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Looking back on the Florida Sunfest music festival of 1977

Did you know that Lakeland once hosted the largest music festival in the state? Learn the history of 1977’s Florida Sunfest, plus a reader’s own story of how it all went down.

The band Canned Heat performs onstage at a music festival

Canned Heat is pictured here, performing at Woodstock two years after Florida Sunfest.

Before there was Coachella, there was the Florida Sunfest. On April 2, 1977, over 90,000 people flocked to Lakeland to hear big names in rock music play throughout the night. It was, at the time, the largest music festival to take place in the state.

The event took place at the Lakeland International Speedway (later known as the USA International Speedway), located off of State Road 33 near I-4. It closed in 2008. Today, you can find an Amazon warehouse in its place.

Jimmy Buffett holding a guitar and singing into a microphone

Jimmy Buffett returned to Lakeland for several shows during his career.

Photo via Florida Memory

You may recognize many of the 20 artists on the lineup, like Atlanta Rhythm Section, Canned Heat, and Earl Scruggs, but it was Jimmy Buffett who had the crowd in the palm of his hand. He was fresh off the release of his album “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes,” and he sang hits like “Margaritaville” into the early morning.

The performers drew a much larger crowd than producers anticipated. They estimated only 15,000 attendees, but thanks to effective advertising, they sold six times as many tickets as expected. Over 90,000 attended. That’s more than the ~70,000 that fit inside Raymond James Stadium during a Tampa Bay Buccaneers game.

Richie Havens strums a guitar and sings into a microphone

Richie Havens ended the festival with his set at dawn.

One of those fans in the crowd was LALtoday reader, Mark R., who told us about his experience at Sunfest with friends:

“Jimmy Buffet came on early morning, around 4 a.m., in between Leon Redbone and Pure Prairie League. [In] my recollection, it was amazing and Jimmy may have been drinking!”

Editor’s note: Some of this statement was edited for clarity.

Do you have memories of Florida Sunfest — or, even better, photos? Share them with us so we can reminisce on Lakeland’s musical history.

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