Industry Profile: Larry Magid
By Larry LeBlanc
This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Larry Magid, owner, Larry Magid Entertainment.
Concert promoter Larry Magid’s flag will always fly in Philly.
“Mr. Philadelphia” may have stepped down as chairman of Live Nation Philadelphia in February, but after producing over 16,000 shows during a four decade career, he isn’t likely to walk silently away.
Nor is Magid contractually prohibited from promoting shows or producing tours.
One of a handful of entrepreneurial renegades who built America’s concert touring business, Magid sold Electric Factory Concerts in 2000 to Robert Sillerman as part of the American promoter consolidation under the SFX banner.
Clear Channel Entertainment, however, acquired SFX soon afterwards in 2000. After its parent Clear Channel Communications spun off CCE into Live Nation in 2005, Magid considered leaving. However, he decided to stay on under CEO Michael Rapino.
Magid stayed but he worked without a contract for about 14 months before parting.
As a young booking agent in New York in the ‘60s, the Philly native worked with Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and Big Brother and the Holding Company.
Magid, recruited by brothers Herb, Allen, and Jerry Spivak, returned to Philadelphia to manage and book a club called The Electric Factory, a converted tire warehouse at 22d and Arch Streets. Its first show on Feb. 2, 1968 featured the Chambers Brothers. Today, the club stands at 421 N. 7th St. between Willow and Spring Garden Streets. Capacity is between 2,500 to 3,000 people.
Electric Factory Concerts was launched as a concert promotions firm by Magid following his return. Like pioneering promoters Bill Graham in San Francisco and Don Law in Boston, among others, he built his market and helped to establish a national business.
Magid also began putting shows—hundreds of them-- into the venerable Philadelphia Spectrum, one of the arenas that established American arena rock. Last year, he produced the Spectrum's Final Farewell concert series with Neil Young, Tina Turner, Kings of Leon, Green Day, Hall & Oates, two shows by the Dead, four by Pearl Jam and six performances by Bruce Springsteen.
It was Magid who brought the high profile Live Aid and Live 8 televised charity concerts to Philadelphia.
Live Aid Philadelphia in 1985 included: the Hooters, the Four Tops, Black Sabbath, Run DMC, REO Speed Wagon, Judas Priest, Crosby Stills & Nash, Bryan Adams, the Beach Boys, Madonna, Neil Young, Patti Labelle, Hall and Oates, Mick Jagger, and Bob Dylan with Ron Wood and Keith Richards.
The 2005 Live 8 lineup in Philadelphia included: the Black Eyed Peas, Bon Jovi, Dave Matthews Band, Def Leppard, Destiny's Child, Jay-Z, Toby Keith, Alicia Keys, Linkin Park, Maroon5, Will Smith, Rob Thomas and Stevie Wonder.
As well, Magid produced Billy Crystal's one-man show “700 Sundays” which won the 2005 Tony Award for Best Special Theatrical Event. This two-act, one-man play, which Crystal conceived and wrote about his childhood growing up on Long Island, toured the U.S. in 2006 and Australia in 2007.
Now that you have left Live Nation, do you feel relieved?
I’ll tell you what just happened to me. There’s a company that is doing a book on the history of Electric Factory Concerts. I had to go to a meeting a couple days after I parted (with Live Nation). I am sitting at the meeting, and I started to hear what people were saying with a little more clarity. I started answering peoples’ questions a little differently than I might have previously.
I realized that something was happening to me.
At the end of the meeting I got into my car, and I asked myself, “Where am I going? Jeez, I’m going home.” I had no appointments. I had nothing to do. All of a sudden, I felt lighter than air. I got home, and I started to think about what was happening. I thought, “Wow, there’s no pressure on me today to do anything.” I had absolutely nothing to be worried about or to do. I tried to figure out the last time I had no pressure on me. I traced it all the way back to my bar mitzvah when I was 13 years old. Between jobs, school, making a team, girlfriends, family or some situation I always had some kind of obligation. But I now had no obligations. It felt incredible.
But you are a music industry lifer. You are a showman. You have the ego of a showman.
You are absolutely correct.
There will be a time that you will want to promote shows. You can’t help yourself.
