|Alex, left, shakes hands with Charlie Loudermilk at the opening of
The Buckhead Theatre.
Industry Profile: Alex Cooley
By Larry LeBlanc (CelebrityAccess MediaWire)
This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Alex Cooley, president of Alex Cooley Presents.
Georgia’s Alex Cooley has come down from the mountain.
After his departure from concert promotion in 2004, Cooley tucked himself away at his Lookout Mountain farm, where he lives with his wife, his apple trees, and his garden.
For three decades, practically every major live show presented in the Atlanta region had his fingerprints on it--from the Rolling Stones to Bruce Springsteen to the Grateful Dead.
His diverse portfolio also included shows with Pink Floyd, Metallica, Sting, Rod Stewart, Neil Young, the Dixie Chicks, Yanni, Bob Dylan, and Britney Spears.
Cooley is back in the game on his old stomping ground—the Buckhead Theatre, in Buckhead, Georgia (formerly the Coca-Cola Roxy Theater) which, following a two year $6 million makeover, re-opened its doors on June 3rd, 2010.
The 2,500 capacity complex is being managed by Novare Events, with Cooley onboard as its entertainment manager. Athens’ club booker Velena Vego is booking the rock acts for the venue; while Linda Kirwin is overseeing bookings of theatrical shows and family entertainment.
For Cooley, the 70-year-old irascible entertainment icon who spent 30 years managing the Coca-Cola Roxy Theatre, this is a sweet homecoming.
The man, who brought rock and roll to Atlanta, certainly has a colorful past.
It was Cooley who booked the Sex Pistol’s first American date; who was smuggled out of Puerto Rico following his Mar y Sol Festival that so angered the government there; and who turned down an offer to do business from "The Scarface of Porn.”
Born in Atlanta, Cooley went to Henry Grady High School, and then attended the University of Georgia and Georgia State University (but failed to graduate). He had little music industry experience prior to becoming a concert promoter in 1969. He had been operating an Atlanta pizza parlor where doo-wop and R&B groups sang on the weekends. After attending the Miami Pop Festival in 1968, he became intrigued by the notion of being a concert promoter.
In 1969, more than a month before the three-day Woodstock Music & Art Fair at Max Yasgur's 600-acre farm near Bethel, New York, Cooley and 16 partners hosted the Atlanta International Pop Festival on July 4-5 at the Atlanta International Raceway that drew over 120,000 people.
Performers included Led Zeppelin, Janis Joplin, Johnny Winter, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Canned Heat, Spirit, Ten Wheel Drive, Joe Cocker, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Dave Brubeck, Grand Funk Railroad, and others.
Later that summer, Cooley, partnered with Angus Wynne, hosted the Texas International Pop Festival. The Labor Day weekend event, held from August 30th to Sept. 1, featured Led Zeppelin, B.B. King, Canned Heat, Chicago, Delaney & Bonnie & Friends, Freddie King, Johnny Winter, Nazz, Sam & Dave, Santana, Sly & the Family Stone, Spirit, Ten Years After, Tony Joe White and others
The 1970 Atlanta Pop Festival, held in Byron, Georgia, was organized by Cooley and a friend. Estimates of the audience run to over 500,000 people attending. On the bill were Jimi Hendrix, the Allman Brothers, Jethro Tull, B.B. King, Ravi Shankar, and others. Cooley next leased the old Georgian Terrace ballroom, renamed it Alex Cooley's Electric Ballroom, and brought in some of the ‘70s era top acts including Billy Joel, Ted Nugent, and an up-and-coming Bruce Springsteen.
He also presented shows at the Great Southeast Music Hall. Through the years, he also owned such venues as the Coca-Cola Roxy, the Tabernacle, and the Cotton Club.
In 1982, Cooley and Peter Conlon launched Concerts/Southern Promotions that presented nearly 400 shows annualy for over a decade, at such local venues as the Fox Theatre, the Omni Coliseum, Chastain Park Amphitheatre, the Lakewood Amphitheater, and Phillips Arena.
In 1994, Concerts/Southern Promotions inaugurated Music Midtown, a three-day festival in downtown Atlanta. By its final year in 2006, it had grown to 11 stages, more than 120 artists, and some 300,000 fans on a 35 acre tract.
Concerts/Southern Promotions was purchased by Robert Sillerman’s SFX Entertainment in 1997 for a reported $15 million. Cooley and Conlon remained on as local directors of the company.
