We continue legendary Seattle radio man Dick Curtis' autobiography, Me, Myself & I - We're on the Road Again. He wrote it for family & friends a few years ago, but has availed it to BlatherWatch. The book is fascinating glimpse, not only into early rock 'n' roll radio, but even more into the business of talent management and concert promotion in an incredible, crazypants time to be there: the 1960's, '70's and '80's.
A treat today: We’re reprinting an entire chapter. It opens as Dick sits on a private jet with Frank Sinatra, whose tour he’s managing. We’ve been giving you pieces and anecdotes from his book, but this, his first chapter, gives a flavor of what it took behind the scenes to assure those classic concerts of the 60’s & ’70’s did not turn into classic fiascos. Dick tells his story with characteristic humility. This part of his career, as he writes, could be interpreted as a step backward. But a step back to this self-described "guy from Tacoma, Washington" is a life of private jets, luxury hotels and dealing one-on-one with big rock stars and small-time operators with big egos. Not exactly a life most of us would consider a set-back, but one that may not be as glorious as you'd think... and oh yeah: Neil Young is a jerk.
It was just the two of us plus the crew on Harrah’s G-2 private jet. I was riding up front and my flying partner was quiet in the back, buried in his favorite pastime, working a crossword puzzle. We had taken off from Midway Airport in Chicago and were headed for La Guardia in New York. The aircraft was on loan to my boss from Bill Harrah, owner of Harrah’s Club at Lake Tahoe. So here we were, heading into the Big Apple, where “Ol’ Blue Eyes” was about to begin another brief concert tour. We’d just finished two sold out shows at the old Chicago Stadium, a huge indoor arena built in the 30’s.
All the big hockey cities around the upper Midwest, places like Detroit and Cleveland all had these crusty old buildings that held about 20 thousand people and we’d packed in nearly 22 thousand screaming fans in each night. They were all ages. When Frank Sinatra came to town there was nothing quite like it.
How did this guy from Tacoma, Washington end up hopping a private jet with the greatest entertainer of his time? Well, that’s what I’m about to tell you. Sinatra, Bob Dylan, Eagles, Led Zeppelin and so many others but I’m getting way ahead of myself.
I returned to the Concert business in 1972. I had left my job as general manager at Radio Station KOL in Seattle, a huge disagreement with ownership over direction of the station. Actually I’d suffered a very large brain cramp. I forgot I didn’t own it! After a fruitless search for another management position on the west coast I decided to return to the company that had been a part of my life years earlier. The firm was now called Concerts West and boasted several offices around the United States. A far cry from the concert company that Pat O’Day and I had founded a decade earlier originally named “Pat O’Day and Dick Curtis Presents.”
After several productive years, I had resigned from that company over circumstances that were beyond my control and for most of the years in between had run a successful radio station that battled KJR, the powerhouse Top-40 Seattle radio station. KJR was closely aligned with Concerts West.
I had been managing KOL but now here I was, humbled and hungry, ready to return to the concerts and the road. I knew I would get no breaks in this new venture. It was run by Tom Hulett, at one time one of my best friends. Tom knew nothing about the concert business when Pat and I first hired him in 1965 to sell our teen fair booth space. I recall giving Tom and his friends free tickets to our shows. We were golfing buddies, you know. But money, greed and his enormous ego put our friendship far behind us. With the realization that I was returning to the company, I could feel the resentment oozing from Hulett. It was made clear I was just a worker like everyone else, no titles. Another of the major players, Terry Bassett also didn’t want me back. He was one of the earlier partners of Pat O’Day and Dick Curtis Presents and when he joined the company it became known as Pat O’Day and Associates. His forte was dance halls and booking. After Bassett came aboard we were operating about a dozen dance halls, roller rinks and armories in the northwest all rockin’ and rollin’ to live music at least once a week and sometimes twice. Bassett had gone on to become a vice-president of Concerts West and had opened a very successful office for the company in Dallas. Terry was also upset that I had left the company in 1967 and returned to the radio business.
Pat O’Day & Associates had become involved in an anti-trust suit at the time and it was costing the three of us big dollars to defend it. In 1967 music was going through some serious changes, especially with the arrival of the Beatles “Sergeant Pepper” album, which changed pop music forever and our company found ourselves with Herman’s Hermits booked when the teens wanted to see Donovan. I had bailed out and Terry definitely didn’t want me back. It took a plane flight to Texas by my good friend Pat to convince Terry that my returning to the company was a good thing. I was returning as a grunt, low pay and no authority.