You are starting to sound like my wife, but you are right. I can’t help myself. I’m a lifer. I have often equated it to like being in the Mafia. It’s not a job. It is a life that you subscribe to. It is like the great scene in “Godfather III” where Al Pacino says, “Just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in.” So, if you realize that as I have, there are things that I am going to do. There are tours that I am obligated to do or that I want to do. I am still involved with Billy Crystal and “700 Sundays,” our Broadway show. We have toured the show in a number of cities, and we are going to do that again and, hopefully, make a film out of it.
You still run The Electric Factory?
The club is mine and will continue to be mine. About two years ago, I was standing in the club by the bar watching the show, and a young girl--an employee--came up to me and gave me a big hug, and a kiss on the cheek. I pulled away, and asked, What was that for?” She said, “How does it feel to have made so many people happy for so many years?” I had never thought of that. You don’t get a chance to stand away from a picture you are painting. You don’t get to appreciate what you are doing when you are doing it. You want to always look forward to other things, and not accept what you are doing as the final word or anything. You don’t want to admire the portrait as much as you want to think about what the next painting is going to be. Or what the next song is going to be about or the next show is going to be.
You are still in the business.
Yeah, I am still in the business. Regardless of what I am going to do or not going to do, it’s going to be involved in the world of show. That’s it. That’s what I know and that’s what people are expecting me to do. But I can say that if it ended today, which I hope it doesn’t, I have had a great run. It’s been a great journey. I have met a lot of great people. I’m not mad at anybody for anything that happened. I am just so thankful that I had the opportunity to live a life that most people don’t get the opportunity to. I wish everybody well, including Live Nation. You want everybody to succeed because you want the world to be entertained. Just like that little girl that said that thing to me; that means so much to me.
Leaving Live Nation is a divorce that should have happened five years ago.
You are absolutely right. Clear Channel was run by friends of mine. Don Law and before that Irv Zukerman and Rodney Eckerman. I grew up with them. We understood each other. But still, in the back of your mind, you are still saying, “Well, I would do this differently. This is how I would do it. This is how I see it.”
You were offered the position of corporate head of Live Nation at one point?
How did you know that? Yeah, they wanted me to be chairman of North American Music (division) which I turned down. Whether it would have been different for me (accepting), I doubt it because, in the back of my mind, when I sold the company it became a financial situation. When I decided to stay at Live Nation, it became a financial situation. That was the primary reason for me staying. I didn’t want to stay. I tried to leave a number of times. I turned down the deal a number of times because I just didn’t feel this is how I wanted to end this little career that I’ve fashioned.
Your discontent goes back to making that original deal with SFX in 2000?
You are absolutely right. It doesn’t have as much to do with people as it does with my thought process.
You like being in control of your own destiny.
Yeah, you always like to be the captain of your own destiny. If you are an entrepreneur, you want to keep that entrepreneurial spirit. The people that run these companies have a fiduciary responsibility to run them in the company’s best interest.
Clear Channel Communications spun off CCE into a separate Live Nation in 2005, Along comes Michael Rapino who is a very charming guy.
I thought he’d be a great leader. I thought he had those abilities. I championed him for the job. I did interviews with the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. I thought that his ideas were pretty sound, and that he was a manager and, at that time, that’s what I thought we needed. Not only for Live Nation but for the industry. We needed a manager. We needed someone with a different approach.
[Rapino became global president of Clear Channel Entertainment's music division in 2004; and CEO of Live Nation the following year.]
Michael has changed the industry.
He has changed the industry. The idea that he was a manager is what this business needed. It didn’t need another promoter having regionalized ideas of what our world should be like. That’s one of the reasons why I turned down his offer.
Michael Rapino’s ideas evolved differently (than mine). He sees (business) in a different way. That’s his responsibility, and that’s exactly what he’s supposed to do. As an entrepreneur, I saw that spirit erode to the point where guys like me were never going to help Michael Rapino or anybody else who has that public corporation responsibility.
I am not against large companies or corporations. It is just that my thought process of how my career and life have come about is completely different than anybody else who isn’t an entrepreneur. The entrepreneurial spirit has been trampled in America. I knew that when I took that money. I knew in my heart that was going to happen (at the company). We just try to prolong the situation.
