Keeping My Head Above Water: The Very First Shows
The show went on, but I had to take Journey off the bill. Of course, in no time Journey would go on to become one of the biggest names in rock music. I hated being the guy who had canceled on Journey just as they were coming out of California. That haunted me for years, especially because another promoter got to book Journey all over the country—including Arizona. I felt left out every time they came to Phoenix to play, and still do to this day, sadly.
I learned that you make it in this industry by breaking new bands. You can’t just go for the popular acts who have already made it. You have to get in with the new groups on the ground floor. First you get to know people when they are nobodies, and then, with your help, they become somebodies. Help break a band and you become their friend and confidant (sometimes). They trust you, they keep working with you, and you get to be part of the team.
That’s why canceling Journey was such a tragedy. I would’ve been their guy! But there is s till more to talk about regarding Journey, as I went on to find out.
The silver lining was that I learned a valuable lesson—and there were a hell of a lot more of those to come. There are things you can only learn along the way, by actually making your mistakes and figuring out how to get ‘er done.
Herbie was my first show in Phoenix, the same month as Mahavishnu—June of ’74. Unfortunately, it was without Weather Report, at Symphony Hall, not Celebrity—and in June instead of April. That was three big things going against me. Spring is better than summer, Celebrity is more popular than Symphony Hall, and no Weather Report. Ouch!
You have to have money to overcome the losses you’re bound to take. It’s the promoters who are already in business who get the good names. I wasn’t making any money, which meant working jobs that had nothing to do with music, like doing maintenance, cleaning doctors’ offices at night.
The Herbie Hancock show and the Mahavishnu Orchestra show both lost money—not a lot, but I had no backup. I booked Arlo Guthrie later on, and I also put together a bill with Brian Auger and Jerry Riopelle, later that fall. I was stringing together shows intermittently, but they were good shows with solid acts, and if I had nothing else, I had a growing sense of pride. But pride wasn’t enough to pay the bills.
Balancing all of this was difficult. I missed two nights of my janitorial job while putting on the Herbie Hancock and Mahavishnu Orchestra shows. I had cleared the time off with the company, which was paying me $5 an hour to mop floors and throw out used hypodermic needles, but they fired me anyway. I hated the job, of course. It was gross and boring and had nothing do with what I cared about, but I still needed the money. You gotta eat!
By the beginning of 1975 I was broke, but I refused to let the company fold. I hung on, looking for a break. I could barely make rent when I was invited to do a Jeff Beck concert in May with, of all people, the Mahavishnu Orchestra opening the show. I was in touch with lots of agents and trying to carve out a name for myself. But even with all this, the nonstop hustling, shitty jobs, and constant phone calls trying to book this or that band, I was barely keeping my head above water. This is a tough business even when you’re making it, and let’s be honest: I wasn’t making it.
To make ends meet, I took a new job at Arizona Waterbeds (the 1970s were a different time, that’s for sure). The owners, Stuart and Everett, were actually the same guys who’d reached out to me about putting on the Jeff Beck show. They took a liking to me and offered me a sales job. The job came with one big perk: I could use the phone for free. This was a big deal in those days, since before cell phones came along, you could run up thousands of dollars in long-distance toll call charges (and I did!) trying to do business across state lines. I set up all of my deals from the store for as long as I worked there, and he was fine with it.
The Jeff Beck show came and went. He was featuring his new music from Blow by Blow, one of the best albums he had done, till that point. Jeff was one of my long-time guitar heroes, and we became friendly. The show didn’t do great, but since I was just hired on as the producer, not the bank, and I had a sales job to boot, things weren’t all that bad. Jeff and I are still friends, which means I really did do well on that show!
He just performed for meuus recently at The Celebrity Theatre (kudos to Robert Norman from CAA for the fab booking!)
Our friend Johnny Depp showed up to jam with Jeff and hang with us after the show to celebrate, with a couple bottles of champagne. The two of them have been playing together and enjoying each other’s company. Jeff is a kind, wonderful friend. There are some great players out there, but I think most agree, pound for pound, there is no one in the history of guitar players, who can create and play the way he does.
“Who Do You Think You Are, Bill Graham?”
KDKB was playing the hell out of a self-titled record called Buckingham Nicks, by Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, who were a couple back then. This was before they joined Fleetwood Mac. Buckingham Nicks was produced by Keith Olsen, who has produced a lot of great albums, including some for Fleetwood Mac, Joe Walsh, the Grateful Dead, and a bunch of other big bands. Sadly, he just passed away this year. It was a big record in Phoenix—everybody here loved it, me included—but not really anywhere else. Still, they had yet to perform in Phoenix. This was one of the out in the open secrets about promoting. No promoter was on top of this fact, because there was only one promoter in town, Doug Clark, at the Celebrity Theatre. Not sure how that one got by him, but I was happy it had.
There was also another new singer named Dan Fogelberg, who has since passed away. He had a song called “Long Way Home” from an album called Home Free, which was also a big record on KDKB. Another musician, Jerry Riopelle was getting a ton of airplay on KDKB too. Jerry and his wife Naomi, became my life long best friend. Jerry turned into a full-fledged superstar here in Phoenix. In addition to playing more sold out shows over the years at Celebrity Theatre, he opened Compton Terrace, a place that I have serious history with (named after Bill Compton, and owned by the Nicks Family, at the Phoenix Zoo.)
Oddly, Jerry’s fame was limited to Arizona, He didn’t make it outside of here, which is still insane, because the music is so, so good. He died on Christmas Eve, 2019, a day which will never be the same for his family and all of us, his friends, again. We all miss him terribly.
