Posted: February 21, 2013
By Larry LeBlanc (CelebrityAccess MediaWire)
Working with John Meglen is like holding four aces with a fifth ace tucked in your shirt sleeve.
It will not get any better.
Ask Celine Dion, Shania Twain, Rod Stewart, Bette Midler, Cher, Elton John, or Jerry Seinfeld, who have each reigned with successful, long-term residencies at The Colosseum at Caesars Palace, largely due to the veteran concert promoter’s shrewd concept of placing resident star headliners in the heart of the Las Vegas Strip.
On Feb. 11th 2013, AEG Live announced dates for Dion’s summer 2013 residency there that begins June 4th, and ends Sept. 1st. She is scheduled to perform 36 shows over the three months.
After two years of sell-out crowds, it has been announced that Rod Stewart will continue his show “Rod Stewart: The Hits" at The Colosseum this summer. Eight new concerts have been recently added, July 20-Aug. 4th.
In 2003, Dion took Las Vegas by storm with her show, "A New Day." that had been booked to run 5 nights a week, 40 weeks a year until 2006. Caesars spent $95 million to create the lavish Colosseum for Dion that seats 4,100, and paid an estimated $30 million to produce "A New Day."
In a city known for high-dollar risks, Dion, then in her mid-30s, was considered a gamble by skeptics. But "A New Day” was a smash, and her residency was extended two years,
Dion has since become one of the principal annual attractions at the 85-acre Caesars Palace resort complex that features 3,960 hotel guest rooms and suites, including the new Octavius Tower, and the 181-room Nobu Hotel.
Over his three decade career—while working for Concerts West, Pace Touring and Concerts Production International—Meglen, co-president/CEO of Concerts West/AEG Live, has worked with Sir Paul McCartney, Leonard Cohen, the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, David Bowie, Hank Williams Jr., Paul Simon, the Beach Boys, Usher, Nine Inch Nails, Fleetwood Mac, John Denver, Neil Diamond and many, many others
Based in Los Angeles—and as part of AEG Live, the live-entertainment division of Los Angeles-based AEG--Concerts West, with partner Paul Gongaware, is one of largest producers and promoters of live tours, and events in the world.
Tickets for Celine Dion’s summer run at The Colosseum at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas just went on sale.
Yeah, it just keeps on going.
It can be argued that not since Elvis has there been a performer to captivate Las Vegas as Celine. Meanwhile, she and her husband/manager René Angélil are still raising three young children.
I know. Celine does all of the right things. They both do.
With Celine, Shania Twain, Rod Stewart, Bette Midler, Cher, Jerry Seinfeld, and Elton John, you have enjoyed a number of successful residencies in The Colosseum.
We have now mounted 8 shows in The Colosseum. Our 10th anniversary in there is March 25th of this year.
Meanwhile, as elsewhere, Las Vegas has had to deal with current events, including the recent global economic downturn.
Celine wasn’t there when it kind of crashed out. At that time, when the market crashed, we had Cher and Elton in the building.
Is success at The Colosseum having the perfect combinations of star power, marketing, and correctly priced tickets?
You are forgetting the most important thing. Having a great show. It’s gotta be a great show.
Yes but, In essence, you are providing old-fashioned entertainment with star attractions.
The star is, yes, the most important thing. But there are other factors that you have to take in account. We want to create a show that you can’t see anywhere else. When people come to Las Vegas, they want to see something special. They don’t want to go and see Celine do a concert like she did in their hometown or nearby. People don’t want to go and see the same thing that they saw elsewhere.
Audiences still want to hear the hits.
There’s no question about that, but the production and whole package is very important to that (Vegas experience). You have the star—that’s one—and you have all of the marketing in the world—but that will not decide your fate. What will decide your fate is that good shows will survive; bad shows will die. You have to have the star, but you have to have a great show. If you don’t put together a great show it will die.
That’s why you hire Grammy Awards producer Ken Ehrlich?
Well, you hire Kenny. You hire Raj Kapoor as director on Shania’s show. It was amazing. There are some amazing people here. Kenny Ehrlich blew me away on this new (Celine) show. No question about it. When René said that he was going to have Ken Ehrlich do the live show, I was…..I always get concerned when a TV guy is going to do it ( a production). But, at the end of the day, there was nobody better. It’s amazing. I love Franco too (Belgian director Franco Dragone). You can’t really compare the two because they are totally different. With this (production), Celine's been put at the very top of the pedestal.
Celine and René have some amazing people within their organization. Guys like Yves Aucoin; Gilles Lapointe; Claude “Mego” Lemay, her music director; Dave Platel who runs Five Star Feeling (as its president), and does all of the branding stuff; Denis Savage (Celine's sound engineer) and the sound guys.
Prior to embracing Las Vegas five nights a week, 40 weeks a year with her first show, "A New Day,” Celine and René were based in Florida.
They were living in Florida. Then we built them that house. We built The Colosseum, but we also built them a house on Lake Vegas. Actually, we built the house three times. I won’t go into that one.
Was there any trepidation that Celine being in her mid-30s, and a new mother wouldn’t be able to withstand the show's physical and emotional demands over a long run?
We had too many shows. We started with way too many shows. We were 200 shows a year. We brought it down, and averaged 160 a year. Sales was not the issue. It was just too much work.
[Dion, in fact, scrapped 10 performances during her first residency at The Colosseum due to a weakness in her right vocal cord. She eventually made up the canceled shows as her residency progressed.]
Was Celine’s first residency a template in how to sustain popularity within the Vegas market as well as how to pace runs?