How was SFX able to roll up much of the live music business?
Money. It was the big pay day.
It was inevitable that consolidation would come to the concert industry.
There have been waves of consolidations in America, if not the world, for hundreds of years. In the 20th century, it became more prevalent as a way of building businesses. So why wouldn’t there be a consolidation in the music business, the movie business or with radio stations? Radio stations became open (for purchase) when they became deregulated under the Reagan and Clinton administrations. That paved the way for this consolidation. Basically, Bob Sillerman came out of radio consolidation where he made a lot of money and he saw a way that he could build this (concert business) into a business that he could flip.
[The consolidation of America’s concert market began with SFX's acquisition of New York promoter Delsener-Slater Presents in 1996. By the decade’s end, legendary American concert companies like Cellar Door, Pace Concerts, Bill Graham Presents, Don Law Presents, Sunshine Promotions, Contemporary Productions, Evening Star, Avalon Productions and others were under the same umbrella.
In 2000, Magid sold Electric Factory Concerts to SFX Entertainment which was soon purchased by Clear Channel Entertainment. Under Robert Sillerman, SFX had spent about $2 billion buying promoters and other entertainment properties, including snapping up 11 regional companies and 82 venues. Sillerman sold the company to Clear Channel Entertainment for an estimated $4 billion. In 2005, Live Nation was formed from a spin-off of the subsidiary, Clear Channel Communications.]
Initially, it did look like SFX had lined up a solid block of promoters.
It looked like a good block whether it was an illusion or not. We were the last company in. We had turned Bob Sillerman down at least once, maybe twice. As matter of fact, we had had several other offers. We didn’t want to sell, but everybody has a number.
When we got the offer to sell, the price had escalated to the point of not only were we comfortable with selling but where we were able to continue with the same size staff as before. Had we not sold I think we would have seen a dramatically different picture for us in Philadelphia. We would not have been as successful because we were not going to be able to control the venues as we once had.
Pace (Pace Concerts) had come in. They had built an amphitheatre, (Blockbuster-Sony Music Entertainment Centre) in Camden, New Jersey. We had fought the amphitheatre. After a year, we were able to make a booking agreement there.
Before your buyout, your world had greatly changed under SFX’s dominance in the live market.
The first couple of guys who took the money instead of standing up to it—for whatever reason—signaled the end for everybody else. It became a different business. It wasn’t that I couldn’t have competed in Philadelphia or elsewhere. It was a different business. You either see the world through different eyes or face the prospect of losing a large part of your business. When you say, “I’ve got X amount of employees who I have grown up with; who have families with children I know and parents I know; and I have to let them down?” It becomes a lot easier to take a big cheque. You have people that you care for and you want to make sure that you can take care of them and that they have a future.
It was difficult (competing), and there was more encroachment. (The business) wasn’t as it had been earlier. The business had kept growing, and had kept maturing. The numbers were getting bigger and peoples’ eyes were getting wider. To me, selling was the best option if we were going to continue to be the force that we wanted to be. It was the right move for us and the right move for a lot of people because the independents haven’t thrived as much as they could have and should have. I thought that there would be a couple of independent promoters that would really take advantage of this (consolidation) especially in the Clear Channel era because that was the Ugly Empire time. I thought that there would be a greater (market) reaction.
How did it feel to sell the company?
The funny thing was that after we agreed to sell our company, the day we went in for the final settlement, and the money had been transferred to our accounts, we had gone back to Philadelphia. I got a call about 12:20 (A.M.). I was in the bathroom getting ready to go bed. My wife was already in bed. The phone rang and it was Bob Sillerman. He had called to congratulate me, and to say he was sorry that he wasn’t there for the final settlement because he had to go to another meeting. After about 15 minutes he said, “Well, now that I have congratulated you; you can congratulate me.” I asked him for what. He said, “We just merged with Clear Channel. We are Class B stockholders.” It didn’t register with me at all. I go to sleep. Six o’clock in the morning I shoot straight up in bed, and I said, “Holy shit.” My wife wakes up and asks what’s wrong. I said, “They didn’t merge a company. He sold the company. They are the Class B stockholders.” So I called Bob in the morning and I couldn’t stop laughing. I just thought it was funny. Six months later or less, they (SFX principals) were gone, and Clear Channel started.
