It seems everyone who grew up in the rock industry has a Bill Graham story, and Danny Zelisko has one, too.
This yarn is the story of Zelisko’s life, or maybe the opening chapter. It could well make a great movie, or at least a top-selling rock song, and took place in the summer of 1972 in Berkeley, Calif.
Zelisko, who today runs Danny Zelisko Presents in Phoenix and this year has been contracted as the chief booker for shows at Pearl Concert Theater at the Palms, was 17 years old when he made his rock ‘n’ roll move. He had just given up a dalliance as a singer in a rock band in his hometown of Chicago but still craved a role in the music industry, somewhere. He was drawn to Berkeley because of its fertile rock scene, nourished with great care and energy by Graham, the West Coast’s predominant rock promoter.
Zelisko moved to Berkeley with no money — OK, maybe $100 — into a cheap apartment near the Berkeley Community Theatre on the campus of Berkeley High School. The BCT was famous for staging shows by rising or cresting rock stars; Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, Bruce Springsteen, Cat Stevens, Boz Scaggs, the Doors and the Byrds were among the dozens of top rock acts to play the venue, which opened in 1950 and is still an active venue (in one infamous performance, in 1971, Led Zeppelin roared into the 3,500-seat venue and nearly imploded the theater with its 40-amplifier sound setup).
In an event that could not have been more fortuitous if it were scripted, Zelisko’s downstairs neighbor was an usher at BCT. Zelisko’s usher friend led Zelisko into his first show at BCT, an Aug. 4 performance by the Allman Brothers Band, and after the show, Zelisko sought out the band’s famed road manager, Twiggs Lyndon, and plainly asked him how to plug into the rock music scene.
“He said, ‘Just show up at 9 or 10 in the morning tomorrow and start working,’ ” Zelisko says during an interview recently at the Palms’ 24/7 Cafe, during which he wears a blue PAIA (Hawaii) T-shirt. Zelisko is 57, but his head is topped with a youthful mop of light-brown hair. He has worn a goatee for years and looks quite a bit younger than his age.
Zelisko continues to reminisce: “Twiggs was great. He wore tattoos before it was good and had a braided ponytail to his (butt). I’m just 17, but I don’t think of myself as 17. I think of myself as a peer.”
The next acts to play the BCT were Yes and the Edgar Winter Group, a show promoted by Graham’s company, Bill Graham Presents (40 years later, Zelisko is still working with Yes, who headlined the Pearl on Sunday night with Procol Harum). Both bands’ road crews were loading equipment and instruments into the venue the next morning, and Zelisko first talked to the Yes crew in his natural Chicago accent.
When he crossed over to chat with the Edgar Winter crew, he spoke in a newly adopted British accent.
“It was a pretty bad British accent,” he says, laughing. “But these guys didn’t know that.”
Zelisko worked his way into the backstage scene by moving adroitly between camps.
“The Yes people thought I was with Edgar Winter, and Edgar Winter thought I was with Yes,” he said. “It worked out perfectly.”
Until Graham himself showed up. You don’t rise to the stats of the leading rock promoter of your time without developing a keen eye for falsification, and at the buffet before the show, Graham zeroed in on Zelisko.
“I’m there, eating, and Bill Graham walks over and picks me up by my collar,” Zelisko says, laughing again and shaking his head. “He says, ‘OK, who is this? Can anyone tell me who this is?’ The English guys are like, ‘I thought he was with them!’ And the American guys are going, ‘Isn’t he with you?’ ”
Holding Zelisko’s collar, and career, in his tightly clenched fist, Graham told Zelisko, “You got chutzpah, Kid.” He allowed him to remain in whatever job he’d built for himself.
That night, in an unannounced appearance, Edgar Winter’s brother, Johnny (coming off a stint in rehab), showed up to perform with the Edgar Winter Group. Winter pulled up to the theater in the back seat of a station wagon and met Graham near the backstage door.
“Kid, get his guitar,” Graham said to Zelisko, who was handed Winter’s familiar Gibson Flying V.
“I went from nobody to carrying Johnny Winter’s Flying V in about a day,” Zelisko says. “It was unbelievable to me.”
Zelisko forged a friendship with Graham, who continued to marvel at the tenacity of the kid from Chicago. By 1974, Zelisko was booking shows himself in his newly formed company Evening Star Presents, often partnering with Graham on major events. In April 1991, Graham and Zelisko teamed to promote the Grateful Dead’s immensely successful first appearance at Sam Boyd Stadium, when Zelisko was helming Evening Star Presents. The dates proved to be the zenith of their professional and personal relationship. Six months after the first of five appearances (from 1991-1995) by the Dead at Sam Boyd, Graham was killed in a car accident.
“He was an amazing man,” Zelisko says. “There will never be anyone else like him, but I am trying to keep his legacy alive, in a way, by personalizing the business. I’m always going to be the name behind the show, and I’m trying to book as many shows as I can.”
A man who has survived colon cancer and several shifts in his career (including a stint with Clear Channel, which bought Evening Star a decade ago), Zelisko has had a hand in booking 8,000 to 9,000 shows. He prefers working independently rather than with an international promotional company, and his personal touch was evident before a show he’d booked at the Pearl on Aug. 8 — a performance by Beck.
Just before Beck and his band took the stage, a guy walked out to no announcement or fanfare. He started announcing dates at the venue — Mary J. Blige on Sept. 7, Stone Temple Pilots on Sept. 20 and Joe Walsh on Sept. 22 — and someone nearby asked, “Who is that guy?”
It’s Danny Zelisko, forever living his rock ’n’ roll dream.