Legendary concert promoter gives behind the stage look at music business in ‘All Exce$$’
If you can name a band or comedian over the past 45 years, there’s a good chance that legendary concert promoter Danny Zelisko has worked with them and is a part of his famous Rolodex. From Bon Jovi, U2, Pink Floyd, KISS to James Brown, No Doubt, Nirvana, The Police and Guns ‘N Roses, he’s stood shoulder to shoulder with them and forged enduring friendships and countless memories that have lasted nearly 50 years.
His Evening Star Productions has promoted concerts and shows in every state in America during the 1980s and 90s. In 2000, Zelisko’s company was purchased, along with dozens of other regional promoters by SFX. Zelisko became President of the Southwest office of SFX and later President and then Chairman of Live Nation Southwest.
He left that post in 2011 to kickstart Danny Zelisko Presents. He continues doing what he loves most and that’s planning and putting on the best shows that people will remember for years to come.
But if you think his job is all rock stars and backstage parties, you would be wrong. And Danny shares countless stories from his early days all the way through the pandemic in his new book “All Exce$$: Occupation Concert Promoter.”
“I had a time when I was promoting Whitney Houston in Las Vegas in 1991,” Danny said during a recent interview. “I was told Whitney wanted to see me before the show. I think this was going to be a nice conversation, but little did I know that she was extremely mad that (former heavyweight champion) Mike Tyson was sitting near the stage and people were chanting HIS name and if I don’t go tell Mike Tyson to get the hell off HER stage, she’s not going to sing. And she wanted ME to walk him off the stage. So I went straight to the champ, told him what was going on and he understood and he walked off the stage with me. He even let me take him by the arm down the stairs. And not a couple of minutes later, the lights went off and Whitney started singing. She gave a GREAT show. But that is the kind of things that nobody sees. The kinds of fires that concert promoters have to deal with each and every night. It isn’t all Champaign and girls. This business is not for the faint of heart.”
Getting started in the music business wasn’t even on his mind in 1973 when his life was about to forever be changed when he picked up a hitchhiker.
HAVING A BEER WITH ALICE COOPER
Danny describes in his book when he was 18 years old, he picked up a barefoot hitchhiker, who needed a ride to Tempe, Arizona to get some shoes. That hitchhiker turned out to be Larry Hitchcock, Alice Cooper’s production manager. That ride led to Larry inviting Danny down to work security at the show later that week in Tuscon.
“Of course, I jumped at the chance,” he said. “It was random, crazy luck, but somehow it was meant to be.”
That crazy luck continued on the day of the show when Danny accidentally found his way into Alice’s dressing room.
“He didn’t kick me out,” he said. “He actually said ‘C’mon in and have a beer.’ I couldn’t believe I was having a beer with Alice Cooper. A little while later, Shep Gordon (Alice’s manager) walked in said ‘Who the hell is this?’ Alice said this is Danny and we’re having a beer together. Shep asked me what I was doing there and I told him I’m working security and he said ‘Perfect.'”
Once the show began, it didn’t take Alice long to spot Danny at the front of the stage trying to keep the crowd back. Little did Danny know, Alice had something wild in store for him.
“Danny is bigger than life. He’s just Chicago guy and the life of the party, but back then, he was a security guy,” Alice said during a recent phone interview. “We were backstage and had a beer together. I mean, I would drink with everybody, you know. I didn’t know who he was. And next thing I know, I’m on stage and I see him down there holding the crowd back. And I could tell already that he had the same kind of sense of humor that I did. And so I went, oh, this could be funny. I used to put dollar bills on the end of a sword during ‘Billion Dollar Babies.’ And so of course, I waved the dollar bills over Danny’s head, the crowd just mauled him, trying to get to these dollar bills. He got killed that night. At that point, I think that’s when our relationship started.”
Danny also said that one of the concertgoers tore off a scab on his arm he got recently from a motorcycle wreck. A while later, he was walking backstage to get some medical attention when he was knocked over by a fight between these two guys, that turned out to be Shep Gordon and concert promoter Bill Graham.
“This was the biggest fist fight I’ve ever been around in my entire life,” Danny said. “All the food in Alice’s dressing room was all over the walls. They were really going at it until one of them said ‘Don’t ever do that again’ and they both walked away. It was wild.”
Danny said the lightning bolt hit him and he knew what he wanted to do with his life after witnessing the magic that night on stage with Alice Cooper, and Alice knew that a friendship was sparked – friendship that has lasted nearly 50 years.
