Stories that feature ‘Miriam Makeba’

Orchestra Hall

This story takes place in 1961. It was told on July 14th, 2012 by Frank.  Be the first to comment

Orchestra Hall, the home of the Chicago Symphony, was one of the three major concert venues in Chicago, along with the Opera House and the Ampitheatre.
It was a rather austere-looking room, but its acoustics made it one of the finer symphony halls in the country. The Symphony played there Thursday nights, Friday afternoons (for the dowagers and the retired gentlemen), and Saturday evenings. Occasionally, when the Symphony was out on tour, there would be a Saturday open, but the only thing you could program very far in advance was acts that drew on Friday nights. That was perfect for folk music.
I built my first folk concert series around the availability of those Friday nights at Orchestra Hall. I had no cash to operate on, but I knew a few of the artists I wanted to book. You couldn‘t work that way forever, of course. I knew I had to find a way to get more tickets sold in advance, so I could build up some cash up front. But that would have to wait. For now, the performers and I were both winging it. They needed the exposure I could give them as much as I needed them.
By the middle of 1961, the Mitchell Trio and Miriam Makeba had agreed to come and play Orchestra Hall in the fall and winter. Harold Leventhal, who I knew from the Pete Seeger concerts, sent along Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger. We were off.
I designed the series to look just like the classical series that were all the rage. As far as I knew, I was the first promoter outside the long-hair world to launch a subscription series like this, and that quickly gave me a degree of respectability that often eluded the lowly pop promoter. Many of the artists, not incidentally, liked the way some of that cachet rubbed off on them.

Orchestra Hall

This story takes place in 1961. It was told on April 2nd, 2011 by Frank.  Be the first to comment

By 1961 people were coming out in pretty fair numbers for folk acts, and whatever the case had been a few years before, it was no longer politics that was selling the tickets. What the audiences wanted to listen to was happy, engaging, relatively depoliticized music, and in most cases I had what they wanted.

Of all the pop-folk acts I booked, the Chad Mitchell Trio was perhaps the most political, and even their sharpest stuff was really light social satire, chosen more for its attention-getting features than anything else. Folk artists were there to entertain, and there was nothing wrong with that. (Of course, some purists on the left looked down on it. There was always some theorist willing to try to rein in this irrelevant, frivolous pursuit with some line or other.)

Orchestra Hall, the home of the Chicago Symphony, was one of the three major concert venues in Chicago, along with the Opera House and the Amphitheatre. It was a rather austere-looking room, but its acoustics almost certainly made it one of the finer symphony halls in the country. The Symphony played there Thursday nights, Friday afternoons (for the dowagers and the retired gentlemen), and Saturday evenings. Occasionally, when the Symphony was out on tour, there would be a Saturday open, but the only thing you could program very far in advance was acts that drew on Friday nights. That was perfect for folk music.

I built my first folk concert series around the availability of those Friday nights at Orchestra Hall. I had no cash to operate on, but I knew a few of the artists I wanted to book. You couldn’t work that way forever, of course. I knew I had to find a way to get more tickets sold in advance, so I could build up some cash up front. But that would have to wait. For now, the performers and I were both winging it. They needed the exposure I could give them as much as I needed them. By the middle of 1961, the Mitchell Trio and Miriam Makeba had agreed to come and play Orchestra Hall that fall and winter. Harold Leventhal, who I knew from the Pete Seeger concerts, sent along Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger. We were off.

I designed the series to look just like the classical series that were all the rage. As far as I knew, I was the first promoter outside the long-hair world to launch a subscription series like this, and that quickly gave me a degree of respectability that often eluded the lowly pop promoter. Many of the artists, not incidentally, liked the way some of that cachet rubbed off on them.

I had imagined that the risks involved in introducing lesser—known artists could be lowered by combining them with established acts, but that‘s not how it worked out. I thought the audience would be more inclined to take a chance on an unknown name when they saw it on a list with the Limeliters or Josh White, and besides, many of them had already bought tickets to the whole series, so they might as well come.

In practice, that first series was better for my image than it was for business. Most of the shows that fall and winter broke even; only Carlos Montoya and the Clancy Brothers made any money. But the point (not to mention a modest profit) was made. For the first time in my life I had some cash in hand. Next year I would do it again, with a bit of a track record to stand on.

Meet the Beatles

This story takes place in 1964. It was told on April 18th, 2010 by Frank.  Be the first to comment

I’d been in the business for five years when the Beatles fell into my lap in 1964. I had a regular folk concert series going that was very well attended, I was organizing some shows with Henry Mancini, Andy Williams and Johnny Mathis, and I’d branched out into jazz concerts too. One morning I got a call from Jerry Perenchio, the Los Angeles talent agent who earlier had handled Mancini and Mathis for MCA, the largest booking agency in the country.

Jerry, who had got his start booking bands for fraternities in college, was a cut above the average talent agent in a few ways: he was intelligent, had a sense of humor, and was interested in things outside show business, a rare thing among agents. He had a sense of ethics — another unusual quirk — and at the same time he could be self-serving and ruthless. I liked him.

“You’re gonna be called and offered the BeatIes,” Jerry told me. “They’re gonna be big. They’re gonna do business. Don‘t miss it.”

I did not know the Beatles from Adam. They were one more of the English pop bands that were capturing the fancy of American teenagers that year. But they had just released a series of records that were selling phenomenally, so the timing seemed right. The money wasn’t that big, even for the early 1960s. I guaranteed a take of $25,000 or sixty percent of the gross for General Artists Corporation, which was running the tour, and I booked them into the International Amphitheatre, with eleven thousand seats.

It was a hall that until then had mainly seen rodeos; before I put the Beatles there, the only musical act to play the Amphitheatre had been Elvis Presley.

We were sold out by mail almost the moment we announced the show on the radio. We had to go back on the air right away and tell people, “Don’t send your money in. There are no more tickets.”

It was obvious that something new had happened. What it was, I didn’t have the vaguest idea. The Beatles were a clean-cut group with original songs that were not particularly profound — lightweight love songs, bubblegum music. Their dress was unusual but not at all threatening. Somehow they, and the other British acts that followed them, had touched something among young Americans that American music had not. Terminally cute and clever, they seemed to have found the handle to some of the same anything-is-possible feeling that John Kennedy’s administration had successfully locked into with its rhetoric of “new beginnings.” This was still a time when people thought we might be able to get somewhere by appealing to peopIe’s morality, joining hands and singing songs. There was a great notion that the world was going to get better.

What I couldn‘t see was how this Beatles phenomenon had anything to do with that. I was doing concerts with Pete Seeger, a singer who really did know how to articulate people’s hopes for change. Peter, Paul and Mary, the most successful of the pop folk trios, seemed to have something significant to say. I was managing the Chad Mitchell Trio, another pop folk group whose political satire was on the cutting edge for several years. Miriam Makeba, the extraordinary singer Harry Belafonte had brought over from South Africa, was a regular on my stages. And there was Bob Dylan, who was just then shaking up the country’s intelligentsia. In this company, the Beatles seemed lightweight, unconnected to what was going on in America. Maybe they were inspiring the kids, but they weren‘t doing anything for me. Except making me money.