Under Sillerman, SFX had spent about $2 billion buying promoters and other entertainment properties, including snapping up 11 regional companies and 82 venues. In 2000 Sillerman sold the company to Clear Channel Entertainment.
By 2005, when Live Nation was formed from a spin-off of the subsidiary Clear Channel Communications, Cooley had already been fired, and had departed for his mountain top retreat.
You are supposed to be on a mountain top, retired.
That’s where I was for several years, and I enjoyed it. I have lived in an orchard on top of a mountain with the deer. I woke up every morning, looked out the window, and I saw deer grazing.
You are 70.
When I look in the mirror, and I see this old grizzled face, it shocks the hell out of me. I truly do feel like a young man.
These times, and music are keeping people young.
Music still keeps me young. It is still a passion. I went into this business with a passion for music. I stayed with (that passion), and I still have it. However, someone stole all of my albums. I must have had enough to fill out a house.
Do you download music?
I do. When I went up to the mountain house, I bought the biggest Macintosh (computer) they make with all of the memory they could stuff in it. The albums I did have, I put them on it. Then, I started buying; downloading music. I downloaded some days for 12 and 14 hours. I spent a small fortune, but I now have a library you wouldn’t believe on my computer.
What is your role with the new Buckhead Theatre?
I’m a lowly consultant.
You must be pleased to see this theatre re-open.
I am pleased to see it saved. I am pleased to see what a good job they did to it. It’s not a rock and roll place anymore, it’s truly a theatre. It’s really nice. So far, we’ve had an opening night party; and we had a (a $1,000-a-seat) charity event for the March of Dimes.
This theatre goes back a few years. It’s the old Capri.
It does indeed. Then it was the Coca-Cola Roxy.
It original name was, in fact, Buckhead Theatre.
Yeah, it was. It was built in the ‘20s as a burlesque house. It was on one of the burlesque circuits. It’s not a huge place so it wasn’t on one of the big circuits.
[The original Buckhead Theatre opened on June 2, 1930. Built for $250,000, the Spanish baroque movie house was one of the first purpose-built theatres for sound pictures in Atlanta. Originally, seating was for 1,056 patrons with a stage 25 feet wide. When Mae West's 1933 film, "She Done Him Wrong" was being suppressed in theatres in downtown Atlanta, the Buckhead Theatre presented it with enormous success.]
Over the years, you have presented a lot of shows there.
A tremendous number of shows. But when it closed down (two years ago), it was a wreck. It really was. Charles Loudermilk…Charlie, he’s the guy (as founder and chairman) who started Aaron’s Rents (in 1955) and made tons of money when he took (his company) public. He went to this theatre as a boy to see movies. You know, the Tom Mix serial type of things. He had a fondness in his heart for this theatre. So he poured $6 million into it. He paid $2 million to buy it.
[Charlie Loudermilk, 82, the founder of the $1.4 billion Aaron’s Rents (rebranded as Aaron’s Inc.) empire, was one of a small group who kick-started the Georgia Dome. As well, he was an original backer of Andrew Young’s first mayoral campaign.]
The plumbing and electrical must have been shot.
Completely. Charlie had to tear all that out. He gutted (the theatre). There’s nothing left but the standing walls.
[Changes included replacement of all plumbing, wiring, heating, and ventilation; the addition of a large projection screen; a “green room” for performers; a kitchen; and a more distinct separation of the building’s two floors.]
The total capacity of the room is 2,200 (people), but that includes some meeting space. GA (general admission) is 1,700 or something like that. Seating, we are still working on. It’s going to be in the 1,000 to 1,200 range. There’s a full kitchen. You can have your wedding reception, and all kinds of things here.
You were also one of those behind the campaigns to save and fix up The Fox.
The Fox will never be replicated. It has such authentic detail. All kinds of craftsmen came over from Italy and from the Middle-East, and just lavished time and energy and money in building a palace. They wanted to tear it down, and put up a parking lot like the Joni Mitchell song (“Big Yellow Taxi”). That was just outrageous. Atlanta is one of these places that tears down, and thinks about it later, but this was something that hardly anybody could stand.
[Atlanta's Fox Theatre is one of the most ornate movie palaces remaining in the U.S., and one of the largest movie theaters ever built. Designed as headquarters for the city’s 5,000-member Shriners organization, it opened on Christmas Day in 1929. Almost sold and demolished to make way for Southern Bell's headquarters in the ‘70s, the Fox was rescued through the efforts of Atlanta Landmarks, Inc., a non-profit organization of committed city folk. There. The theatre has been designated a National Historic Landmark.]