“I mean Danny saw what we were doing onstage and he saw that we were having fun. It wasn’t a bunch of jerk rock and rollers that only cared about their ego. We were actually having fun. Everybody was having fun and I think he got the idea that a promoter could have fun too. I never saw Danny as a promoter. I always kind of saw him just as Danny. I played golf with him, go have dinner, I just saw him as a friend. I never knew too many promoters that would sit down after the show and go to Avanti’s with Jeff Beck or hang out with with the people that they were promoting. Usually they were the enemy. And another thing about Danny is that he cared about the actual show. Normally, promoters would ask how many tickets would they sell, but Danny was more worried if the bands would work musically. I never heard another promoter care about that. I don’t think even Bill Graham really ever cared about who was opening and who was third on the bill. In fact, we played shows for Bill Graham that was like Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Melanie, Alice Cooper and Tina Turner. Bill cared more about filling seats than if the show made sense. That’s what made Danny stand out. Danny became almost part of the band.”
Danny has continued working with Alice Cooper in his countless charity projects, including Alice Cooper’s annual Christmas Pudding Show, which benefits the rock star’s “Solid Rock” foundation that gives any kid a chance to learn an instrument or learn to sing or anything in the realm of music, dance, video and sound production to spark that creativity that he says has been sorely lacking in this day and age.
“We put on these shows every year to help fund the foundation,” Alice said. “We try and make these shows as unique as possible. I immediately called Danny for his help in putting these shows together. Between my Rolodex and Danny’s, we could get some really unusual combinations of people to perform for this show. We could get Rob Zombie and Pat Boone on stage together. And the next thing you know, you’re Glen Campbell with Ted Nugent. You know, people that you would just never ever see together. You know, they’ll be a guitar player from Kiss, the drummer from Chicago, the bass player from the Eagles, the guitar player from Cheap Trick, and Alice will be singer. And this guy will be singer and that guy will be singer. And, you know, and then the next year it was totally different different people. So every time you would come back, you’re going to see something that you’re never going to see again. You’re never going to see that combination of people again.”
“Those shows are still some of the highlights of my life,” Danny said.
EVENING STAR PRODUCTIONS
But Danny didn’t just wake up a decide to be a concert promoter. He worked hard to get the funding for his first few shows that were going to tell him if he had what it took to be in the music business.
At age 19, Zelisko’s first shows were Mahavishnu Orchestra in Tucson and Herbie Hancock and the Headhunters in Phoenix, shows that were partially funded by his father and others. Danny said one of the things he learned from those shows were you had to sell many tickets to pay for the costs of putting on the show and even more tickets to make money. Tickets back then were $3.50 to $5.50.
“It almost broke even,” said during a recent interview with The Entertainer Magazine. “I didn’t have any shows until the fall, and they didn’t make money. It was a real leap of faith, even for the $11,000 at the time that I raised, which was definitely a larger amount of money than $11,000 is now.”
Even though they weren’t huge moneymakers, he used those gigs to form the company that eventually became Evening Star Productions, which went on to promote concerts at Dooley’s Nightclub and eventually to arenas around the country.
Dooley’s Nightclub was a 700-seat club which Danny established as a great rock-and-roll venue where he was able to book a huge collection of national acts, including The Police, James Brown, Joe Jackson, Devo, Cheap Trick and The Runaways featuring a young Joan Jett and Lita Ford.
“Dooley’s was a new breed of venue,” he wrote in his book. “It was a nightclub for rock bands that served as a proving ground for new bands and a place for medium size acts to perform. Nowadays, spots like this are all over the place, but at the time, it was revolutionary.”
Chuck Berry was one of the first acts Danny would book into Dooley’s back in 1977.
After the first show, Chuck companied about the air conditioning on stage and that it was too cold. The owner said he needed to keep it cooler so the audience wouldn’t get too hot while rocking out to his songs. Danny writes that Chuck proceeded to play super-slow blues for the first 45 minutes of the second show, much to the chagrin of Danny, who is begging him to pick up the tempo.
Chuck just laughed, but finally did a rocking medley of his hits for the last 10 minutes of the show. He then just put his guitar in his case, walked out the back door and took off.
That’s show business for you.
BOB SEGER CANCELS
No promoter EVER wants to cancel a show, especially an arena show with 15,000-20,000 ready to have a good time. Most of the time, its the promoter left holding the bag.
Danny’s first arena show nearly turned into his last show ever, after he bumped into Bob Seger in the hallway at the Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum in 1980.
Bob, who was riding high on his “Against the Wind” tour, had sold out this show in a day, which was fast back in those days. The sold-out show had nearly 15,000 fans getting ready or already in the parking lot when Danny got some bad news.