The template was always that this is a marathon; not a sprint. We adopted that line at the very beginning, and we all lived by it. Yeah, there was much, much trial-and-error through the first Celine show. There was trial-and-error through the first Elton John show, “The Red Piano.” You never have it 100% right. You get better you hope. You continue to learn, and continue to refine. It’s totally a team effort. If you think for any one second that I’m the person responsible for this, no. It’s a team of people that are responsible for this. An amazing team of people.
If an artist is sick for a performance, it impacts on over 100 people. Not to mention on those people who came to Las Vegas to see the performer.
More than 100. It was a massive uncertainty (with "A New Day”). It was Franco Dragone’s first project as Dragone (Franco Dragone Entertainment Group). So he was a new organization. There was also Celine’s organization; Caesars Palace; and Concerts West. Those four had to figure out how to work together, and do the show together. It took a lot for all four of those organizations to come together. A lot of bumping and grinding and knocking heads at times, and hugging and crying. We lost people during all of that. We lost Lloyd Brault who was originally my point person on this entire thing. We lost Celine's business manager André Delambre through Lou Gehrig's Disease.
[Franco Dragone has also created Cirque du Soleil shows, including "Mystere" and "O.” For “A New Day,” Dragone assembled 48 dancers, four backup singers, and a 7-piece band that accompanied Dion.]
Carlos Santana’s two-year run in Las Vegas, beginning with you at The Joint at The Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, and now at House of Blues at Mandalay Bay, is a surprise.
Santana was first (at the revamped Joint). Guess what we did on the first Santana (residency)? Too many shows. Just hitting ourselves in the head. Too many shows. We renewed the Santana deal even though overall I was losing on the project but I believed in the (residency) concept.
I would have loved for Santana to stay there (at The Joint), but a new ownership group came into the Hard Rock, and they wanted get somebody fresh and new. I disagreed with them, “No. We need to cut down the number of shows, and bring in others.” So Santana made his deal at the House of Blues, and it’s working very well. We love the guy. He understood the concept. He understood it from the beginning. Rick Roskin at CAA (Creative Artists Agency) was involved. Rick did a great job. As did Carlo’s manager, Michael Jense.
The Joint opened after the U.S. economy hit the wall.
The Joint at The Hard Rock is an evolution for us. We designed the new Joint. Myself, John Nelson, and Patrick Bergé from Scéno Plus (as co-founder and president). We had taken the experience that we learned from The Colosseum. We had been working for two years with Boyd Gaming on the Echelon Development (a planned $4.8 billion resort) That development got shut down (in 2008). So we had all kinds of new bell-and-whistles from the theatre that we were doing there but that one didn’t happen. We then moved onto The Hard Rock. Had The Echelon thing happened I could never have done The Hard Rock.
So we did The Hard Rock.
We got brought when they were about half-way into their design without us. We came in—myself, John Nelson, and my guys in Vegas. We looked at it, and said, “You are building the wrong thing.” We almost started over. I told Patrick Bergé that I needed the floor to be like The Fillmore in San Francisco. But the back of the floor had to be like the sides of The Ahoy Rotterdam that steps up; and the sides like the (prison in the) AC/DC video “Are You Ready” (directed by David Mallet). I wanted the first balcony to like Pure Nightclub (in Las Vegas) so I could have little cabanas and suites and tables with bottle service—all of that for high-end customers. I wanted a stage box that could handle any arena show. I wanted state-of-the-art sound and lights. I said, “That’s what we need because I am now starting to take this (Las Vegas residency) model into the rock side.”
[AEG Live is the exclusive promoter of The Joint at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. The new Joint opened in 2009 with sold out performances by Sir Paul McCartney, Bon Jovi, Kenny Chesney and the Killers As part of Hard Rock's $800 million expansion in Las Vegas, the new Joint is twice the size of the old venue, and features state-of-the-art lighting and sound, along with seven VIP suites. Hard Rock's expansion also included two new hotel towers, as well as new restaurants, retail and entertainment space.]
If Britney Spears is not doing a run at Caesars Palace where is she playing?
Planet Hollywood. Live Nation is doing it. That’s what I’ve been told.
When do you think they’ll announce the run?
I don’t know. In all fairness, they (Britney’s team) have come to me many times to ask if I could we book shows into Planet Hollywood. It’s the old Aladdin Theatre, also known as the Theatre for the Performing Arts. It was the thing that they left in place (in 1998) when they imploded the rest of the property. They should have used a few more rounds of dynamite. That would have taken that sucker down.
Because it’s a tweener. It’s too small to compete with the arenas. In my opinion, it’s too big to do residencies. If you are going to do residencies there, I think that you have to cut the capacity down. No artist want to play a cut down building.
Any regrets of Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) buying Concerts West in 2000?
No. Listen, I think we’ve got two of the luckiest guys in the world. One, Tim Leiweke (president and CEO of Anschutz Entertainment Group) running everything; and (AEG owner), Phil Anschutz. I love the guy. I started learning something new from (Canadian-born promoter) Michael (Cohl) that I learned even further from Phil Anschutz. That is to put your ego aside. In your heart, you have to believe that, “They aren’t coming to these buildings to see me.” And our job is to service that.
You and Paul Gongaware came in with clear vision for AEG Live?
Gongaware and I had a thing in our mission statement when we sold the company (to AEG). I give Gongaware a lot of the authorship on this. His line was—and I believe that this was written in the original document that we showed Tim and his guys—that we are going to do this (build a company) not by buying companies; we are going to build the company. We are going to hire great people.