You were one of the first to sell to SFX Entertainment.
[In 1997 SFX expanded its concert promotions division dramatically, with acquisitions of four major concert companies: Concert/Southern Promotions; Bill Graham Presents of San Francisco; Contemporary Group of St. Louis; and Houston-based PACE Entertainment and subsidiary Pavilion Partners; along with the Network Magazine Group and SJS Entertainment. To support its buying spree, SFX sold $350 million in bonds and made arrangements for $300 million in credit.]
Why did you sell?
I would be a liar if I said that money didn’t have something to do with it. But, (the) thinking that we could build a better (business) model had a lot to do with it also. If I could go back and redo it I would, but I can’t.
In 2000, Robert Sillerman sold SFX to Clear Channel Entertainment.
I still, to this day, do not know if he did (the consolidation) with the intention of flipping it to Clear Channel or if that came later. I remember we had a meeting in Nashville. A bunch of promoters flew in. We were all in one room, and we were arguing like cats and dogs. Then, I left. I was in the elevator with Sillerman and I remember him looking shell-shocked. So, maybe, he had the intention of doing it (consolidating the sector) but then decided that it couldn’t be done.
Everyone still wanted to control their own territory?
There was more to it than that. It was complicated. Everybody had a different idea of how things should be done. Some wanted to eliminate the (booking) agencies. Some, like me, said, “No. The agents need to be there. If we start doing that, we are going to get into anti-trust stuff. Plus the fact is that the agent performs a very basic and needed function.” There was just a lot of arguing about what we were going to do.
Ron Delsner was first to sell to SFX.
Delsener was the first, and he was in Nashville (for the meeting). He was the loudest and the most vociferous of all of them.
[In 1996, SFX Broadcasting (later renamed SFX Entertainment) made its first foray into the world of concert promotion by acquiring New York promoter Delsener/Slater. Within a few months, SFX acquired Sunshine Promotions of Indiana. Included in the purchase was Deer Creek Music Center, outside of Indianapolis; and The Polaris Amphitheater in Columbus, Ohio, Sunshine also operated the Murat Centre in Indianapolis through a 99-year lease.
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.]
(Robert) Sillerman sold this bill of goods to everybody that he was going to consolidate us, and we were then going to be more powerful. You have to understand, when this happened the promoter was losing power every day. We were getting to be toothless tigers. It made a lot of sense to (consolidate). We were going to build up acts; and we were going to run the business, kind of like (Premier Talent Agency’s) Frank Barsalona had envisioned it. Frank basically invented this business. So (the deals) made sense at the time.
Michael Cohl’s Concerts Productions International was beginning to have an enormous impact on the U.S. concert world.
Michael upset the model, and the whole way of life.
Life began to change when Michael wrangled the Rolling Stones' 1989 Steel Wheels world tour from Bill Graham. It became, “You want the Rolling Stones? We’ll pay you a fee for taking the show.”
And it was, “I will give you $3,500.” That’s what it was. $3,500. There was no reason to do the date. No reason whatsoever. I did one date.
If someone could do that with the Rolling Stones, they could do it with Led Zeppelin and other acts. Was the consolidation seen as a way to stop that?
That was kind of the thinking, without a doubt. We each had our little dukedoms and there were some rules. People like Bill Graham usually played by the rules. I played by the rules, mostly. Not always. But, we now realized that we were really defenseless, sitting in our little castle keeps. If you didn’t see the writing on the wall then, you weren’t paying attention. The writing on the wall was that Michael Cohl was out there, and things were changing.
Michael didn’t respect (promoter) territories.
No. Not even a little bit.
Barry Fey (of Feyline Productions in Denver) was the same.
Fey made many forays into other peoples’ territories. He went into Texas and Arizona--all of those mid-Western states.
Bill Graham respected local turfs?
Bill Graham came into my territory, but he always split the date with me. He was scrupulous to split the date with me. I was a working part of the date. It was not a fee-based thing, it was true 50/50 deal.
Graham respected the local promoter.
Cohl didn’t by any means.
You stayed with SFX after it was sold to Clear Channel Entertainment?
For three utterly miserable years.
It didn’t work out?