My first assignment was a nine city tour with three groups, Uriah Heap, Miller Anderson and Savoy Brown. The tour started in Calgary, Alberta, Canada and ended in Oklahoma City. I was given nine folders, one for each city, some plane tickets with instructions to wire transfer the money back each day and I was BACK IN SHOW BUSINESS, BABY!.
Most people picture life on the road as glamorous but in the early 70’s, this is how it went. I’d arrive in the town and check out a rental car at the airport. Then go to the hall about noon where I would inventory the ticket sales and scope out the dressing rooms. Then I’d high-tail it to the grocery and liquor stores and load up goods for the dressing rooms. Unrolling butcher paper to cover the dilapidated picnic tables, the spread would than be laid out; cold cuts, fruits and a variety of cheese, an assortment of breads and crackers, several types of mustard and catsup. A garbage can full of iced-down beer, another full of soft drinks and yet another table with the hard booze. Expensive brandy and champagne, and plenty of it, was a must. Hey these guys get thirsty playing music for an hour each night.
By then it was time to tell the cops to clear the hall for the sound check and shortly afterward, the bands would arrive with the local groupies they’d picked up at the hotel. The hangers-on would usually make a mess out of the food presentation before the band even had a change to see it. I had met with the building manager earlier and his assistant who was a building manager wannabe. It was the same in nearly every town. I had to respond to all their fears. “These guys don’t light any fire works do they, the fire department will close the show.” “Now you know there can’t be any vulgar language, the police department will stop the show.” “We can’t have anybody back stage except the musicians.” No, there’s no one back stage except the guys and their WIVES.” That’s about as close as a groupie ever got to marrying one of their heroes.
And so it went in town after town but this tour was an unusually tough one. My show biz career was being reborn with three British groups. British musicians in general were known to be hell-raisers, something about being out of the country. Although I want to quickly point out that I have seen many American groups that were equally as hard to deal with.
After getting the show started it was on to the manager’s office where there was small talk. Sometimes a hint about taking good care of a police captain or a fire marshal and we’d go over the building’s bills for the performance. Obviously inflated, way too many police- but hey, that’s how the building manager kept in tight with the police department.
It was the same with the advertising. While the ads for the show, mostly radio and a few newspaper, were placed out of Seattle for this tour, when you looked over the bills at the hall there were always a few surprises. Time to get the second act going. On stage for the introduction and back to the manager’s office. The box office was closing and we could get down to the nitty gritty. How many tickets ordered, how many comped, how many left- the balance was the number sold. That’s how we knew how much money we were due. We would usually discover some tickets missing or an extra amount given away. Scamming takes on a whole new meaning in a cash business like concert promoting, but with the daily check on ticket sales from our local Seattle office, the surprises had been kept to a minimum.
Finally Savoy Brown was on and I was wrapping things up on the financial end. Then back down to the dressing rooms to pay off the bands who never thought they were getting enough. By this time some of the musicians were high and everything was either the greatest ever or just the opposite. Thankfully these three bands turned out to be nice guys and not rowdy at all. I knew nothing about them before the tour. Uriah Heep and Savoy Brown were from England, Miller Anderson and his group were Scottish.
Finally back to the hotel where it was time to crash. I had to get up early the next morning because it was on to Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. And it was Sunday. NO PLANE FLIGHTS and snowing like hell!
I was off in my rental car heading down the freeway barely able to see my hand in front of my frozen face. It was just a few hundred miles over to Edmonton but it seemed like I was driving for miles and miles and seeing “nothing.” My gas gauge was getting closer to empty, still nothing in sight and if there was I couldn’t have seen it anyway. It wasn’t long before I was sitting on the side of the highway, out of gas. Just what I needed, I was already a nervous wreck. I didn’t know if the bands had gotten there; if the hall was even prepared for the concert. I’d never even seen the Edmonton Gardens before. Hell, I’d never been to Canada outside of Vancouver and Victoria.
Here I was trudging down the freeway with my thumb in the air hoping someone would see me, stop and give me a ride… or maybe hit me and put me out of my misery. After what seemed like an eternity a car did stop. A bunch of kids who were happy they picked me up when they found out what I did for a living. “You really know these guys?” “What’s Savoy Brown like?”
Suddenly they couldn’t do enough for me. There IS a God in Heaven that answers prayers. They took me several miles up the freeway to the next gas station, where we borrowed a can and filled it up. Then back to my rental car. Lucky for me, it fired right up. I told them all to come to the show with a friend and be my guest. Hopefully there was going to be a show. I had no idea what was going on in Edmonton. But when I finally arrived about five in the afternoon, everyone was doing what they were supposed to be, on their own.