You empower people. Part of empowering people is that when you give somebody responsibility, you give them authority. You give them resources. Sometimes that’s the money. Then, you get the hell out of their way. No one person can do this.
I feel that my job today—and a lot of this is stuff that I learned from guys like Michael Cohl and Phil Anschutz—is to make sure that if anything happens to me to make sure that’s there are plenty of people around here who can do what I do.
If you and Paul provided a clear identity blueprint for AEG Live, was the transition to working within a larger entity a smooth one?
There was a lot of angst during that first year. Who are we? Who do we want to be? What are we doing? Are we a touring company? Are we building regional offices? Is our job to book AEG arenas? There weren’t that many at that time.
It was about (discovering) what are as a company.
Paul and I had a business plan for the very beginning when we sold the company to Tim and Phil and with Irving (Azoff) at our side. We had a business plan very similar to what we are doing today which is that we are going to build a touring division. Then we are going to build out regional offices. It was very North American centric at that time. We believed Bob Sillerman’s SFX Entertainment or Clear Channel (Entertainment) was an amphitheatre company; we were the arena company. Those were the dividing lines.
[In the late 1990s, consolidation hit the concert business when Robert Sillerman, under the SFX Entertainment banner, spent about $2.5 billion rolling up promoters in North America and Europe. Sillerman sold SFX to radio conglomerate Clear Channel Communications in 2000 for about $4 billion, with Clear Channel forming Clear Channel Entertainment (CCE) in hopes of synergizing its live and radio businesses.]
So this was the distinction with you as SFX evolved into Clear Channel and later evolved into Live Nation?
That was totally the distinction. The reason that Paul and I started Concerts West up—our Concerts West—was because of the roll-up by Sillerman. Remember I was there. I had spent a two year period at Pace Touring with Louis Messina.
AEG might not be the global live music player if not for Britney Spears’ “Dream Within A Dream” tour in 2001. That’s really what kicked off the company, and gave it some traction.
It was the Britney Spears tour that brought Randy (president and CEO of AEG Live, Randy Phillips) into the mix. We were a year into (the AEG deal) It was Irving Azoff, Paul Gongaware and myself. We were definitely struggling that year. People forget that we had to suffer 9/11 that year.
Interestingly, Concerts West beat out both Clear Channel, and House of Blues for the “Dream Within A Dream” tour. A big deal at the time.
Yeah. We did it. There were a couple of things involved. One is that Randy had the relationships so we could get to the table. Randy was tight with (Spears’ booking agent) David Zedeck, and tight with Johnny Wright, (who managed Spears 1999-2003).
But, honestly, what I think delivered that tour was that Britney had a movie (“Crossroads) coming out, and Phil owned United Artists Theatres. So what we did was that we designed an entire marketing campaign. We, to this day, still refer to the Britney Binder. The Britney Binder went market-by-market on the tour. Three things were covered: Her album, her tour, and her movie. We got every building in the country, and the United Artist movie theatres to promote all three of those things at the same time.
I have always looked at a building as a medium. They have a basketball team in there; and that basketball team does broadcasts on radio and television. They have screens (in-house), and (contact) data bases that we can mail to. All of these different things. So I made these buildings commit to giving us a marketing platform for all three of those (product) things.
When we played the Miami Arena, I said, “I want a promotional package from the building that takes in your marketing assets.” This was to happen even before the tour was even announced. All of the (venue) ushers would be wearing “Britney Spears’ Album In Stores This Week” (buttons), and an announcement was running on the screens. When it came time to put the tour on sale, the buttons were changed. The buttons then said, “Britney Tickets On Sale This Week.”
In Miami, I made them give me spots on both the English-speaking and the Latin-speaking broadcasts of the team. Not just for the concert. For the record first, for the concert second; and, believe it or not, after we had played the concert, they were still committed for when the movie came out. And they did it.
[“Dream Within a Dream Tour” was the 4th concert tour by Britney Spears. It promoted her third studio album “Britney” and her film “Crossroads.” The tour reportedly grossed $43.7 million.]
Are you gearing up for the anticipated sale of the AEG?
I guess so. You do feel like, “Who’s going to be my daddy?” I had a bad experience the last time it happened to me. It was called SFX. That’s why I left (Pace Touring). I left because I didn’t get along with the guys that came in there.
You don’t mean Live Nation CEO Michael Rapino?
No. Rapino is still a close buddy of mine.
In 1998, SFX head Robert Sillerman had gathered all his promoters at the Loews Vanderbilt Hotel in Nashville over two days to talk as many had reservations about being honest and open with each other.
I was there.
Like cats fighting in the same room?
It was (Ron) Delsener, (Dave) Lucas, (Irv) Zuckerman, (Alex) Cooley, and (Peter) Conlon, and Pace. We were all supposed to get up and drop our drawers, and show everybody our deals. Can you imagine (Bill Graham Presents) Gregg Perloff and Sherry Wasserman having to do that? I don’t think they did. I think they danced around it. The weird one that we couldn’t understand was Allen Kovacs (head of Left Bank Management) being there. I think it took Sillerman awhile to realize it (Left Bank) was a management company; and not a concert company. Allen went away.
Then SFX became Clear Channel Entertainment.
Yeah. That’s where it became interesting.
Sillerman’s original concept was to build a synergistic national touring company.
I will give you a short story that will summarize this for me. I flew down quietly to meet with Allen Becker and Brian Becker about starting Pace Touring. Bill McKenzie went with me. I asked Brian Becker a question, “Allen, if I’m doing a tour, and we go to Philadelphia, and the right place for my artist to play is The Spectrum, and you have this amphitheatre across the river, where do I go?” Allen Becker looked at me and said, “John, we are investing in you because of your business. I would like to think on a ‘jump ball,’ you will take it to our amphitheatre; but you need to do what is right for your business.”
