PollStar recently featured Danny Zelisko on their website and in their magazine about the 40th anniversary of booking shows. Check out the article here or read below.
Danny Zelisko reached a 40-year milestone in the concert industry in 2014, celebrating the anniversary of his first “official” promotion, with Mahavishnu Orchestra in Tucson , Ariz., on June 2, 1974.
It wasn’t his first brush with the business, however. That came a couple of years earlier, when Zelisko, a Chicago native, made a pilgrimage to Berkeley, Calif., in hopes of meeting and maybe even getting a job with legendary promoter Bill Graham.
He did – and the rest is anything but cliché. Pollstar spoke with Zelisko about his life, career, friends and frenemies in a frank and freewheeling conversation. From faking an English accent in order to schlep cases for Yes to an “open letter to Yanni” and from independent Southwest powerhouse to SFX employee and back again, Zelisko doesn’t feel the need to hold back after all this time.
Through his early career, the formation and sale of promotion company Evening Star to SFX, to his return as an independent with Danny Zelisko Presents, he is one of a small handful of promoters to successfully come full circle.
You were barely out of high school when you moved to California hoping to join the rock ‘n’ roll circus. How did your parents react to that?
My parents put up what, at the time, was a lot of money for them. A friend and his dad also put up money for me to start doing concerts in 1974. I think it was important my parents supported their kid in this way. I had no interest in going to college, and doing those shows became my college education. I was putting on shows and losing money. You go to college and invest in that; you don’t make money but hopefully you learn something that helps you out later in life.
That’s exactly what that did. It was a self-taught apprenticeship. I started with a grand total of $11,000. It was enough for me to squeeze two or three shows out of. Looking back, I don’t even know how we did it because the shows didn’t do that well. As a boy, you go through that thing with your dad where you want approval or a pat on the back. My dad was a different guy. He was a tough guy, an electrician, came from the South Side of Chicago, poor, worked his way up and did really great. As a dad now, I’m very appreciative whenever my daughter says anything kind to me or acts proud of me. Fortunately for me, that investment my dad made in me, other than all the emotional investment in just being my dad, paid off when he got to see me have success as a promoter.
Tell us about your first experience in California.
I moved to Berkeley in 1972, right after high school and with no money, and I went with a couple of friends of mine. We got a place below the University of California campus. The guy downstairs, who we met immediately upon moving in, was an usher at the Berkeley Community Theatre. He snuck me in to shows. The first show I saw there was the Allman Brothers Band and Black Oak Arkansas. And I met Twiggs Lyndon doing sound at the board. Twiggs was the longtime road manager, sound man, jack of all trades, mechanic, driver, you name it, for the Allman Brothers then. I said, “Twiggs, what am I going to do? I really want to be in this business.
I’m 17. I’m just out of school. I’m just this huge music fan. I’ve been to a lot of concerts but I know nothing. I just know that I want to be a concert promoter. I want to do this.” Twiggs told me to show up the next day. Edgar Winter and Yes were playing. He said, “Just show up here tomorrow, get on the equipment truck like you belong with the local crew, and start taking stuff off. They always want help and nobody will really question you. Just don’t be a jerkoff and act like you know what you’re doing.”
So I did. I took stuff off the truck and when I came down the ramp I talked in an English accent to the local crew so they thought I was with Yes. And their crew thought I was with the local crew. Somehow I managed to pull this off. At 6 p.m., while we were eating dinner, Bill Graham comes around. This is my guy. This is the reason I came to the Bay Area. I read all about him.
There was no Internet then, but there was Circus magazine, Creem, Crawdaddy, and Rolling Stone. He comes in, looks around, walks over, picks me up by the collar and says, “Who the fuck is this kid?” Everybody is like, “I thought he was with you.” He looks at me and says, “Nice one. Well, thanks for working for me all day, and enjoy your dinner.” Later, I’m tagging along with him and telling him about myself. He’s just doing what he does, but he’s nice to me.
He has me come out back to the alley, and there’s a station wagon back there. And out comes Johnny Winter, who has just gotten out of rehab. Bill Graham asks him, “Are you OK to play?” and he goes, “Can I?” And Bill says, “Yeah, you can play. Cisco, (that’s what he called me), go get his guitar.” I go around the back of the car and I pull out Johnny Winter’s Flying V. I’m dyin’. I carried it in, and Johnny does the encore with Edgar Winter. Johnny came in and just smoked the place. Everybody’s out of their minds.
How did you land in Arizona and start your own business, and get into a joint venture with Jam Productions in Chicago?
They provided an incredible amount of help for me, credibility-wise as well as financially, when I needed it at the very beginning. I was booking shows at a place called Dooley’s in Tempe, which was one of the first dedicated concert clubs that sprung up in the late ’70s, a regular stop and a 750- to 800-capacity room. The first show I did with Jam was at the end of 1977. I did Gino Vanelli and we lost a little bit of money but it was a great way to get started with them. Arny Granat came out. Sometime after that, I ran low on dough and I needed $7,500. In exchange, they would have the right to 50 percent of my action in Dooley’s nightclub. So at that time I also started to step up and get some bigger shows. They put deposit money up for them and gave me seed money for advertising, because I had to pay for everything in advance.