I told you these particular British musicians were nice guys. The bands understood my misfortune and that’s when we really came to know one another. Uriah Heep and their manager became my good friends throughout the remainder of my concert years. Too bad the group didn’t get bigger in the US; they were good. So the show went on without the dressing room spread and no booze but you know, somehow they made it through. No hassles on the settlement and on to Seattle where Monday would be an off day but two sold-out shows at the Paramount Theater on Tuesday and Wednesday.
In Seattle everything was smooth as silk. With our office right there and the owners of the Paramount in our back pocket, it couldn’t get any easier.
After Seattle it was Portland. Same deal, Paramount Theater and same theater owners. That’s when I first came in contact with the Garter Girls. These girls would put every groupie in ANY city to shame. They would basically do anything that any band member wanted. Usually it involved them and their girlfriend and who knows what else. They had a strange knack of knowing more about the band members than most of the musician’s immediate families. Groupies are usually a big pain in the ass. At least that’s how I’ve always look upon them but the Garter Girls were concert smart. They knew when to stay out of the way and they did. All in all, Portland was easy enough but little did I know what laid ahead of me in Salt Lake City.
The place was the Terrace Ballroom. I walked in and found a bandstand setup for big bands. Fifteen individual painted wooden music stands with 15 chairs. There was a huge grand piano on stage and a revolving crystal ball over the dance floor. Fuck! Luckily, this was a festival seating concert with everyone on the floor. I can’t imagine how the Terrace Ballroom would have screwed-up a reserved seat concert. This place was inexpensive to rent and Terry Bassett had a knack for finding cheap joints. The Dallas office had set up this venue. I searched for the manager of the place but he wasn’t around. I talked to a custodian and he informed me he’d probably be in around four o’clock. Now, the musicians like to sound check anywhere from four to five in the afternoon so I had my work cut out for me. I told him that the stage had to be changed. “Where are the stage hands?” “Oh, they usually get here around four o’clock too. I made my deli and liquor runs got back to the Ballroom and still no manager. When he did arrive, straight up four o’clock, I told him of my dilemma. I had three rock-n-roll bands to set up and the bandstands would have to go as well as the “mother of all grand pianos.” He would go along with removing the bandstands but the piano would have to stay. It hadn’t been moved in years! I pleaded, begging, then resorting to pulling out my trump card. I said, “Vern, I just got married two weeks ago, I’m gonna be out of a job if the groups refuse to play tonight. I can guarantee you they aren’t about to play with that piano up there on stage. We don’t have room to set up, please let me remove it. Consider it a wedding present to me?” “OK FINE,” he said, “but you have to figure a way to get it off, and we ain’t helpin’ you.”
By now we had called off the sound check, it was 6:30 and the doors were opening. I picked out a dozen of the biggest early arrivals, promising them tickets for an upcoming Concerts West show in Salt Lake City, and that’s how we solved the piano problem.
I must interject another Terry Bassett story that happened about four years later after I’d moved to Los Angeles. I got a call at my L.A. office one day from Terry asking if I could cover three dates the Dallas office had booked for Neil Young; Houston, Dallas and San Antonio. I said sure and took off for San Antonio the first date of the three. Arriving in town I met with Bassett’s local man on the scene; I can’t remember his name. Nice guy but I was shocked to see the newspaper ad; “Neil Young & Special Surprise Guest.” That left everyone to believe that Steven Stills would be appearing with Neil. They had performed together on several dates earlier. Turns out the special surprise guest was Neil Young’s band “Crazy Horse.” Deceptive advertising to say the least and that’s the reason Terry had wanted me to cover the dates. He didn’t want to be on the scene for any blow ups that might occur.
(photo: Neil Young 1972)
paper work done. Elliot Roberts came up to me and began questioned the advertising. I said I didn’t know anything about it, that it had been placed by the Concerts West Dallas office. Technically that’s not an excuse since we’re all the same company but I was pissed that I’d been put in this situation in the first place. Normally a promoter does whatever is needed to save the act for future dates. I was in no mood for that. Roberts said to me, “Neil wants to see you in his dressing room.” I told Roberts that I was busy and if Neil wanted a tete-a-tete with me he’d have to come up to the box office. Roberts was very surprised that a promoter would talk that way to an act. He left in a huff and that’s the last I ever heard about it. I’m sure Bassett heard plenty on Monday morning but that wasn’t my problem. I certainly couldn’t get into trouble with my company because phony advertising wasn’t the way we did business in the first place.
Ironically I was on the same plane flight as Mr. Roberts as we returned to Los Angeles Monday morning. We didn’t speak to each other even though we were both seated in first class. I never liked Neil Young as a performer, with the exception of his days with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. I still don’t like him to this day, musically. I suppose my three days in Texas in the mid-seventies has something to do with it.