I felt that was the right answer.
Fast-forward a few years to 1998 or 1999; right at the very beginning of the Sillerman roll-up, and I needed to be spanked or whatever by Michael Ferrel the main guy (as SFX Entertainment president) for Sillerman. I asked him the exact same question. You know what his answer was? “I think you know where your bread is buttered.” Then I said, “Well, you and I look at things differently. In order for artists to entrust me with their tours, their concerts, their residencies in Las Vegas and whatever it is-- as concert guy even though I work for a big real estate company--I have to do what is right for the artist. Or why is the guy going to work for me?” Gongaware and I--the one thing in 35 years of working on and off together--is that neither one of us have ever scalped a ticket; and we have always thrown everything on the table with the artist. That’s just the way that we do business.
So you worked at Pace Entertainment?
Yes. We started Pace Touring.
[Pace Entertainment was co-founded in 1966 by Allen Becker, a former insurance salesman, who had spent a decade producing motor sports events, as well as a few music concerts.
When the New Orleans Superdome opened in 1975, Becker was awarded a contract to produce the grand-opening entertainment. There he met Louis Messina and, following an Allman Brothers show that they co-produced together, the two launched Pace Concerts which became one of America’s preeminent promoters. Pace Concerts spearheaded the amphitheater boom, beginning with Starwood Amphitheatre in the Nashville suburb of Antioch. Pace came to build and own an interest in 13 amphitheaters across the country.
In 1998, Pace Entertainment was purchased by SFX Broadcasting in a $130 million deal that included Pace Concerts, Pace Theatrical, Pace Motorsports and the company's 13 amphitheaters.
Two years later, Sillerman sold SFX to radio conglomerate Clear Channel Communications for about $4 billion, with Clear Channel forming Clear Channel Entertainment (CCE) in hopes of synergizing its live and radio businesses.]
So Pace Entertainment was sold to SFX.
Pace got sold not even two years into Pace Touring. We made some good ground work with Pace Touring. We did that first Fleetwood Mac reunion tour in 1997; the one tour off of the live album “The Dance.” We started Ozzfest With Sharon (Osbourne), and then Louis started the George Strait Country Music Festival, That’s really where Louis kind of became “Country Louis.”
The Messina Group is part of AEG Live today.
Even before AEG, Paul and I were like, “C’mon Louis join us. Join us.”
[Houston-based Louis Messina was one of the several executives who left before Clear Channel Entertainment spun off its live entertainment division to form free-standing, publicly traded Live Nation. Messina set up The Messina Group. However, due to a non-compete clause with CCE that kept him from promoting rock and pop music for two years, Messina decided to focus on country. Messina then entered into a joint venture with AEG Live. Today, The Messina Group oversees national tours with many of the biggest names in country music, including Kenny Chesney, George Strait, Taylor Swift and Sugarland.]
AEG Live is an aggregation of some great boutique companies.
Besides (securing management or agency-related artist) stables (to be successful), you have to have the boutiques. The Messina Group is a boutique. Marshall Arts is a boutique. Atlanta Worldwide Touring is a boutique. Gongaware has always compared it to the old WEA days where everybody uses the same back office, but everybody was unique and individual according to the people that they had and who they worked with.
[AEG Live's concerts took in a combined gross of $576.4 million in 2012. Instead of being fully driven by touring, the company is now evenly divided between festivals, regional offices, venues and touring.]
With the different AEG companies and offices, does Concerts West have a territory it is responsible for?
No. Not really. I spent a lot of this last year developing our Asian run. I probably spent two to three months in Asia last year being in China, Singapore, and Hong Kong. I went over to Music Matters in Singapore. I went to the Formula One event. I spent a lot of time talking to all of the different promoters in the region.
AEG has become a global company.
Tim is amazing. He’s truly is a great visionary in the field of sports, entertainment; and let’s call it destination sports, and entertainment complexes. It is not just AEG Live in Staples. It’s also the O2 in London, and don’t forget the Sprint Center in Kansas City either. AEG, they are the big dog compared to us. We’re just the pimple on the ass compared to them. Well, they are. They’ve got the bricks and mortar. They have the asset value.
Many of the facilities are tied to sports and money. If there are strikes with the NBA or the NHL, owners like AEG are sitting with a lot of empty venues and dark nights.
Oh yeah. That’s one of the risks.
AEG now has two buildings in China.
One in Shanghai, and the other in Beijing. We have a third one opening in Dalian (in northeast China) in October. Within the next year or 18 months after that, we will have more arenas in China. When Tim and the facilities group go into these regions, it is AEG Live’s responsibility to go, and help support the programming.
Until recently, there haven’t been regular shows or even the venues in China to build a concert business. As well, the society there hasn’t really opened up.
We did Maroon 5 in China at the end last year. It was the first time that the police let the audience stand through the entire concert. Every show for us in China is that we are getting a little more of this; and little more of that. They are getting a better understanding there of how it (live music) works. Yeah, it’s totally the wild wild west. But I don’t think that it’s just China. It’s all of that pan-Asian territory.
India increasingly has become a viable concert market.
India is there and one day Russia will be there along with China. Those are probably the big three down the road. Eastern Europe has always been in our bailiwick. South America has been in our bailiwick but they (the countries) come and they go. You can go down there one time and Brazil is the hot market, and Argentina is terrible. You go back five years later and it seems that Argentina is the right place, and Brazil is terrible.
