Danny Zelisko on Today and Tomorrow in Scottsdale
September 7, 2023
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.