But I had to get the groups. They weren’t getting me the groups. They really had it together as kind of a family unit. They made a good impression and were a good influence on me of how a concert company could be. It is no surprise to me that Jam is so successful as a major concern today, despite the fact the other big concert firms have taken over most of the world. They always fought back against doing all that.
Didn’t you get offers for Evening Star over the years?
For years, people have asked me to come work with them. Brian Murphy did at Avalon Attractions. Bill Graham, Barry Fey, and others all asked me to be in cahoots with them. I’d say, “Well, I’m already doing that. And what about Jam? We’ve been with them and I’ve got no complaints. They leave me alone. We work together.” From the 1980s into the ’90s, there was no reason to change. No one was coming up to me and saying, “Here Danny, here’s X amount of money for you to come work with us.” They basically wanted to assume Jam’s position. “What does Jam do for you?” they’d ask. It’s not what Jam does for me. It’s the way it is. Most people respected that. Barry Fey took a lot of runs at me. Barry didn’t have respect for many things, and he certainly didn’t have any respect for me or Jam.
Did Bill Graham make you an offer?
Bill Graham asked in 1987 if I would come work with him in San Francisco. And I said, “What about Jam? And what about Phoenix?” I liked being a big fish in a small pond. In the ’80s, I was doing everything. Every show imaginable; stadium shows, all the arena shows. I was part of growing all these venues. In Vegas, I opened up MGM Grand. I opened up Mandalay. I opened up the Palms. I was involved with a lot of really cool, groundbreaking things. And Bill Graham … I would have loved to. But I was happy where I was, and said no. He just said “Mazel Tov. You didn’t even ask how much I was going to offer you.” And I said, “Wait, would you mind telling me?” He said, “No. You would never be happy with us because you are your own guy. Good for you.” We did some things together. We worked on the movie “A Star Is Born” in the ’70s. I was a kid driving him around.
But one day, Bill calls me up on a conference call and they want to talk about who is going to headline the show where they’re going to use the crowd as background for the concert scenes with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. They talked about ZZ Top, they talked about Johnny and Edgar Winter, and they talked about Peter Frampton. And I said, “That’s it. Peter Frampton. He’s the one.” So the show was Peter Frampton, who just put out Frampton Comes Alive though they didn’t know it was going to be a huge record. Bill Graham knew it because it was recorded at Winterland. I didn’t do a co-promote with Bill until The Grateful Dead in ’87 here in Phoenix. He thought we’d do 7,000 or 8,000 people and we ended up doing 18,000. He was completely blown away. Then we ended up doing this series of Grateful Dead shows that are totally famous to Deadheads, a hallmark of Grateful Dead shows which are the Las Vegas shows from 1991-’95.
So you maintained relationships with Bill and BGP despite turning down his offer?
Bill brought me in for the first Grateful Dead show and his people couldn’t believe he was going to share this one with me, but it just goes to show you two things: loyalty, and he was afraid it wasn’t going to sell. But really, it was all about the loyalty. Even in the beginning, he owed me one. I just got stiffed with him on some Lynyrd Skynyrd shows that we co-promoted and he promised to make it up to me. And not only did he but, to their credit, everybody at BGP – Bob Barsotti, Sherry Wasserman, Gregg Perloff – they kept me in the next four years even though Bill had died. Really, the only reason I was involved at all was because of Barsotti. He’d just graduated from high school and was the stage manager at that Edgar Winter/Yes show in Berkeley. So we had met although I’d say both of us have a very soft memory of that happening.
It surprised many when you sold Evening Star to SFX in 2001. What was your thinking on it at the time?
I grew Evening Star into a big company, and Jam helped. But after a couple of years I didn’t need all that any more. Yet we stayed together because that’s what we did. It worked out great for everybody. The Dooley’s club thing really turned into a big deal in Arizona and then in Las Vegas, Albuquerque and Tucson. We had a very nice little run of more than 20 years. About a year or two before I sold, I could see it was coming because I didn’t own any real estate here. We had Compton Terrace, which was good. Then there was a new amphitheatre, Desert Sky, which is still around. Unfortunately things changed, just like that, and after being against consolidation for so long it was very difficult.
Who did I have after me to do that? Louis Messina, Jack Boyle, Irv Zuckerman, Gregg Perloff. These guys all ganged up on me and convinced me this would be the right way to go. To this day I still wonder if I did the right thing or not. I owned this area. I don’t any more, and I compete on a daily basis now on what’s left of Live Nation locally, and I hired everybody there. Two promoters there used to work for me at Evening Star as well. So I’m competing with myself on a daily basis. They’ve all done great, and I’m more or less proud of all of them. I know it; they know it.