Prior to Pace Touring you worked in Toronto for Michael Cohl at CPI (Concert Productions International)?
I was with Michael, Arthur (Fogel), Norman (Perry), Steve Howard and Billy Ballard from 1990 to 1996. In that period, I did a couple of Stones’ tours. Did the Pink Floyd “Division Bell” tour. Did the Paul Simon “Born at the Right Time” tour. Did "Disney's Symphonic Fantasy" show where I found my wife. She directed that show. Then did the Bowie “Nails” tour. I was also over in the UK with Bowie.
How was Michael Cohl to work for?
Michael is great.
What’s his strength?
In the same way as Irving Azoff, that intelligence is so amazing. The way they both can look at things, and work out what to do.
It was a great time to be at CPI as it became North America’s innovator in full-service touring,
Oh yeah. Michael taught me some of the greatest things. The change from moving from Jerry Weintraub and Concerts West to Michael Cohl was that Michael Cohl took the Concerts West touring mode to the next level with sponsorship, merchandising, broadcast and worldwide.
Merchandising for us back in the old days of Concerts West was not a business yet. It was Tommy Collins, his brother and a couple of other ex-carnies from the ice show that would set up tables and sell T-shirts. And it was a cash business. Michael took all of those things, and made them businesses, and packaged them all together with the ticket for the artist.
Michael is famous for having a tongue-and-cheek approach to the business.
When we were doing those Pink Floyd and Rolling Stones’ tours back-to-back, we had a committee called the Lips Committee. Everybody in the office would think, “Oh, they are obviously having their Rolling Stones’ meeting.” Do you know what it stood for? Lefty’s International Profit Schemes. It was John Perkins, Gord Currie, Norman Perry, Steve Howard, and me as well as Arthur and Michael (whose nickname is Lefty). That was really the gang there.
You want a Michael story? Steve Howard and I—when we were doing the Rolling Stones (Voodoo Lounge tour) and Pink Floyd (Division Bell tour) back to back—put together this great paper to go to all of the local promoters that we were using. It said, “You can’t have any inside deals. If you have any inside deals, you are going to sign this piece of paper. You are telling us you don’t have any inside deals.” We wrote this thing up, and we sent it out. Michael called us up to his office. He asks, “Did you send this out?” We go, “Yeah.” He says, “Well, you have to fire them all.” I said, “I don’t understand.” He says, “Think of it this way. If they sign this piece of paper saying they don’t have any deals, then they are either lying to us or stealing from us; and we don’t work with liars and thieves. Or, if they sign this piece of paper that says they don’t have any inside deals--and they really don’t--then they are stupid, and we don’t work with stupid people.”
On November 29th 1995, you and John Giddings were doing Bowie’s “The Outside” tour in the UK when Morrissey walked off the tour.
We were in Aberdeen, Scotland (at the Aberdeen Exhibition Centre). I went into talk to David and said, “He’s split. He got into his car, and he’s on his way back to London.” David asked what I wanted to do. I said, “We have to make an announcement, and let people know he’s not going to perform.” The building was full. “We’d probably have to give a half-hour (delay) if anybody wants refunds.” I asked David if he could play a little bit longer, and he said no problem.
We had three refunds.
I said that we’d get on the phone the next day, and look for another support act. David turned to me, and said, “John why don’t we do what we used to do in the old days? Just find the hottest local band in each market and have them open the show?” That was so much fun. I remember this band that opened for us in Belfast. It was one of the greatest rock bands I’d ever seen in my life. I wish I could remember their name. It was like another U2.”
[David Bowie’s “The Outside” tour hit the UK in Nov. and Dec., 1995. After a tepid reception on the early shows of the tour, Morrissey left mid-way, citing illness. It was rumored that he took off after a fight with Bowie backstage. The support slot was filled on later dates by the Gyres, Echobelly, Placebo, and a variety of local bands.]
In 1996, you left CPI and moved to Los Angeles to start Pace Touring.
That was after Michael announced that he was going to move the company (now being called The Next Adventure (TNA)-- from Toronto to Bermuda. Michael and Arthur made me an offer do the TNA thing. I didn’t really negotiate with them. I said, “I want to go home.”
I had been married for a year. My wife was from California. There’s a lot of tax benefits for a Canadian living in Bermuda but it’s worse for an American than even living in Canada. Brian Becker started calling me. He was calling me every night while I was over in the UK. “C’mon, you can have your own touring company with Pace. You and Louis. Any city that you want to be in. I said that I probably would go back to LA, and I did.
[After MCA Concerts Canada, and Molson Breweries purchased the concert divisions of BCL Entertainment--including Concert Productions International--Cohl launched The Next Adventure (TNA) with Arthur Fogel as a partner.
Based in Toronto and Bermuda, TNA became the largest promoter/producer of international tours, including those with the Rolling Stones, U2, Pink Floyd, David Bowie, and others. In 1999, TNA was sold to SFX.]
After college, you began working at Concerts West in Seattle, Washington. Was Jerry Weintraub still involved?
Weintraub was involved at that point. It was Jerry Weintraub, Tom Hulett, Terry Bassett, and Bill MacKenzie.
How did that job come about?
I had been the Student Council chairman at Washington State University In Pullman Washington which about 60 miles south of Spokane, out in the middle of the wheat fields. A total college town. But we had a 13,500 seat Pac 8 basketball arena; and Spokane had a 7,000 seat municipal civic auditorium. So the big shows would come down to Washington State, and people from Spokane would drive down to the shows.