“The parking lot was crowded with fans and I was so busy, that I was racing around the arena on roller skates,” Danny said. “I see Bob out the in the hallway smoking and he stops me and hands me the phone. It was his manager (Punch Andrews) who said that Bob isn’t singing tonight. That completely floored me. Bob tells me that he’ll make it up to me on another show, but I was thinking about all the money I’ve shelled out and the fans out in the parking lot waiting to hear him perform. I mean in most cases, if something goes sideways with a band member’s health or some kind of emergency happens, they don’t think they owe anybody anything else. I mean they just figure it wasn’t there fault, but it wasn’t mine either. But Bob was so cool and wanted to know why I was still bummed. I told him and he said ‘Don’t worry’ and he had his accountant cut me a check for all my expenses and even added a second show when he came back through again. The lesson learned was you just have to persevere and work your way through those tough times and make the best out of it.”
Bob Seger made good on his word and came back to play two sold-out nights in 1980, and helped forge a professional relationship that continued until Bob retired in 2019.
“Bob is one of the finest performers I have ever seen,” he wrote in his book. “I bask in the personal blow of knowing he and I always did right by each other, that’s all that matters.”
Danny always loves the idea of working with performers from the beginning of their career and being able to break new ground and forge those relationships that would last for many years.
This memorable booking was not the beginning that Danny had in mind.
Before John Mellencamp was releasing multiplatinum albums and hit singles like “Jack and Diane,” “Cherry Bomb,” “Pink Houses” and “Small Town,” he was known as John Cougar, a moniker given to him by this first manager, Tony DeFries, who said Mellencamp would be too hard to market.
Back in 1979, John was paying his dues by hitting the club circuit hard, performing 150 shows or more a year. On July 25, 1979, Danny had booked John into Dooley’s a 700-seat concert venue in Tuscon, Ariz., as his tour was nearing the end of his current run of shows. It was part of a “92 cent” concert that was sponsored by KWFM FM 92. Danny said they let his tour manager know about the size of the stage in the venue ahead of time so it wouldn’t be a huge shock on show night.
“John had a nickname which was “the little bastard,” in which he lived up to,” Danny said. “He came in and wasn’t happy because he wasn’t playing in a place that had a proper stage, sound and lights. I thought for a guy making $300-500 or whatever I paid them for the show on his first EVER tour. I talked with John during soundcheck and he seemed cool with it. He apparently knew he was going to be a major star because he brought the attitude with him that night.”
Danny wrote that right after the first song, John pointed to Danny and tried to turn the crowd against him.
“If I were you, I’d go catch that @#$% right now while you can and get your money back,” said John according to Danny. “This is the biggest piece of @#$% place I’ve ever played in my life. I’ve got better speakers in my car than they have here! My card table is bigger than this stage.”
“I couldn’t believe he was saying this,” Danny said. “I wasn’t very happy with him that night. I mean I was trying to break this guy in this market. I went running towards the stage ready to tackle him, but a security guy picked me up off my feet and carried me downstairs so I could cool off. I told the security guard ‘I think I can take him.’ He just said that I might win the battle, but not the war, especially if he turns out to be a major star some day. It was definitely a character building block.”
Of course, none of the 300 in the audience asked for their money back, I mean it was less than a dollar. And Danny said he never held that night against John, who did go on to be one of music’s biggest stars and a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, not to mention one of those stars that Danny has continued to work with through the years.
THE SHOW MUST GO ON
Like the entire world, Danny’s world came to a screeching halt in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic saw the cancellation of concerts, big and small, all across the country and the world.
“The world of music just shut down. It was like a forced retirement,” Danny said. “We’ll get back to it as soon as it is safe. I had one of my best seasons ever all set up, but we had to shut it down.”
At the time of the interview, Danny was hoping to announce the return of concerts for the fall. Those concerts have materialized with his first show on Sept. 1 with Alan Parsons Live Project and a slate that features Styx, Dead and Company and Tony Bennett.
Danny said he hopes that all those shows that were scheduled for 2020 will be made up before a new crop of shows comes and snatches up all the venue dates.
“It could very easily happen where we see new shows that people want to see are booked on top of the old shows,” he said. “And the old shows deserve to play without competition. I think we’re going to have probably the biggest January through April first quarter in 2020 just because of the sheer amount of acts going out on the road trying to recoup that money they lost. It is going to be amazing.
As Danny continues to fill up his concert calendar heading into 2022, he still is left with a treasure trove full of memories and lasting friendships from not only the stars, but talent agents and crew members that worked every night to put on the best show for fans.
“The fans are what its all about,” he said. “There is nothing better than seeing a crowd going wild and enjoying the show that you worked so hard to put on for them. That’s show business.”