Not even remotely. First of all, you know all of the older promoters (bought out by SFX and Clear Channel). Then, you try to weld (the consolidation) onto a corporate culture. I’m not a corporate person. Except when I was a kid, I’ve never worked for a corporation. They would send me memos. They wanted me to carry a Blackberry all of the time. The damn Blackberry would go off every 15 seconds. Finally, I just turned it off, and put it in the desk. They would have these conference calls that lasted forever. I would go to sleep during them. I stopped tuning those in. So, they finally fired me. They sent me a real nice form letter on my birthday, right before Christmas, and fired me. It was the nicest thing anybody has ever done for me.
Why had you stayed for three years?
I stayed on because I thought I was performing a function, mostly for my employees; people that I had hired who put all of (our company) together. (Being fired) was best thing that could have happened to me, because I was struggling to conform. I could not do it.
What has made Atlanta such a great live music centre?
Me (laughing). A lot of things. The first thing I ever did (as a promoter) was the first Atlanta Pop Festival (the Atlanta International Pop Festival). Before that, Atlanta was on the chitlin’ circuit.
With acts Ike & Tina Turner, and James Brown.
Doo wop acts as well as Ike & Tina Turner, and a few acts like that were the only acts that played here. There were 17 partners that put on the first Atlanta Pop Festival. My job was to buy the talent. I fought tooth-and-nail to get Led Zeppelin, Jan Ian, Dave Brubeck and all of the people we had there.
I recall that the first Atlanta Pop Festival was hot.
Everybody remembers the heat. Nobody who was there forgets the heat.
[Estimates of the crowd for the Atlanta International Pop Festival were as high as 125,000 people. With temperatures nearing a hundred degrees, the local fire department used fire hoses to create "sprinklers" for the crowd to play in and cool off.]
What was the budget?
I think that we had a $200,000 budget. Back then, that was huge money. Every one of the 17 partners put up money until it hurt. I put up everything I had.
You were 26 and running a pizza parlor?
I was. Papa’s Pizza Parlor. Try saying that 10 times.
You had gone down to the Miami Pop Festival in 1968, and had been impressed by that.
That’s really what put the bug in my ear. We weren’t really successful with Papa’s. I had started doing a few doo wop groups in there; and I started making, what I thought was serious money. Doug Clark and the Hot Nuts was one of the groups. I remember that people were so shocked (by their raunchy act). I think we had Inez and Charlie Foxx. Most of the acts were one hit wonders. I would try and get them when their one hit was heavy on Top 40 radio here.
What I was really into, was Procul Harum, the Yardbirds and all that kind of thing. Me and four other friends were going to Miami to dive—I was a scuba diver—and on the way down there, we started hearing a radio ad for a pop festival. That’s what I went to.
Did you do the second Atlanta Pop Festival in 1970 on your own? It was so much bigger.
Me and one other partner. There’s a place called The Varsity here. It is exactly 92 miles from The Varsity to where we were doing the pop festival. They took me up in a helicopter, and I could see all of the way back to The Varsity. It was traffic backed up the entire way. How many people we had there, nobody will ever really know.
[The main branch of the The Varsity chain, near the Georgia Institute of Technology in downtown Atlanta, is the largest drive-in fast food restaurant in the world.]
Who was on the bill?
Jimi Hendrix, Grand Funk Railroad, the Allman Brothers, Mott the Hoople, and Spirit.
You have very eclectic musical tastes.
I think I do too. It’s wild; and it’s all over the board.
You also did the Texas International Pop Festival in 1969. Did you think that being a concert promoter was easy money at first?
At the time, money wasn’t any great interest to me. It truly wasn’t. It was about doing things, and being part of things that was interesting to me.
Festivals were popping up all over North America then.
They were. In fact, I was at one in Canada. My New York lawyer was running the festival for someone in Canada. He asked me to come up, and help him. The job he gave me was to sit with Sly and the Family Stone, and keep Sly sober until it was time for him to go onstage. I sat with that son of a bitch for four hours. People were trying to sneak him every kind of substance in the world. I was physically stopping him from leaving or taking stuff from anybody. That was my job. It’s almost a miracle that you could do the drugs that Sly Stone has done, and still be alive.
[Live bookings for Sly & the Family Stone began to decline in 1970 as promoters worried that Stone might miss the gig, refuse to play, or be unable to perform.]