I got to know a lot of the Concerts West guys because they brought a lot of their tours through there. The only way that they could go into the building was that they had to go through the student organization. They hated us. They would have rather got on with the building manager, and not have the students to deal with. And the building manager hated me because he didn’t want me in the middle either.
A lot of today’s music industry figures came from student organizations at colleges in that period.
In the ‘70s, that’s where so many people came from. Rob Light and Bobby Brooks were up at Syracuse University; and Clint Mitchell was at the University of Montana. I knew the north-west guys. Dan Bean was at the University of Washington; and Gary Bongiovanni, Gary Smith and Jeff Apregan were at Fresno State. So many of us in the ‘70s came out of these college concert programs. And a lot of us quit college. I quit at the end of my junior year, basically.
What were you studying?
I was going to be a veterinarian. I wanted to work with animals.
How did you snag an interview with Tom Hulett at Concerts West?
I met Dennis Rubenstein who was working for a little agency (Irv Azoff’s Artist Touring Co.) handling some of Irving’s stuff like Tim Weisberg, Dan Fogelberg and things of that nature. I started putting little tours together for the colleges for Tim Weisberg. One day Dennis said, “You need to meet with Tom Hulett.” He paid for my plane ticket. It was the first time I had ever been on a plane. Little Cascade Airways from Spokane over to Seattle.
You joined Concerts West in May,1978.
I was there after the Sinatra time, and after the Elvis time.
There are a lot of people in our industry who don’t know the Jerry Weintraub/Tom Hulett Concerts West legacy which was prior to virtually everybody else.
Concerts West was started by Pat O’Day (Seattle’s best-known DJ, and dance promoter). Then Terry Bassett joined him from Wenatchee, Washington. Then they hired Tom Hulett, who had been counting cars I was told for some car company down in Salt Lake City. Tom was a great sales guy. He played semi-pro ball (playing for the Seattle Ramblers, which became the Rangers of the Continental Football League). Tom worked his way into becoming a partner.
Then they did the deal with Jerry Weintraub.
Part of how that came about was that they had started doing some tours together, and then the Elvis thing happened. The story I head was that they sold their pitch to the Colonel (Parker) about throwing all of the money into the pot, and they’d do it everywhere. The Col said, “Okay, give me $1 million upfront.” They borrowed the million dollars from Les Smith and entertainer Danny Kaye at Kaye/Smith Enterprises in Seattle who owned (10) radio stations (including KJR), and were one of the four original owners of the Seattle Mariners.
It’s hard to believe that Tom Hulett has been dead 20 years. And that he died at 55. Like Frank Barsalona, he’s been a bit forgotten
No. That is amazing. When you start talking about how people didn’t know about Frank Barsalona before his death last year, I immediately want to say a lot of people don’t know who Tom Hulett is.
[Tom Hulett died on July 30, 1993 in Los Angeles of cancer.]
Concerts West can be credited for establishing the national American concert promotion business with tours by Jimi Hendrix, and the Creedence Clearwater Revival.
And Zeppelin. Vanilla Fudge was one of the early Concerts West tours. They put a band on the tour as a favor to their buddy Peter Grant in London. It was Led Zeppelin. That’s how the thing started.
There are stories of Tom, Terry Bassett, Dan Fiola, and Jimi Hendrix driving from city to city. It was either Fiola’s or Basset’s station wagon and they would pull into a town, and Tom and Jimi would get out at the arena and take his guitar and amp out of the back and Bassett and Fiola would drive around town tacking up posters.
[Hulett had a close personal relationship with two of Concert West's most important clients, Jimi Hendrix and Elvis Presley. It was Hulett who reportedly flew to London in 1970 to retrieve Hendrix's body, and he rode in the third car in Presley's funeral procession in 1977.]
I missed being there for Creedence, Bread, and (early) Led Zeppelin unfortunately. Gongaware and I were putting Led Zeppelin on sale when John Bonham died in 1980.
In the 1970s, Concerts West was promoting more than 700 events a year, working with such artists as Elvis Presley, Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones, among others. This was a real touring company.
That was all we did.
Concerts West didn’t stick to one region like other concert promoters. It did shows nationally and paid local promoters flat fees.
Yes. Only in North America. We didn’t usually use local promoters. Very rarely did we use local promoters. We only used local promoters when we had to. There were many times that Paul and I would hear Tom Hulett on the phone with someone, and he’d be saying, “I promote in Augusta, Georgia.” He’d hang up the phone, and the next thing we’d be doing Barry Manilow in Augusta, Georgia. We’d have to go and figure it out. Our way of figuring it out back then was that our local partners were predominantly the buildings.
Bill Graham had a similar strategy.
Well, Graham was different in a way. Graham did work with the local promoters in partnership. If we ever did use a local promoter, we paid them a small fee.
It was $2,500.
Yes, $2,500 was the standard fee back around that time period. The fee that we would give people if we needed to involve them on a Neil Diamond or John Denver tour or something like that. But, if we could do it (a show) just with the buildings themselves, we wouldn’t use the local promoters. I didn’t know an agent for the first decade of my career. As strange as that is in the in the music industry. We dealt with managers and business managers. People like (Neil Diamond’s business manager) Marshall Gefan, and Jerry was the manager. There was no agent ever involved.
Local promoters back then were infuriated that Concerts West would poach in their territory
They hated us. I worked Weintraub from 1978 to 1990 when I left to work for Michael Cohl. By then, we had evolved into the Weintraub Entertainment Group. Tom was now more of a manager. He was managing the Beach Boys, Earth Wind Fire, Warrant, and Frank Zappa (under Tom Hulett & Associates). They no longer used the name Concerts West. Concerts West just dripped off into the netherworld.