Here’s a picture of me and the fox (one of his great song titles)
I figured that if I followed what they were playing heavily on KDKB, I could book some of these artists who hadn’t been here before and become their promoter. I tracked down Stevie Nicks through some agency, and it turned out that she was waiting tables in LA.
I spoke to Stevie’s Dad, Jess, and made him an offer. He told me that Stevie and Lindsey had nothing much going on and were living month to month, but they had this record out. Jess was annoyed back then about the album cover, which is a picture of Stevie and Lindsey, both shirtless. They look amazing. Remember, this was before they joined Fleetwood Mac, in 1974. This was a ground breaking cover for an album. I told him he should be proud of her looking so great. He knew she was beautiful, but as a dad had a hard time with it, you know, old school. He got over it!
This is a picture of Stevie and Jess I took after one of the benefit shows I produced for them for the Phoenix Heart Hospital, early 2000s.
I offered them $1,500 each to do the show. Jerry was actually the biggest name at the time. We would do the show at Symphony Hall, and Riopelle would close.
To get Dan Fogelberg, I had to call Irving Azoff, who was at that time was also managing The Eagles. This was 1974, however—the Eagles had some big songs, but they—and Irving—were nowhere near the force that they are now. They’d only been popular for a couple of years.
I called Irving up. We had a nice conversation or two, and Dan wanted to do the show. Dan would have been in the middle, before Jerry, and Buckingham Nicks would have opened … if we’d done the show.
If I had done this show, every ticket would have sold out, since the bill was totally unique to Phoenix. It was a regional thing, because of the radio station. It’s just proof that any station that plays legitimately good product, regardless of whether it’s known or not, can make it big with air play. Everybody’s ears were wide open, and wanting new stuff. KDKB and their fearless leader, Bill Compton, delivered the music to the people of Phoenix.
But I never pulled the trigger on the show. I never called everybody back one more time. That’s all it would have taken, one more time to say we’re in, we’re doing the show. I got cold feet. There’s something to be said about your gut when you’re doing stuff like this, and when you think about it, $1,500 wasn’t too much money even back then. But you’ve got to be right. I put so much pressure on myself to be right … and this show just didn’t feel right.
Irving never forgot that. You could ask him today, and he would remember that all the way back in the 70s, I was the guy who didn’t have the balls to pull the trigger. When you put a show together, everybody gets hopeful and excited, especially when you’re a musician and you don’t have work and you’re trying to make it. Everybody’s looking for that next break, that next cool thing they’re going to do. But it just kind of faded away and died, and it was a shame.
My next bill was Herbie Hancock with Weather Report, both great jazz-rock acts. It was a respectable show, and I was excited to get it booked. Then, out of nowhere I got a call from the booking agent, Sol Saffian, telling me we had to postpone it. Turns out the agency he worked at in New York, ATI, had booked Deep Purple at the local water park called Big Surf, for the same night my show was scheduled for, April 8, and they didn’t think the two acts should be in town the same night.
“What, are you kidding me?” I said. Deep Purple were all English white guys playing rock, while Hancock and Weather Report were jazz and funk artists.
“Who plays Herbie Hancock on the radio?” the guy from the agency said.
“Who plays Deep Purple?”
“The same radio station, among others.”
“End of discussion.”
That was it. Imagine a radio station playing both Deep Purple and Herbie! That’s how great they were back then.
The show didn’t happen, and you’d better believe I was bummed. Apparently, the agencies didn’t want to cause undue competition for one another’s acts. Agency politics. This was the wrong move, as far as I was concerned. I thought so at the time and I still think so today, because this show was taking place in the right theater at the right time of the year, while school was still in session. This town would have supported both shows, without question. I ended up rescheduling Herbie in June at Symphony Hall.. No Weather Report, and ASU was on summer break. Not good for selling tickets. We ended up doing 1700+ out of the 2400 tickets available. Not a stiff, but not a money maker. Remember, tickets were $5.50 then!
Here’s the poster from that first Phoenix show, signed by Herbie, some years later.
The first show that I actually got booked was the Mahavishnu Orchestra at the Music Hall in Tucson on June 2, 1974. They were a great jazz-rock fusion group led by John McLaughlin, a guitarist who’d gotten famous playing with Miles Davis. The opening act I hired was a new band from California called Journey. Their guitarist, Neal Schon, along with vocalist/keyboard player, Gregg Rolie, had just left Santana after three great albums, which included the now classic songs, Evil Ways and Black Magic Woman. I offered Journey $500, and they accepted. The show was a big deal for them—it would be their first gig outside of the Bay Area.
Then I got a call from Elliot Sears, who managed the Mahavishnu Orchestra. He was working for Nat Weiss’ management company, who’d managed Janis Joplin and Dylan, among others, in the 1960s.
“Is this your first concert?” Elliot wanted to know.
“Does it show?”
“Did you really book Journey to open up for Mahavishnu?”
“Well, great, very artistic. But now you’ve got to cancel them.”
“What do you mean?”
“You can’t just go hiring bands. You’ve got to talk to me. I’m the manager. I have to approve this,” he said. “Who do you think you are? Bill Graham?”
Well not yet, but I wanna be, I wanted to say to him, but that was that. He went on to explain the show was 3 hours long with an intermission, with 25 people on stage performing, and there just wasn’t room in any way for my creative booking. I got my first show under my belt, albeit short of success, doing a little over 1000 tickets paid at $3.50-5.50 per. I am still doing shows in that hall, I am happy to say!
So this turned out to be the first show I promoted, on my own. Although it was a loser, I felt very proud to have gotten this one under my belt. Little did I know what had just begun.