I am watching Midnight Blue on leased-access cable channel J. It is Saturday morning just past midnight and I am enjoying a shot of tequila in my apartment on 3rd Avenue in the Murray Hill section of Manhattan. I just finished a long tour and now I am home. I have eight weeks free before my next road commitment. It’s 1977.
The phone rings and a vaguely familiar voice says, “Kenny?” Yes, it be me” I say. “It’s Jimmy Grant,” the voice says. “Jeezuz H…big friggin Jim Grant?” I almost shouted into the telephone. It has been over a year since the last time I have seen him. New Year’s Eve to be exact. “What is going on, big guy?” “Well, I have just been made the manager of War. That is impressive as they are a big group now.” (They had just had two number one singles, “Slippin’ Into Darkness” and “The Cisco Kid” in a row and a platinum album; they have exploded.
“Kenny, I need you to finish the tour for me. I can’t stay on the road. There are only six weeks of the tour left. I got to get back to LA and open a new office and set studio time for their next LP. The money is good and the per diem is outrageous. Can you meet me in Athens, Georgia? Tomorrow?” “You betcha,” I answer. “Our travel agent will issue you a ticket. It will be at the counter.”
Early the next afternoon I knock on Big Jim’s hotel room’s door. The door swings open and Jim embraces me in a bear hug. After pleasantries, he points to the second bed and motions for me to sit. “We have a lot of work to do,” he said. “I am flying out tonight,” he says, hands me a beer and…we go over the tour, contacts, travel arrangements and other details. By now it is late in the day and Jimmy must catch his plane and I must get over to the hall where War is playing for the soundcheck.
I drop him at the airport and, keeping his rental car, drive to the coliseum. I know the band and most of the crew; they are expecting me. I walk my circuit touching all the bases (box office, sound mixer, dressing room, crew, and inspect the stage) and then visit the opening act’s dressing room. The opener is Wet Willie.
If you did not know why, you would think they were an unusual choice for an opener, but we were in Phil Walden country and we had to give homage to him. Phil was the boss of Capricorn records, located in Macon, Georgia. With acts like the Allman Brothers and the Marshall Tucker Band, Phil was a music business mogul. Phil starting booking R&B acts in the 1950s and became Otis Redding’s manager till Otis’s death in 1967. He also represented Sam and Dave, Al Green and Percy Sledge to name a few. Wet Willie is a really good Southern rock band from Mobile, Alabama and had recently had a top ten single, “Keep on Smilin’.” I meet the band, including band member Donna Hall. Oh yeah! Our eyes clicked and I knew we would be dating. Her two brothers were also in the band.
That night the concert was great, and War was impressive. I remembered back to the Wishbone Ash tour I had done previously, when Eric Burdon(of the Animals) was War’s lead singer. They band was quite different now that they morphed into a legit headline act. The next night’s show was in Macon in a coliseum with a capacity of about sixteen to nineteen thousand.
Only a thousand people showed up.
What the hell is going on? War has been selling out everywhere; this is unexpected, unreal. I racked my brain – why, how, what? I was stumped and could not figure it out or explain it away.
I get a call from Jim Kellem at CMA, the booking agency. They think they know why. A miniseries on television called Roots has taken over America by storm and everyone is staying home and watching it. For those who weren’t around then, Roots was based on the novel Roots: the Saga of an American Family by Alex Haley, a story about main character Kunta Kinte, his enslavement, and his descendants and their eventual emancipation. LeVar Burton played Kunta Kinte. Roots was one of the most popular shows in American TV history.
Being on the road, we would not know this as we are in our own world. The agent told me to forget about the box office tonight. Everyone is gonna take a hit.
This how the business works with big promotors and major agencies. They protect each other, they have worked together yesterday, today and will again tomorrow. New acts and smaller agencies do not nearly have those kinds of relationships. The monies are smaller, and promoters are more fly by night. Some newer promoters are one and done. They just lack experience and have no relationships or haven’t been around long enough to establish themselves.
An aside: on the upper end of the concert business, things are quite different, for example. When the Rolling Stones go on tour, they use just one promoter for the whole tour. Most of the top echelon acts work this way. It is just smarter and better with more continuity. If a mistake is made it gets corrected and never happens again. On the other hand, when you work with different promoters (even good ones) there is an element of reinventing the wheel for each concert. It is difficult enough (for all touring acts) playing different venues each night. Unless you experience them [or read Ken’s articles in Copper! – Ed.] one could never conceive the range of different types of problems.
When it comes to the Rolling Stones Mick Jagger is the man on point. They have an agency, but that is just for housekeeping, issuing contracts, and doing the nuts and bolts of the deal and all the follow-up work. The story goes, Mick is negotiating with Bill Graham for their next world tour. Mick says, “we want a 90/10 split after expenses.” (Expenses are facility rental, security, catering, advertising, union stagehands and such.) Bill Graham says “I’m not going make that much money with that deal; can we do better? Bill Graham Presents is one of the top concert promoters in the world.”
Bill notes that the organization has successfully presented thousands of concerts and festivals, and they’re an encyclopedia of experience, savvy, and know-how. That’s gotta be worth something to the Stones. Mick allegedly answers, “yes, I know, you are one of the best promoters out there, but there are a few others and Bill, there is only one Rolling Stones. Think of the prestige. Everyone knows the Stones always sell out the house. Take it or leave it.” Long story short, Bill takes it. Mick negotiates or approves all of the Rolling Stones’ business deals.
Back to the current situation. Roots is on television for about another week. The remainder of the week’s concerts are canceled. Why bother losing any more money? Minimizing everyone’s losses is the directive of the day. When Roots was over, everything went back to (good) business as usual. The shows and box office were great and soon the Roots experience, as profound as it was, faded into our rear-view mirror.
We continued to tour, working our way northward. As we did, the Ohio Players replaced Wet Willie as War’s support act. When you tour with a big group you make new friends and have good times. The tour ended in New York with War playing Shea Stadium, and I was back home.
Over the next year, I managed to be on tour in the south and I saw Donna a bunch of times. On time on the phone when I was back in New York she mentioned that Wet Willie was playing Madison Square Garden as the opening act for Mark Farner and Grand Funk Railroad.
When the time came, I called her hotel and left a message for her. She did not call back. Next day, I called again and left another message. She never called me back. Hmmm, that was weird.
A few weeks later I am talking with Jim Kellem (my buddy from CMA) and I tell him that Donna had disappeared on me. He smiled and said, ”I guess you haven’t heard. She is with Mark Farner.” Ohhhh, so that is why. Que Sera, Sera. And well, even if I am better looking and way cooler, he is a rock star and I’m just a rocker.
Fast forward about 30 years…
In 2009 I am at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. It is the Monster Cable Blog Party for Beats headphones. We are up in the penthouse of the Paris Hotel and it is wild. Dr. Dre, Jimmy Iovine, Pharrell Williams, Lady Gaga, LeBron James among other celebrities are there – including LeVar Burton. I was there along with 120 of the most influential consumer electronics press people. We all are just mingling, hanging out and eating crab and lobster and drinking margaritas.
I spot LeVar and walk over. I introduce myself; I tell him the War story about that week in Georgia. He loves it.
He tells me that over the years many people have approached him and told him their stories of that week. It blows his mind that for so many people, that week stands out for them. In all his years in television (including Star Trek: The Next Generation, Sesame Street, and more) he has never had people react to anything like the way they did to Roots, and have such powerful memories from the show’s impact that week.
It’s a good feeling when good memories like this come back.