It was a series of coincidences that made it possible for me to break into the pop concert business, and if they came perhaps a little before I was ready for them, that didn’t mean I was about to pass them up. Helen Noga, Johnny Mathis’s manager, wanted to do a week-long solo gig with Johnny in Chicago, and there was just nobody else around that was in a position to do it. Harry Zelzer was busy with a Harry Belafonte concert at the Opera House, and Zelzer was not inclined to take on competing attractions on the same night.
It was the summer of 1963. Mathis was the biggest artist I had ever booked, and the closest one to the commercial mainstream. For the first time I had to mount the whole elaborate backstage operation, hire an orchestra, arrange for special lighting, and do all the things that in the folk world would be regarded as outrageously indulgent. But I’d never had any religious commitment to the folk scene, I reminded myself. People could say I’d sold out, but I’d never been a member.
Mathis’s fee was forty thousand dollars, which seemed fair when I looked into it — it was his going rate. Of course I didn’t have forty cents, much less forty thousand dollars. I set up a limited partnership, with a friend and an accountant, and raised the money. The next problem was to find an appropriate venue. The Opera House was booked up with Harry, and the Chicago Symphony was playing Orchestra Hall.
There was one other place. Medina Temple was one of the better halls in Chicago, and it was in a pretty good location, but the Shriners had contradictory policies on renting it out. Their priority was operating the shrine and running around in their fezzes; that was what they had built it for. On the other hand, if you had the kind of show that could play that stage – a rather odd-looking apron that jutted out in a partial in-the-round sort of arrangement – you had an intimate room for forty-five hundred people, and the acoustics were said to be the best in the city.
My mistake was that I should have paid him the forty thousand for four or five shows in three days. The business was all going to be on the weekends: I wasn’t thinking about what we would do to bring people in Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. No matter how big your attraction, trying to get people into downtown Chicago at midweek is pushing it. On top of that, I don’t think Johnny’s crowd was used to seeing him outside of the small club circuit and the Dick Clark bandstand shows. Maybe it was a little early to try for such a large concert hall appearance.