapin concert will take place March 12 at the college, open to the public. Chapin — Harry Chapin’s younger brother — appeared at SUNY Cortland in the mid-1970s.

Alumni are also raising funds for a $30,000, two-story, wall sculpture at Corey Union that will feature a montage of instruments, like Billy Joel’s piano, Grateful Dead’s guitar, among them, said Socha of Baltimore, a member of the steering committee for the Musical Legacy Commemorative Project.

What a start

“We had to get a loan for the first concert,” Scaptura said. “We didn’t have any money for a retainer.”

There’s a debate over whether it cost $800 or $1,500, he said.

“We started with absolutely nothing. Every concert we had, we built on. I did 13 concerts,” Scaptura said.

Scaptura went through New York City booking agents, targeting acts available on dates he could afford.

“We started out with Simon and Garfunkel,” he said. “They were just starting out. When we first booked them, we didn’t know who they were. But by the time they came to Cortland, ‘Sounds of Silence’ and ‘Homeward Bound’ started to climb the charts.”

The college’s AVV department did the sound system. The theater department did the lighting. Students stacked chairs in Moffitt Gym and helped clean the room afterward, worried they’d be denied the space if they left it a mess, Scaptura said.

They booked The Lettermen, The Four Seasons and The Temptations.

Jack Samuels of New Jersey scored the biggest coup by bringing in The Grateful Dead in 1971.

Now a Montclair State University professor, he is a 1973 Cortland grad who chaired the Circulating Fund for four years. The fund would morph later into the Cortland Concert Committee.

“I was very well known among the major talent agents in New York. They knew I wouldn’t call up and ask for the Rolling Stones … I looked for things that were within our domain,” Samuels said.

He and another fellow spent six months and some of their own money to bring the Grateful Dead.

To get involved

• SUNY Cortland’s Musical Legacy Commemorative Project: 1960 to 1990, is looking for memorabilia, articles, photos and stories of musical acts that played at the college during that period. Send to

• It also seeks donations for a two-story, $30,000 wall sculpture in honor of the legacy to be unveiled in July at Corey Union. See for information.

‘An amazing run’

“Another hitch was the new rubber floor in the field house,” he said. The administration repeatedly tried to cancel the concert, claiming cigarette burns would damage the surface.

Samuels contacted the chemist who developed the floor, who sent a letter saying cigarettes wouldn’t hurt it.

When administrators saw it, they were apoplectic, but acquiesced. “It was a tense few weeks,” Samuels said.

“We put the tickets on sale and the first day we sold 2,000,” he said. “People from Florida were calling.”

The field house dimensions had to be altered to fit the audience of 7,200, Samuels said.

“The show was interesting. It’s on the Internet. Google it.”

“We had about seven bad drug trips during that show. In those days, people didn’t know what to do. They went to the hospital. One guy took off all his clothes and ran up on stage. The concert lasted six or seven hours,” he said. “It could have gone longer but the electrician was exhausted.

The next day I got calls from every restaurant in town: ‘What did we have on campus.’ They were very happy with the business.”

Other reaction was mixed. “The city turned it into a scandal,” Samuels said. “They passed a resolution condemning the concert.”

There were “little” concerts, too. Like Aerosmith. “We paid them $500.”

“I always felt that this whole music era was very significant at Cortland. … I had the most amazing run,” Samuels said. “We were written up in Billboard Magazine two times.”