[While the deal was being finalized with Clear Channel Communications, SFX continued its buying spree. Not only picking up Electric Factory Concerts but also Jujamcyn Productions of Minneapolis, and Core Audience Entertainment in Toronto.]
The Spectrum hasn’t yet been torn down yet, but it will soon be. How did it feel do the final shows there last year?
It was the most bizarre feeling. It’s hard to explain. I had spent so many nights there. It was literally my second home. In those (early days) days as the promoter you were there when the load in was, whatever time it was, until the end of the settlement. You could be there for 18 hours. I spent a lot of those 18 hour days there going over every detail of the show because I didn’t have a full staff.
You have described Live Aid in Philadelphia on July 13, 1985 as a perfect show.
Live Aid was the perfect show. Everything went right. We were within 30 seconds off the time we had planned. It was incredible. It just worked. It was one of those magical things. Then we did Live 8 which was another good show. We were about 45 minutes over there.
How did Live Aid happen in Philadelphia?
I got a call from Bill Graham, who was a good friend. We had done several things together. Bob Geldolf wanted to do concerts in America and in London and he wanted to televise the two shows together. Well, because of the time difference, it had to be on the east (U.S.) coast and in London.
Graham and I had done outdoor shows together and had done tours together. We had been friendly, and our philosophies kind of married each other. There weren’t a lot of people that Bill would accept as being in the same business with, let alone like. The bottom line we found out with Bill was that he had no bottom line. But he was fun to work to work with, if not challenging.
New York would have been too expensive?
No. Bill wanted to do it at Giants Stadium (in East Rutherford, New Jersey). I was able to convince Bill and Geldolf that doing it in Philadelphia was better for a number of different reasons. First of all, we didn’t have a lot of time so we needed all of the resources at our fingertips. If we had gone to New York not knowing the market as well it would have been far more difficult. Bill didn’t want to work with the New York people because he thought he was a New York guy.
We were able to convince Bill and Geldolf that Philadelphia was the proper thing, especially if they wanted us. We were very good with outdoor shows. They needed a lot of organization, and we were well grounded in that experience.
When Live 8 came up in 2005, the organizers wanted to go to New York or Washington for the American show.
Again we were able to convince them that Philadelphia was the place to play. We had history. One of our arguments was that this city was originally the cradle of liberty and if we were extending a hand to feed people in emerging third world nations, why wouldn’t they do the show from here? Basically, we didn’t want to go to New York.
You had a close relationship with Bill Graham. He was a figure both celebrated and loathed in the business.
He was good with a lot of people. He had a good bark, but a good heart. Bill had bluster, and he had problems but he was The Show. Bill and I had a lot of long discussions and opportunities (to work together). There were people he liked or didn’t like at all. The difference between Bill and everybody else was that he was The Show. I might have been every bit the promoter, if not better in my ability to sell tickets, but I realized that for me to survive I couldn’t be The Show. There was only one guy that was going to be The Show, and that was Bill. He had the temperament. He wanted to be The Show. And, he was the only one that could pull it off. The rest of us would have been punished.
While at Temple University in Philadelphia, you did bookings for fraternities. Did you book Doug Clark and the Hot Nuts, the inspiration for the Otis Day and the Knights group in “Animal House?”
I started booking bands in ’62, and that led to concerts. I booked Doug Clark and the Hot Nuts for fraternity parties. There were a lot of bands like that which we booked locally or regionally. There were fraternity party bands, college bands. I had Lee Andrews and the Hearts. They were 7 or 8 pieces and they would go in, and do four shows (sets) and tear the place up. King Curtis was great too.
Ike & Tina Turner was one of the first Afro-American acts to cross over to the white market in America.
Ike & Tina Turner got a boost because of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones saying how great they were. Before that it was pretty much a chitlin’ circuit thing for them. There were very few white kids then going to places like the Regal (Regal Theatre in Chicago) or the Apollo (Apollo Theatre in New York) or the uptown theatres to see these great acts like James Brown or Otis Redding or any of the (R&B) packages that would play. The Uptown Theatre was near Temple University. My friends and I started going to the Uptown when I was 15. I went there straight through until I left for New York. Even after that I would go to the R&B and jazz clubs in whatever city I was in.