[By this time, Hulett had established Tom Hulett and Associates that guided the careers of the Beach Boys, Earth, Wind & Fire, the Moody Blues, Warrant, Three Dog Night, and Frank Zappa; and Jerry Weintraub, who managed John Denver, Neil Diamond and others, had moved onto producing television, Broadway shows and films. In 2010, Weintraub, with Rich Cohen, published a colorful memoir, “When I Stop Talking, You'll Know I'm Dead: Useful Stories from a Persuasive Man.”]
I remember that Tom promoted several closed-circuit TV championship fights, including two Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier bouts.
I wasn’t there when we did those. But I was there for when we did the Roberto Durán /Sugar Ray Leonard fights (in 1980). Closed circuit boxing was a big part of our business. We would all be assigned a little theatre, and you had to go and make sure that the equipment worked. You settled the box office and you got the cash left there and you dropped it in the night deposit slot at the bank. That was very common for all of us to be doing that back then.
What were you doing at Concerts West when you started?
When I started, they assigned me to Paul Gongaware. The way that it worked at Concerts West back then was that two guys went out on a tour. One was the #1 guy who settled the shows. He was the senior guy. The other guy was the tour promoter/production rep. There were a number of teams back then. There were guys like Jay Hagerman, Sims Hinds, Dan Fiala, Peter Jackson. Before me there were guys like Bill Leopold (now with W. F. Leopold Management) and people like that worked at Concerts West. Bill Leopold left before I started.
We got moved around a lot. I was originally supposed to be out with Eric Clapton with Jay Hagerman. At the last minute, they said “Go back to Seattle and get with Gongaware, you are doing Bad Company.”
You eventually graduated to being the #1 guy?
It was with the Commodores in 1980 where I graduated from being the tour production guy to the lead guy, the settlement guy. Paul and I worked together at the very beginning.
Concerts West did a lot of national tours.
We had more tours going on. We had to find people to go out and settle shows for us because we had so many going on at the time.
Here’s a very interesting thought. The touring business is based on (artist) stables. Stables are either some type of handler—a manager, a business manager, an attorney—that has a stable of artists.
So with Peter Grant, there was Led Zeppelin, Bad Company and Dave Edmunds. Right? I started with Bad Company. I was assigned--with Gongaware--on the Swan Song account. We did Bad Company. We were the ones putting (Led) Zeppelin on sale. We also had to do Dave Edmunds. That was part of deal. You had to do them all.
I got up to Michael Cohl. Guess where his stable comes from? RZO with Joe Rascoff and Bill Zysblat, who worked with the Rolling Stones, Paul Simon, David Bowie, and Pink Floyd.
You just have to find yourself a stable. Then you can grow up, and out.
What were the stables at Concerts West when you were there?
We had the Peter Grant stable; the Jerry Weintraub Management stable; Terry Bassett had the Irving Azoff stable because we did Boz Scaggs, Dan Fogelberg, Jimmy Buffett, Chicago, the Eagles. Those were the three main stables that a lot of our artists came from. We also had other relationships, like Weintraub’s relationship with Robert Stigwood. That is why we had both the Bee Gees and Eric Clapton.
I went from the Swan Song account with Gongaware; to Gongaware and I doing the Commodores tour. That was the last tour with Lionel Ritchie. It was the tour that we literally got blacklisted from the black community because (it was considered that) they had sold out to the big white promoters. We played places like Jackson, Mississippi and only did 4,000 people, and the majority of them were white in a town which had a population that was 89% black.
Of course, the Commodores had crossed over to white pop market.
They had crossed over white. Benny Ashburn was their manager and he did the deal with Weintraub without (using) all of the local urban promoters. Then we scrambled quickly. “Oh, like we better re-involve them.” But it didn’t work. That tour was a total disaster. I do remember we played Pauley Pavilion at UCLA, and we gave away a Mercedes. Muhammad Ali drew the winner.
Where did you go after that?
I went onto John Denver for a couple of years. Then I got moved to Neil Diamond. I became one of Sal’s guys (Sal Bonafede, Neil Diamond’s tour director for over 30 years). We all did tours of duty with Neil Diamond and with John Denver at one time or the other or with both of them or both.
Doing a John Denver tour or a Neil Diamond tour were considered the two best tours that you could get for one of the Concerts West guys. Neil was really high end. You stayed in Ritz-Carltons. You played five nights in every arena in the country. So it was great. You had Patrick Stansfield, Doug Pope, Stan Miller, Marilyn Lowie, and Sal Bonafede there. Our merchandising was all Tommy Collins. He did all of Neil’s and Denver’s stuff. The John Denver posse—whatever you want to call it-- very much overlapped with the Neal Diamond posse because they were Weintraub’s main acts at that time.
The Beach Boys were one of your clients.
Yes. For the second half of my time with Weintraub and Hulett
You were working with the group when Brian Wilson retired from touring.
I was on the tour that Brian said that was kind of it (for touring). I was there when they did the whole treatment with Dr. Eugene Landry. The beginning there was as Brian leaving the touring, and Landy coming into the picture. When I started Brian, Dennis and Carl were there along with Mike and Al and Bruce Johnston.
You didn’t work on the recent reunion tour?
I didn’t. We did some of the shows, but I passed. We are really an arena company and I felt that the strength for them was to go outdoors. Going and seeing the Beach Boys outdoors in the summertime is what it is all about.