There was marijuana, hash and speed (methamphetamines) on the music scene then. There wasn’t much cocaine.
There was some coke around too,but you are right, not a lot. The first cocaine I ever saw in my life was when I was in a hotel room with Ike and Tina (Turner) and the Ikettes. They were discussing their show. Ike was giving them hell, and all of this. Finally, that was over and we were having a beer or something. Ike said, “Alex, c’mon into the bathroom with me.” I thought, “Why in the world would I want to go into the bathroom with Ike Turner?” But he kept on and on. I finally got up and walked in with him. He had a belt buckle (with cocaine inside). He dipped me a snort of that (cocaine) and put it under my nose. Stupid me, I didn’t know what it was. I blew out. He said, “Look what you have done. That’s a $1,000 worth of cocaine on the floor.” I said I didn’t think I wanted to do anything that would cost that much. I did three more tours with Ike and Tina, and he always had that belt buckle on.
Bill Lowery was a big local operator back then.
Bill Lowery was a major factor down here in the (black music) thing and later in the white (soul) variation.
[Bill Lowery, who started as a disc jockey on WGST radio in Atlanta, recorded Brenda Lee, Billy Joe Royal, Joe South, the Atlanta Rhythm Section and Alicia Bridges. He died in 2004. ]
Atlanta was also the Porn Capitol of North America for awhile.
For a little while. I will never forget Mike Thevis as long as I live. He called me and he said he wanted to meet with me. Everybody was really afraid of him. I don’t know if they needed to be or not, but I was told that if he asked to meet with me that I’d better go. I went down there (to his office) and I sat across from his desk and watched him. He said he wanted to get into the rock and roll business. He was a gross man;.he sat there, and picked his nose while I was there. He was opening envelopes on his desk and they were all full of money. It was all stacking up on his desk as we talked. I said to myself, “Let me get out of here.”
Thevis was looking for a business to launder money.
Yes. I told him that I wasn’t interested. He never pressured me after that. I never was a dope dealer; and I was never a pimp. I didn’t get women for any groups, and I didn’t get dope for groups. I know a lot of promoters who did, but I didn’t go into the business to be either one of those two things.”
[Michael Thevis, dubbed in the tabloids as "The Scarface of Porn,” once described his Atlanta-based $100 million-a-year empire as, "The GM of pornography."
In 1967, Thevis founded Pendulum Press, publishing his own hardcore books and magazines. As the enterprise grew, he partnered with Kenny "The Jap" Hanna, and with Roger Dean Underhill, a foot soldier in New York’s Gambino crime family. Thevis and Underhill founded Automatic Enterprises, and Cinematics to manufacture and distribute peep show machines in the U.S.
When Hanna was murdered in 1970, Thevis emerged as the prime suspect. An FBI investigation determined he was responsible for 40% of the legal and illegal pornography distributed across the U.S.
Thevis responded to the federal investigation by establishing a handful of legitimate businesses in the music industry. He founded the music distribution firm General Recording Corp., and its affiliated labels GRC, Aware, and Hotlanta. GRC yielded a series of minor hits including Ripple's "Dance Lady Dance," Dorothy Norwood's "Let Your Feet Down Easy” as well as Sammy Johns’ "Chevy Van", which reached #5 on Billboard’s Hot 100 in 1975.
In 1976, Thevis was sentenced to 8 years and 6 months in prison for conspiracy to commit arson and distribution of obscene materials. Two years later, he escaped from prison. Though the target of an FBI manhunt, he tracked down Underhill, killing him and an associate with a shotgun. Police apprehended Thevis soon after. In 1980, Thevis was convicted on murder charges, receiving a sentence of 28 years to life. He is still serving his sentence in Sandstone, Minnesota.]
You have owned clubs at different times.
I owned the Capri, the Cotton Club, the Electric Ballroom and the Tabernacle for awhile. I had an interest in the Great Southeast Music Hall for a short period. It fell on some hard times; and I helped them out. I booked the Sex Pistols there. That was their first (American) play.
[On 5 Jan. 5 1978, after an earlier show in Pittsburgh was scuttled due to a visa holdup, the Sex Pistols made their belated American debut at the Great Southeast Music Hall. WSB-TV in Atlanta reported that the group would be vomiting and committing sexual acts on one another as part of their show. Among those attending were 5 television crews, nearly 50 members of the press, including the Village Voice’s Bob Christgau (who wrote, “The Great Southeast Music Hall a pleasant place it is: beer in buckets, better pinball than CBGB, and an official capacity of 523.”), and members of the vice squad.