Philadelphia was, of course, then the ultimate R&B city.
Unbelievable. Everybody played Philly but unless they played a downtown jazz club it was kind of segregated. The first underground stations that I remember were the R&B stations out of Philly. Jocko (Henderson) and later Jimmy Bishop (on WDAS). I listened to Rockin’ Rodney (E. Rodney Jones) out of Baltimore (and then Chicago) and Joe "The Jet" Perry out of Washington, D.C. My main man was “The Cannonball” Julian Graham. I was on his show on Saturday nights for a couple of months when I was 16. My name on the radio was Joe Tomato. Ten years later I was on radio again as Larry Magic. It was a great period. The R&B stations were the underground stations then.
You’d buy records on Excello and Minit.
Oh yeah. And King Records and Chess. The credible label was Atlantic. I would listen to anything on Atlantic. The records sounded better. They were produced better. The Atlantic people just had a great feel. Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun just had that feel and they knew what the public was going to accept. They polished it a little bit more than the other (labels).
You left Temple University to work as an agent in New York.
I had an offer to go to work at an agency in New York. I worked at a couple of agencies. I worked at Capitol Booking, a small agency, and Jack Whitmore booked jazz acts there. He was an early mentor to me. I got to book Miles Davis, Stan Getz, Bill Evans and Cannonball Adderley for college dates. That was incredible period for me; it was like living a dream for me because these people were established, credible international musicians. Rock musicians weren’t taken very seriously back then. Miles Davis, there’s never been a better musician in my mind, more creative, more fertile than him. To work with him and Bill Evans was unbelievable.
Miles was an intimidating figure.
I have to tell you Miles could be intimidating but I got along great with him. He fancied himself a boxer and he would always want to spar with me. We had a nice relationship.
You wound up at General Artists Corporation (GAC).
At the time, it was the largest (music) booking agency. I got Frank Barsalona’s office. I think a little gold dust rubbed off on me. Frank was one of a kind. There was also Herb Spar who passed away when he was very young. Herb worked incredibly hard, knew the music, and was very well liked. He would have been every bit as big as Frank, if not bigger.
[Herb Spar died of Hodgkin's disease when he was only in his ‘30s. Spar started out in the mailroom of the William Morris Agency, along with David Geffen. He ended up not only running the Fillmore East, but he booked Eric Clapton for his first New York gig. He also booked Janis Joplin, the Beach Boys, Santana, and many other top artists. Aerosmith’s “Greatest Hits” album, released in 1980, is dedicated to the memory of Herb Spar.]
It was an interesting period because Bert Block was then a vice-president at GAC.
I worked for Bert. He was my mentor. He was an incredible presence. He’s the guy who started the contemporary concert scene with the Kingston Trio which he discovered. Bert Block and Larry Bennett owned ITA (International Talent Associates). They sold their company to GAC (in 1964) and, about a year later, I got hired. I loved working with Bert. He was a bigger than life guy. He taught me a lot not only about the business but also in my (personal) life as well. Things like how to present myself in business, and how to handle a lot of situations that would come up in music
GAC then represented the Beatles and Bob Dylan.
We represented them. I did not book any Beatles dates but I was there. The Beatles were just finishing up a tour. Dylan was in a motorcycle accident and was out for several years. The older guys were able to book all of the acts. The younger guys like me got to book a lot of the rock stuff that we were playing in clubs and concerts.
I got to work with pop acts like Spanky & Our Gang, the Turtles, and the Lovin’ Spoonful. There were Big Brother (Big Brother & the Holding Company), Cream, and Paul Butterfield Blues Band dates that we booked; We did a couple of Jimi Hendrix tours. I think I left as the Jimi Hendrix era was starting. I got to play Jimi Hendrix a few times, however. We worked with a lot of new acts. Then there were acts like the Moody Blues and the Kinks, that were going through a metamorphosis from pop acts to credible acts that could come to America and play contemporary settings like the Electric Factory or the Fillmore. I got to work with them.
Acts like Jimi Hendrix or Cream weren’t huge in the American market for some time.
