Phoenix, Ariz.-based concert promoter Danny Zelisko celebrated his 40th anniversary in business in 2019, just in time for COVID and quarantine. In 2020, he took advantage of the unwanted down time to finish a project more than five years in the making: “All Exce$$ – Occupation: Concert Promoter,” a book recounting his life and career.
He’s got stories – lots of them – from a backstage fistfight between Bill Graham and Shep Gordon after an Alice Cooper concert to helping produce the Sun Devil Stadium concert scenes for “A Star Is Born” with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, to his friendships with Chicago folk legends Steve Goodman and the late John Prine.
And the book is chock full of photos from a career that’s seen him take a fledgling business booking Dooley’s nightclub in Tempe, Ariz., to building a regional powerhouse in Evening Star Productions, selling it to SFX only to see it sold again to Clear Channel Entertainment and spun off as Live Nation. He eventually struck back out on his own as an independent with Danny Zelisko Presents, which he has kept operating through the pandemic.
Pollstar spoke with Zelisko about the hows and whys of becoming an author and why anybody with an itch to tell their own story should.
Pollstar: You’ve talked about writing a book for some time. What prompted you to finally do it?
Danny Zelisko: I’ve had to self-fund my business and, with no shows and no income, we turned our attention to doing this book. And I’m also going to start auctioning off a lot of my memorabilia because I’m getting so old. I don’t want to die with all this stuff. With this being a quarantine year, I’ve never had this kind of time available to me.
It’s not a typical memoir. What do you want people to know about your book and your life?
Anybody could do a book, and some people who read Pollstar should write books, if not just for themselves to gather and have a record of their life. I understood that by doing this, I might inspire or help somebody else to do it.
If I’m going to do this once, I’m going to do it right. It makes it expensive. I’m not making any money on it yet. But, you know, that wasn’t my goal in doing this to begin with. The goal was to put together a fun story.
Branded CitiesRISING STOCK:An electronic billboard celebrating the release of Danny Zelisko’s book “All Exce$$” rises at NASDAQ’s building in New York City.
What did you learn about yourself in the process of writing your life story?
I look at it and I think, that was a pretty decent life right there. There’s a lot of holes in it. There’s a lot of spots that I’d like to fill in and add things to. But, by and large, that covers like five, six decades of a life.
But it gives you a good idea of how it started to happen. I realize that people want to know how do you get there and how do you stay there.
It’s for people who don’t do [concert promotion] and want to do it. This is just one guy’s story. Everybody’s got one. A lot of them are like, this is where you start with nothing and you end up with something. And it’s the way life ought to be.
So it’s got life lessons as well as some amazing backstage stories.
Right. I mean, the bottom line that I wanted to get across with this book is that it’s not a fantasy to have a passion about doing something. It’s a fantasy when you don’t do anything about it.
So if you’ve got an idea, or you’ve got a dream, or you’ve got some sort of a goal, or there’s something that you really, really like doing and it doesn’t really have money attached to it, how do I get money from liking this? That’s up to you to figure out.
In my case, I never figured it out. It just kind of happened. I mean, for several years, I made no money. I didn’t know that I was ever going to earn a dime being involved in the music business, because for four years I didn’t make a dime. But I stayed with it and stayed with it.
And maybe I was just too dumb to understand, “No, you don’t belong here.” But fortunately, that wasn’t the case.
A lot of times I felt like, what am I doing here? I mean, you know, everybody’s got their way already carved out. There’s no room for a new guy.
And the bottom line is you have to create room for you to exist. Nobody’s going to allow you in there because you’re going to take something they’re working on.
You obviously had persistence on your side.
I didn’t even know how to pronounce or spell the word “initiative” at that time. But that’s what it is. You have to look out for yourself and speak up in a way that people understand.
I got some invaluable training when I was a kid. I got to be around famous people on an almost daily basis with baseball players and football players and hockey players. I was around those guys all the time in Chicago and you acted a certain way.
You don’t act like a dick. You act like you belong because you do. For whatever reason, half of the battle is being accepted. The other half is what are you going to do with it now?
As a kid, I was accepted by a lot of professional athletes as OK company. I didn’t get in their way and I didn’t bother them and I didn’t become a pain in the ass.
As you grow up and you try to break into those new areas of, hopefully ,employment or making money or having a vocation, you have to have people skills. And I came into adulthood totally flushed with more people skills than most adults have.
Danny Zelisko and Kirk Gibson
Your first acquaintances are with sports people, before getting into music. What’s the intersection between musicians and athletes?
Gale Sayers is one of those guys who was with the Bears that I got to know. About nine or 10 years ago, I’m doing a show with Bob Seger at the Mandalay Bay in Vegas. And during the day, I was walking through the mall and Gayle Sayers is in a sporting goods store doing a signing, so I said hello.
That night as the show was coming to a close, I’m walking around the back of the floor from the sound desk towards backstage. I see this guy running down the stairs – it’s Gale Sayers. And he’s running to me to say, “I’ve got to say hello to Bob after the show. Can you arrange it?” I said, “Yeah, I didn’t know you gave a shit about Bob Seger.” And he goes, “Oh, I love Bob Seger.”
So he came with me, and I said to Bob, “Hey, Bob, I got somebody wants to meet you. You really need to say hello.” And he looks at me like, are you really going to do this to me right after I get offstage? And I said, “It’s Gale fucking Sayers, Bob.” And he goes, “What? Get out of here.” So the whole band came to meet Gayle. He loved that they all came and said hello to him and bowed. I mean, they got in a circle around him. He was thrilled.
It all kind of comes around through music. I met Kirk Gibson, who wrote the foreword for the book. He ended up staying in my house when he was manager of the Diamondbacks. And we met at a Who concert. There’s Don Mattingly, Louis Messina introduced us at a George Strait show. And we’re still good friends.
You know, music guys and sports guys really, really get along, whether you’re from the business side or the performance players side of it, because everybody is interested in what everybody else does. Every singer wants to be a pitcher. Every guitar player wants to be a cleanup hitter.
One last question: Your book ships in a White Castle hamburger box. What’s that all about?
Oh, that’s fun. I’ve been a White Castle guy ever since I was a kid in Chicago. In fact, I applied to buy a franchise and they said, “Sorry, we don’t franchise.”
It’s family owned and it still is to this day. I met them in October and we just started talking. One thing led to another and we started talking about the White Castle Crave Clutch Hall of Fame. We started making plans to be in it.
I’m thinking, hey, wouldn’t it be good marketing for White Castle to give me boxes with their logos all over it?
And I send my book out to everybody in White Castle boxes because we’re doing all the shipping of the books out of my office. We gave them White Castle coupons and the book. And that’s how we’re still sending them out.
So we promote White Castle with every purchase of every book. We give out coupons for free hamburgers. It’s been a wonderful promoting partnership to be with these guys. I mean, it’s really, really fun. It’s been a great hamburger marriage.