After "God Save the Queen,” singer Johnny Rotten exclaimed, "That was the new British national anthem. Then, he added, "Forget about starin' at us, just fuckin' dance. We're all ugly and we know it." After the U.S. tour, Rotten announced the band's breakup on Jan. 18th. ]
Were you out of your mind booking them?
Yeah, I was. I tried to cancel the date, actually. It was dreadful. There were more writers and photographers than there were fans. The band was acting up like they were programmed to do. I remember a thuggish Englishman (Malcolm McLaren) being there. It was just a circus. I don’t think that we made a dime on the show.
In the ‘70s and ‘80s, you were doing about 400 dates a year.
Yeah, I was. It was kind of a blur how many dates I was doing. I had different companies. Concerts/Southern Promotions, and Alex Cooley Presents. There was even a company called Snowdrift Inc.; it was a very dangerous thing to do rock and roll shows back then. The insurance was iffy. I always bought insurance, but it was questionable if they would pay off or not.
[In the late ‘80s, to communicate a local image, Cooley and Conlon also promoted shows as Alex Cooley/Peter Conlon Presents]
Did Atlanta’s city fathers accept what you were doing?
They didn’t accept it. You know, it’s so strange now. These buildings, like Philips Arena (owned by Atlanta Spirit LLC, who also owns the Atlanta Hawks and Atlanta Thrashers) and all of these (big) buildings clamor for the rock groups. They want them so bad. I remember when I used to have to beg to get a date in a municipal building. “Rock and roll? No,. we don’t want them. The Four Freshmen, we will book it.” Now they roll out the red carpet for any rock group.
With the economy the way it is today, it’s too hard keep arenas and amphitheatre going 365 days a year. Sheds once had motor races, tractor pulls, and rodeos.
Almost impossible, 365, but if you book it right…Well, there are fewer (headlining) acts now than there used to be. Promoters like Barry Fey, Bill Graham and others used to build acts. The reason that I had clubs was to build an act. What I have lost, and what I’ve made in clubs wouldn’t amount to a hill of beans. But (that club business) was there for a reason, and the reason was to build acts.
The business today doesn’t resemble the ‘80s.
We used to build acts. A good part of my day, every day, was working on ad campaigns for new acts and trying to get them as much exposure as humanly possible, because that was the lifeblood of the business. It was the Frank Barsalona plan.
You have worked with groups for decades. Do they stay loyal?
There is loyalty. There are groups that stuck with me through thick and thin and there were groups that played my clubs and dropped me like a hot potato for no reason except for a better deal.
Who stayed loyal?
Billy Joel, and Z.Z. Top. Certainly not the Rolling Stones. Certainly not Pink Floyd. I’d have to think more about who stayed loyal. I think the first one I remember being disloyal was David Bowie.
Was Atlanta a hard rock town when you were promoting?
Not like Detroit. AC/DC is the all-time best rock and roll band there ever was. I used to do them once a year for many years. They came in like a regular thing. So Atlanta was a hard rock town, but not as drastic (as elsewhere). I would also sell out David Bowie.
Pink Floyd at Symphony Hall in the early ‘70s was a breakthrough show for you.
It was one of the first shows I ever did. I won’t ever forget that show because it so stunned the audience (of 1,700). At the end of the show, nobody clapped. It was like a two minute interval before people finally started clapping. This was before all of the equipment Pink Floyd would later carry. Remember how they used to start their shows with a heartbeat? That night, they had a light guy backstage at the house lights, and he pulled the red up and down to the beat of heartbeat. That’s how primitive it was. I remember that show like it was yesterday.
What other shows stand out for you?
One has to be the Rolling Stones at the Fox Theatre (Oct. 26, 1981). It was a dark and stormy night; a night like no other night. We sold 4,000 tickets and the demand was for—I don’t know—40,000 or 80,000 tickets. It was before the Rolling Stones started working for Michael Cohl. They were playing arenas everywhere else, but they wanted to play the Fox. They were all up for show. I’ve worked with the Stones many times, and I have seen them drag onto the stage. This was a night that there was magic in the air. People were so excited. The Stones just went out, and killed everybody. People still talk about it.