[The Beach Boys' 50th-anniversary tour had a wide range of promoters, including Live Nation, AEG Live, Another Planet, Danny Zelisko Presents, Double T, I.M.P. and Jam Productions. With Brian Wilson onboard, the tour also had a blending of agencies in veteran Beach Boys booker Terry Rhodes, senior VP at International Creative Management, and Wilson's agent, David Levine at William Morris Endeavor. The Agency Group handled international booking.]
You remain close with Elliott Lott, who has been with the Beach Boys for over 30 years. Now as manager of the Mike Love-led Beach Boys
He’s like my brother. Elliot was one of the grooms in my wedding. And so was Gongaware.
Elliot is one of the great unsung heroes of our business.
Absolutely. And one of the smartest guys too. Elliot started as Carl’s limousine driver, and then became the baggage guy working for Jason Raifaline. At that time, I think, Mike Crowley was out there from Concerts West. Then there was a turnover. Crowley and Jason left; Elliot took over, and I got assigned as the management rep from Concerts West. So Elliot and I synced up together. Elliot and I were the ones that built all of those tours when they were playing all of those double hitters.
You two had the Beach Boys playing two shows a day on the weekend.
Sometimes we could pull off another two shows on a Friday. But, generally, what we were trying to do was do two shows every Saturday and every Sunday. There was a great plane back then, the Bac One-Eleven, which handled around 35 people or so. Elliot and I had the very front of the plane. That was our little office. Then the rest of the guys were in the back. Elliot and I would manage to get in our seats, and shut the door. We figured out that it was better to go to a base, and play places like Lake George, New York. At one point, we were based in St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador because Carl fell in love with the place. Carl just thought it was the greatest place.
The Beach Boys experience is summer afternoons in the sun, and summer evenings.
That’s right. That was a time when they were doing the Washington Monument shows on the 4th of July to a million people.
Those were crazy.
In 1983, we did Philly first; then we did the National Mall in Washington, D.C.; and then we did Miami. It was when James Watt was the secretary of the Interior. He was the guy that got the Golden Foot Award from Ronald Reagan for trying to ban the annual rock concerts on the Mall with bands like the Beach Boys.
The lineup that year was La Toya Jackson, the Oak Ridge Boys, the Moody Blues, Three Dog Night, Mr. T, Hank Williams Jr., Jimmy Page, Julio Iglesias.
This was the weirdest damn thing you ever saw in your life.
We were staying in D.C. and we had to go up to Philly in the morning to do the Philly show. We get on this train up to Philadelphia, and we have our own cars. And Mr. T. begins talking. And this guy is talking, talking and talking. We do the show in Philadelphia.
It was first time Jimmy Page had done anything in years. I was standing up on the side of the stage, and I swear that you could feel the ground move when Jimmy Page walked out on the stage. It was so amazing.
After the show, we jumped on this big Braniff International airplane, and buzzed the D.C. site. The second we get back on the Braniff airplane, Mr. T started talking and talking and talking. We do the D.C. show, and we have to get back on this plane and fly down to Miami Beach. We get on a plane and Mr. T. starts talking and talking. Carl Wilson, the humblest guy in the world, literally turned around and said, “You know what? We’ve all had enough. Would you just shut the fuck up?” I think that the whole plane applauded.
Recently, the growing successes of American music festivals has created parallel economies in the concert market. The larger festivals continue to see increases in grosses and demand each year; while arena shows and amphitheater concerts continue to sputter along.
I don’t know. They are still the centre of the community when people come to an event. I lived before amphitheatres. Back then, it was all civic auditoriums, civic buildings or university buildings. Then there was the period where the promoters built these concert specific places called the amphitheatres.
The Nederlanders (The Nederlander Organization) had Pine Knob, Poplar Creek Music Theatre, and the Merriweather Post Pavilion in the very beginning, and there were places like SSPAC (the Saratoga Springs Performing Arts Center) in upstate NY and Jones Beach (the Jones Beach Marine Theater) that existed but they were more community and civic (venues) that had operas or high school graduations and things like. The amphitheatres when really
MCA, Pace and, continuing with Nederlanders, started developing that amphitheatres circuit. It was a real cool circuit. But I think that what happened after that was the privatization of arenas. Where these NBA and NHL owners said, “I’m not going to do events in The Spectrum anymore. I’m going to build my own place.” It was The Palace of Auburn Hills that started the new run of these creature comfort designed arenas.
Luxury arenas in many cases.
They don’t replicate the festival experience that a current festival site does. We learn things. With John Denver we played all of the amphitheatres for years; and we even did Neil Diamond tours playing those amphitheatres for the Nederlanders before MCA and Pace built all of their amphitheatres.
Back then, you put less people up on the lawn so they could spread out their blankets, and sit under the stars and listen to John Denver. But what happened later on is you might have had Ozzfest with Pantera the night before, and the audience ripped up the lawn up and threw it at the stage. And then it rains. Then you have James Taylor playing there the next night. I don’t know where the mosquitoes were before. I think they showed up when people started building these other amphitheatres.
Name your mentors over the years.
Irving (Azoff) is a great mentor. Arthur Fogel was a great mentor for me. Michael Cohl was a great mentor. Terry Bassett and Jerry Weintraub were great mentors. Louis Messina is a great mentor, and Paul Gongaware is a great mentor. These are people that I respect and that I have learned from. I hope for others that I can have that kind of respect and teach them.
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he 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, and the London Times. He is co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide.”
The recipient of the 2013 Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry, Larry will be honored at the 2013 Juno Gala Dinner & Awards on April 20th in Regina, Saskatchewan.