Absolutely. The Billboard, Cashbox and Record World charts were then based on various things, including radio airplay, jukebox play and even sheet music. It was an old system. When Cream or Hendrix came out (with a new record) there wasn’t sheet music or jukebox play. It was basically underground (FM) radio stations that were playing them and they couldn’t get great chart positions. They didn’t fit into the composition of what it took to make a hit record. You had to have all of those different components.
The mid-60s was a great time to be involved in music in New York.
It was an incredible time in history. It is frozen into my mind forever. I was friendly with (songwriter) Ellie Greenwich at the time, and my roommate was Tom West who produced Jim Croce (in the ‘70s). It was a great time to be in New York. I would go up to The Brooklyn Fox or to The Paramount and see shows. I recall the Allan Freed shows, and the Jocko (Henderson) shows. He was a Philadelphia legend who had had moved to New York (working at WADO). Murray the K also did shows, including the first appearance of the Who (for 10 straight days at The Brooklyn Fox in Easter, 1967 as part of an all-star lineup including Cream, Mitch Ryder, and the Young Rascals).
I saw the Who open for Herman’s Hermits.
People didn’t realize who they were yet. Someone put them on the bill. Obviously, you could see the credibility. Often the people who came to see the headliner weren’t interested in anything else. The rule of the day was when you had the Rolling Stones or someone like that, or a big tour with five or six bands, a lot of them were one hit bands or throwaways. I had Len Barry on a Sonny & Cher tour. We grew up together, and I managed him for awhile. He was one of the first blue-eyed soul acts and had a little depth to him. He went over great. But the 4 or 5 bands on prior to him didn’t. They were throwaways and that’s how a lot of people viewed them. You always had to have some meat (a credible act) on those package tours because that’s what people expected.
Music promoter Irv Feld did many of those package tours in North America.
He did a bunch of tours. He did the Dick Clark tours. There were a few people who did those tours. They were remarkable. Sometimes there’d be 15 or 18 acts on those tours. Sometimes there were five or six. There weren’t a lot of people that could sustain a tour themselves. James Brown had an entertaining touring show, but he was the bigger name. Even Buddy Holly, as big as he was, needed those tours.
You were recruited by brothers Herb, Allen, and Jerry Spivak to help run The Electric Factory.
When there was an opportunity to come back to Philadelphia I decided that I would rather become a promoter than stay an agent
The original Electric Factory was a tire warehouse?
It had been a tire warehouse. It had also been a bakery at one time. But there were a lot of places like that around the country. There were club operators who didn’t see that and fell by the wayside. The people who built the (concert) business were able to see beyond the club scene. When we started, we had no idea what we were looking at or what we were doing or what we were building for. We had a club. Then it became obvious that it was going to get bigger. But how much? Nobody knew. Nobody in their right mind could have said what was going to happen.
Rolling Stone tagged you as the “Psychedelic Dungeon Keeper.”
I didn’t have that psychedelic dungeon. Frank Zappa had said that he was playing a lot of psychedelic dungeons. He loved The Electric Factory. He was one of the earliest acts we booked. He was an interesting, and a lovely guy. He was so far ahead of us it was remarkable. I enjoyed working with him. He was one of the first kings of this counter culture, underground scene.
He came into our club one time—maybe the first time—and I said, “Frank you have to come and see this.” I took him backstage and opened up the door to this little bathroom. We had painted the toilet seat lid in his likeness; and his arms were the seat. From that moment on, we were great friends.
At The Electric Factory tickets were $3 and $4 for years.
We never charged more than $4 a ticket back then. I remember having to raise it from $3.50 to $4. It was a scary thing because you would see kids come in and buy a ticket, and just have a handful or pocketful of change. You would be standing there counting out the nickels and the dimes. Remember we were offering people an opportunity to see acts that weren’t household names. Hendrix, Joplin and Zappa and Butterfield. They each had their following but it wasn’t big. Even when we went into arenas, we didn’t cross the $6 mark for a few years because we weren’t sure that we were going to get it.
Even at The Spectrum?
When we went to The Spectrum it was $6 at the top for the first few years. There were times we charged $4.50 or $5 for advance and then $1 or more day of the show.
Then there was $15 ticket for a Frank Sinatra show.
