Albert Grossman called me in February 1959. He was still managing my new friend Martha Schlamme, along with a black folksinger named Odetta, who played a fearsome guitar and sang with a great booming voice like nothing I have ever heard.
Now, Albert told me, he was branching out into the concert business. He had persuaded a young folk fan named Alan Ribback to put up five thousand for seed money, with which Albert had set up a show at Orchesta Hall with Theo Bikel, a European refugee who had become a well-liked interpreter of Jewish folk songs in the United States. He’d also arranged something with Tom Lehrer, a fellow who played piano and sang sharply irreverent songs, some of which had become underground hits among a loyal audience of hipsters. He wanted to bring in Josh White, a blues singer from the deep South who had managed to extend his audience beyond the standard folk crowd.
Albert wanted the Eugene Debs Forum to sell tickets for him in exchange for a ten-percent commission, which he said was the standard rate. I said no, the Forum wasn’t in business to hustle concert tickets unless it was for a political cause. But then I thought again. I was out of a job, and I wasn’t doing anything. “Wait — I think I know where I can sell them myself,” I told him.
I took the Bikel tickets to a meeting of one of the Jewish groups, which snapped them up to resell them as a fundraising project of their own. The Tom Lehrer and Josh White tickets I sold in batches to people I knew in the National Lawyers Guild, the Unitarian Church, and the various other haunts of a radical organizer. I must have sold about a thousand tickets.
Suddenly, to Grossman I was a big star. He immediately offered me a job for seventy-five dollars a week — in cash — which I was shmuck enough to turn down. I could have gone on collecting unemployment and taken my wages in cash on top of it. But the government was watching us professional revolutionaries, I was sure, and we couldn’t give them any excuse to come after us.
That was my start in show business. I didn‘t know a thing about business. I was young and I believed I could do anything. I learned a lot that year.