You left Live Nation in early 2011 and began doing concerts again.
It’s weird, because every now and then we have to co-promote a show with Live Nation. There’s four principal people there that I hired. So it is awkward sometimes, but not terribly. SFX was not really a family-run business, but it was still a group of ragtag freaks. I’ll never forget Rod Eckerman saying to me, “We’re not buying you to retire you; we’re buying you to make money for us. Just keep doing what you’re doing.” That played through to Clear Channel Entertainment, which was still family-run. Then when it turned to Live Nation, slowly but surely that changed and developed into “do what we tell you to do. You’re not on your own anymore. You’re an employee now.” Over the years, the entrepreneurial part of it was shared only by certain executives. If you look around the framework of Live Nation today, the ones who pretty much pull all the strings are in Los Angeles.
Everybody is noted for certain things. But there’s a lot of people who are now in the concert business, just like any other business, who are really good at doing certain functions and certain things. If you’re in the music business it helps if you like music, if you know the musicians, know the culture, and grew up with the culture. It isn’t essential, though, and that’s what Live Nation proved. They’ve proved you can build a company with people who appreciate the business of music. It’s widgets. It’s sponsorships. It’s parking. It’s all essential, important stuff to any business. You’ve got to watch the bottom line. In my case, I’m very very happy to say that I’ve been profitable since leaving. I call my own shots like I used to.
Including artist development?
I was no longer booking clubs with Live Nation. I wondered how the hell are we supposed to be involved with these artists when they get bigger? And they’d say, “Don’t worry about it. We will be involved with them.” Because they had the bigger facilities. I never agreed with that, but from a business standpoint, they’re probably right. The history is really important, and you can see where it comes from. Those big shows can pay for a lot of those break-even shows where you can play for 100-300 people when you’re trying to develop somebody. To me, development is an art, and it’s fun.
Speaking of history, tell us about the open letter to Yanni in Pollstar.
The first time Yanni came up, the first couple of times, he didn’t make money. We didn’t lose a lot, but I remember one time in Santa Fe, N.M., Yanni got killed. But we invested in his career. It felt like something was there, and we were right. He became a big star. But right as he was breaking into being that big star, he told everybody, basically, “You’re fired. All you people who have invested in me? I’ve learned the business and I’m making better music than ever, and found out what people want, and I’m going to make all the money myself. See you guys later.”
That’s why that letter came out. For promoters like me, who before all of this stuff happened, owned shops and you had a rogue like Yanni – it was disappointing. It was heartbreaking, in fact. And it wasn’t like I loved his music all that much, or loved him because I got to meet Linda Evans. She was the one who broke him. I will never forget seeing him on Mike Douglas, or some afternoon talk show, and she brought him out there. She was hot as hell on (1980s primetime soap opera) “Dynasty” and one of the biggest stars on the planet at that time. It was like being on the Oprah Book Club. Boy, he blew up after that.
But you found out who was loyal after the Tucson mall shooting that involved Rep. Gabby Giffords, days after leaving Live Nation?
There’s plenty of people in my life that stayed with me from the very beginning. I was barely out the door at Live Nation in Feb. 2011 and, a day or two later, I get a call from Buddha and Cree Miller, and there was this terrible shooting in Tucson where Gabby Giffords got shot, Ron Barber got shot, and people were killed. Shep Gordon called me and said Alice Cooper wants to do something. Is there a show we can do? Can he go somewhere or do something? A day or two later Buddha and Cree and Jackson Browne call up and say, “We want to do a show in Tucson. Will you do it for us?” And I said, “Absolutely.”
And this was the catalyst for Danny Zelisko Presents?
We started on the show and I realized I was alone. I mean alone. I didn’t have an office, [Live Nation] took my computer and they took my cell phone. I had nothing. I was at home and thought maybe I’ll have a chance to sit around and contemplate. What am I gonna do? I definitely wasn’t ready to stop. I went and promoted this show. I had no other shows and this was just a month [after leaving Live Nation]. The next thing I know, we have our headliners: Alice Cooper and Jackson Browne. Then we got David Crosby and Graham Nash. I got Sam Moore, Nils Lofgren, Jerry Riopelle, Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers, and some others. We ended up with 10 acts. Cree came back and said, “We’re putting together a poster and artwork for this show, and we want to put your name on it. What’s the name of your company?” Over the years I’d always liked the way BGP sounded. So I said, “Danny Zelisko Presents, and I can call it DZP.” That ended up on the poster, and it stuck.
After 40 years, why not retire to your home in Hawaii?
I don’t see the point in stopping. I’ve become such good friends with so many cool people who are really talented. For the most part we make money and livelihoods together. Without each other we wouldn’t be able to do that. But I think about it; it comes into my mind. But for now I’m totally booked into next year. As long as they’ll keep selling me dates and halls will keep letting me play shows in their venues and everybody’s making money and everybody’s happy, where am I going?