I remember when Sinatra came for $15. It was like “Holy smoke. 15 bucks!” We had gradually got up to the $7.50 to $10 range, but $15 was a lot. Remember we didn’t have a computerized ticketing service. So we were our own ticket distributor. People came down to the box office. In the early days, we would pay a head shop or a clothing store a quarter a ticket to sell tickets. You have to remember the time we lived in as well; and the times we worked. The acts and the managers were making more money off records. Record sales generally drove the business, and we were an adjunct. If they had a successful record, we drew more people.
You used to do outdoor shows at the Belmont Plateau.
We did it for 2 or 3 years on a lot of Sundays in the spring summer or fall. We would play an act Friday or Saturday night, and then we’d play it for free. We would sometimes have 4 or 5 bands. It was free. Everybody donated everything. That was as good a thing as was ever done because that helped build what we were doing. It created such a good environment and good feeling that the music just seemed to explode more on those days. We could actually enjoy it as well along with everybody else. We weren’t always having to watch every little thing. We started out with 300 or 400 people. The last one drew 75,000 people. It tied up traffic and everything.
In the ‘70s The Electric Factory was known for its incredible bills.
The great thing that I brought back to Philadelphia was the ability to mix jazz musicians with up-and-coming contemporary rock musicians. We had Cannonball Adderley on with the Grateful Dead for a week. We played Miles Davis several times. In fact, we played Miles when he had Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea in the same band. It was an incredible experience. We even played people like Stan Kenton and Sun Ra.
You co-managed a jazz-rock band, Lighthouse from Toronto.
That was one of the more underrated bands. They had such great players. They were as good players for that genre as anybody. We were booked for the Monterey Jazz Festival and Miles Davis followed us. He flipped out over the band. That was just before his transition into those fusion albums. He sat in with the band, and then we played Isle of Wight and he followed us there too.
One night Lighthouse played in Toronto and Duke Ellington came in to see them. He had a pony tail and was wearing a camel hair overcoat over his shoulders. Here were all these kids and there’s Duke Ellington. I couldn’t believe it
Audiences would accept more of a musical mix on bills then. That changed.
What happened was that the bands started packaging their own shows. As did the agents. I don’t think that they gave audiences enough credit for accepting the packaging that Bill Graham and I and a couple of other (promoters) did. They (agents) wanted to build their farm systems. Of course, the best way to build an act into a headliner is to play them as an opening act. But they took the packaging abilities away from the promoter by and large. It’s hard to recapture that type of booking (acumen).
Bills became homogenized.
Yeah, there’s the good in that because you are still exposing people but I think that the business (used to have) the ability to challenge audiences a little bit more. I just don’t think they gave the audiences enough of that--as we could of—because of the advent of packaging (shows).
Before the advent of packaging, promoters had the ability to pick the opening act?
Yeah, absolutely. You could do that. To the British artists’ credit, we were able to put a lot of blues acts on bills. Until then Muddy Waters’ and B.B. King’s careers were basically one dimensional. They were playing to the older urban audience. They got a little bit involved in the folk scene, and that helped them. But when the rock scene started in the mid-60s, they did well.
Paul Butterfield helped a lot of legendary blues figures by having them on bills.
He resurrected them. He was a white musician playing that music. A lot of the British acts and even a lot of the American contemporary acts took a lot of that music. It was only the fair thing to have (blues acts) on their shows. That gave B.B. King, Muddy Waters and a lot of others a better career than they had had in some time. Internationally, as well. It gave them their audience. If they weren’t good or credible they wouldn't have done well. But the fact is that not only were they good, but they invented a lot of the guitar phrasing that contemporary musicians co-opted.
Still, there wasn’t that much back-and-forth between the Afro-American and white music communities in the ‘70s.
There were multi-faceted bands like Blood, Sweat & Tears that crossed over a lot of genres of music and could open peoples’ minds to things that they had not been exposed to previously. We used all types of contemporary (bands) on our shows. There were bands that were regional or had the ability to become popular mixed into the shows.
As well as Lighthouse and Len Barry, you also managed Catfish Hodge, Patti Labelle, Grover Washington and Ramsey Lewis. But you stopped managing.
I realized that I wasn’t a good manager. And I wasn’t going to be a good manager.