There was a Santana show I did at the Fox. You know, sometimes magic happens; sometimes it doesn’t. If you are working with journeymen musicians, they go out and do a good show, no matter what. But sometimes, an indefinable thing happens between an audience, and the people on the stage. This happened that night with Carlos (Santana) and his rhythm section. He had some of the best conga and other drummers there ever were. They got into a rhythm thing that lasted for 30 minutes. I have never seen anything to equal it.
Tell me about being smuggled out of Puerto Rico after the final night of the Mar y Sol Festival in 1972.
The thing that hurt us down there was that the government withdrew the permit at the last minute. I got my lawyer from Atlanta to fly down and he got it re-instated. But, by then, the whole island—and we were depending on Puerto Ricans to come—they all thought it was off.
You were smuggled out of the site in a Volkswagen bus?
It is an absolutely true story. On the last night of the festival, one of the Puerto Ricans who was working for me came to me and said, “My father just called and said there is a warrant out for you, and (authorities) are on their way to pick you up.” I had put some time in San Juan putting all of this together. I had a friend with an apartment up on a hill overlooking the prison. That prison was the most gross-looking thing. I had been to his apartment several times and I had looked down and seen these pitiful people and I thought, “Not me.” So, I got into the back of a Volkswagen bus. They piled garbage and old clothes on top of me and they took me to the airport.
In those days, you didn’t have to go through anything to get on an airplane. I knew a lot of Delta (Airlines) people, because they used to come to my club. I was lucky that one of the captains on this particular flight knew who I was. My friends drove the Volkswagen bus right up to the plane. I got out from under that stuff and got on the plane. The pilot closed the door, and we took off. I was never so glad to be flying out of any place in my life.
[Mar y Sol l took place in Manatí, Puerto Rico April 1-3, 1972. It was held on 420 acres of countryside by the Los Tubos beach in Vega Baja. It featured Alice Cooper, Dr. John, Allman Brothers Band, the Faces, Billy Joel, B.B. King, Cactus, Brownsville Station, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Long John Baldry, and the Mahavishnu Orchestra with John McLaughlin. Later the same year, Atco Records released a two album set “Mar y Sol,” with some of the bands featured at the festival.
Puerto Rico was an unusual place for a music festival then.
Well, the concept was really good. We were going to sell in New York, Atlanta, Miami and up and down the eastern seaboard. It was a package thing with camping space or a hotel room; a plane ticket; and tickets to the shows. There was a travel company involved with it. That was the concept. I still think that concept will work. Well, the concept is working. There’s some rock and roll guys that are now putting shows on ships going to different places during the day. That’s the kind of the concept (we had). I think that if somebody put together (a festival), on a really nice island, it would sell. A lot of those people have money now. They didn’t have money back when I was trying to do it. Now they do.
You went to both the University of Georgia and Georgia State University. What did you study?
I am a drop out. What did I study? Whatever I wanted to. I would see a class that sounded interesting, and I’d go. I have always been a big history fan. I love to read historical books. So I took history, and philosophy. I took nothing that would do me much good. My main emphasis in history is the ancient history and the Middle Ages into the Renaissance. I love reading Greek and Roman history.
I have read about where concerts came from, and where amphitheatres came from. Amphitheatres are known to have come from Greece, but there are rudiments, and remains in what was Persia too, even earlier. About two years ago they uncovered some (amphitheatres) that date back to pre-Greek days. But, the Greeks refined them, and made them into great places. Someone could stand on the stage and have 20,000 people out there, and you could hear them (speak) all over the place.
You made a point of trying to find out who came before you.
What is sad to me, are some of these young people, especially some of these young agents nowadays, and some of these performers, do not look back and see where all this all came from—Tin Pan Alley, and the burlesque circuit-- and try to figure out where they fit into this continuing thing. Not many of them have done that.
The sheds in Persia were likely Bill Graham sheds.
My favorite Bill Graham story is that he had a band playing on a Friday and Saturday night. Friday night, the band’s manager said he could walk through the crowd, and there was plenty of room for everyone. Saturday night, he said, people were just jammed in; you just could not move. People were elbow to elbow; asshole to asshole. When he went back to settle, Bill gave him the settlement form that showed that there were more people on Friday than on Saturday. The manager said, “Wait a minute. This can’t be true.” Bill, just as cool as anything said, “Thinner people come on Friday.” That’s my favorite story. I can still hear Bill saying that.
The industry has been great to me. And for me. I hope I’ve added something to it along the way.
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.