How much staff would you operate with for shows early on? 3 or 4 people?
Pretty much. We actually started tour catering. There wasn’t anything like tour catering previously. One of the reasons that we started doing it was when a band did a rehearsal or sound check and left, it had to fight its way across town and back in a lot of traffic. We thought that if we had catering we could keep bands (on site). We started out with a candlelight dinner. A restaurant came in -- it was a big deal.
There were no riders for food back then.
There weren’t any riders. We didn’t have to feed people. Then we realized that the stage hands would get a dinner break an hour before the show and the people that came back some times had a lot to drink at dinner. The spotlights would be going all over the place, and the stage hands would be working a lot slower than they should. So we figured that we might as well try to feed people (on site) and keep the alcohol intake down to a minimum. We obviously didn’t serve any alcohol.
The Who at Riverfront Coliseum in Cincinnati on Dec. 3, 1979. It’s hard to get over a tragedy like that.
You never get over it. You wouldn’t ever want to get over anything like that.
Did you work with the Who afterwards?
Sure. I continue to work with them to this day.
What happened there?
You have to understand what the dynamics of the political situation was in Ohio, especially in Cincinnati, at that time. You remember that the National Guardsmen killed students at Kent State (On May 4, 1970 members of the Ohio National Guard fired into a crowd of Kent State University demonstrators, killing four and wounding 9 students). We had come into a situation where the hostilities between the police and the kids had not cooled down. If anything, (tensions) had exacerbated, maybe, because of Kent State or the political climate. Who knows? On the east and the west coast things seemed to have subsided. But, in Ohio, it hadn’t gotten better.
We had a Led Zeppelin concert in Ohio earlier where we had rock and bottle throwing between a crowd and the police who we thought were overzealous or over vigilant.
Do you feel that authorities pushed too hard in 1979?
I am not saying that they were the blame or one thing or one incident was the blame. There were a multitude of things that went dramatically wrong. Hopefully, we have all learned. But what irked me more than anything were the interviews afterwards saying, “Well, that would never happen in my city.” Through subsequent years, it has happened again.
In essence, an unruly crowd problem can be handled by the proper responses of people controlling the venues.
Our argument was always, as it should be, that we lease the facilities. We don’t control anything. The act plays there. Nobody controls the environment.
[Thirty years later, on the open concrete plaza on the west side of U.S. Bank Arena in Cincinnati, there is no hint of the tragedy that unfolded there on Dec. 3, 1979.
In the late '70s, the Riverfront Coliseum (as it was called then) had a reputation for unruly crowds. Fans reportedly threw fireworks during a Yes concert there in 1976. A year later, a seat-seeking crowd rushed a locked entrance before a Led Zeppelin performance, resulting in 60 arrests and numerous injuries.
The 1979 show was the Who’s first Cincinnati performance in four years. All of the tickets for the concert sold out in 90 minutes. The majority of tickets were for unreserved seats or festival seating.
As 7 p.m., the scheduled time for doors to open for the 8 p.m. show, passed, restless fans began pounding on the glass doors. But only a handful of doors were reportedly opened. In all, 11 people lost their lives that night. Each had suffocated in the stampede of the crowd.
After the concert, families of the dead and injured filed 33 lawsuits against the Who; Electric Factory Concerts; the city of Cincinnati; and coliseum management. The suits claimed negligence and sought more than $100 million in damages. All suits were eventually settled out of court.]
Open seating was deemed unsafe for years.
Well, there had been open seating before that without a lot of incidents. It is basically down to how you can control the environment. There are limits to what you can do. But you learn, and you try to avoid any conflict in any situation. But there were plenty of shows, especially, in the early days where people would not only stand at shows but would use chairs to do a lot of different things with. In those days, the seats weren’t always fastened to the next seat or the whole row or they weren’t fastened enough and at the end of the show there would be seats all over the place. People would toss them aside.
Rock shows aren’t conducive to having people seated and folding their hands.
We have always tried to maintain that there shouldn’t be a lot of rules because we are still talking about rock music and the language of rebellion. You can’t control peoples’ emotions. You try to treat people the way you’d want to be treated yourself. That’s really the only rule.
Larry LeBlanc was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record. He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, the London Times and the New York Times.