Lessons Learned: Donald Tarlton

Pollstar continues its series of real life lessons in the concert business.

I didn’t become a promoter overnight. I began my career as a high school dance producer and graduated from that to building a little circuit of dance halls. Then, when I was trying to buy talent for these various halls I found it very hard to reach agents and reach the attractions. So I called a couple of the acts and said, “Why don’t you get better organized? ” And they said, “Why don’t you organize us?”

So I began in Canada as an agent in the Montreal market and expanded into other territories, building some alliances across Canada.

But I got very lucky in 1967, being the only person who had the phone numbers to a lot of artists. I was given an opportunity to set up a lot of the entertainment at Expo 67, including setting up a dancehall at the youth pavilion and setting up some Canadian rock bands at the Garden of Stars, one of the venues at the expo. So I was able to be a buyer with government money and it developed me some great contacts.

After Expo 67, as an agent, I ran out of people to sell the bands to because the artists now needed more and more attention than I could get out of the high school and university talent buyers. They needed sound, lights, stages and it wasn’t just “plug that amplifier into the wall” any longer.

So that’s when I opened up a production wing to produce the shows and started being a buyer of talent as opposed to a seller of talent. Unlike Michael Cohl [who famously dropped $20,000 on a Buck Owens gig in his early days], the first show I was involved in was the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and I was lucky and sold 4,000 tickets, so I was off to a good start.

But the inevitable stumble happened on my second show. I booked Cream and fortunately sold 4,000 tickets and filled the hall. But Jack Bruce had a problem that night and wasn’t able to perform. It was a real shock. What do you do now? Here’s the headliner and he tells you 30 minutes before he’s going onstage – when you have the audience in there and you’ve ripped the tickets – that there isn’t going to be a show!

I remember the opening act was a Canadian group called The Rabble, and I kept signaling them to keep playing, keep playing, because I couldn’t figure out what I was going to do. So finally when they ran out of all the songs they could play, I went onstage and politely announced to the audience that Mr. Bruce had taken ill and would not be able to perform, but that we would give them tickets at the door that would be good for a refund or the return, make-good date.

We were able to escape without too much damage. A few people turned over some chairs and there was a lot of booing and people upset, but it was one of those things where you learn that, in this business, you’ve got to be ready for any kind of eventuality.

My first show at the Montreal Forum was Johnny Cash and I remember selling about 10,000 tickets for him. He was surprised and everybody was happy, and it was a very successful show. At 2 o’clock in the afternoon, Johnny came in to the venue with his gang to do a soundcheck.

I hadn’t eaten lunch, I was hungry as hell and I sent out for a bunch of chopped egg sandwiches and some Cokes and I left them in the dressing room. Johnny came in after soundcheck and he ate my sandwiches and drank my Cokes. He came out and said, “Geez, that was very thoughtful of you. That’s the first time a promoter has ever given us any kind of food or refreshments.”

And I said, “Yes, yes! We called the catering!”

I was dealing with Saul Holiff, his manager back then, who was from London, Ontario. He called that day and told me that Johnny was really impressed that I had put out refreshments for him and was wondering if I was going to do the same for the concert that night, and I said, “Oh yes! I have a nice deli spread coming.” I hadn’t planned anything.

But I became Johnny’s promoter in a lot of Canadian markets because of my chopped egg sandwiches. That was the start of catering bills like the $300,000 one we’re going to face this weekend in Regina for The Rolling Stones. So, I started the whole catering routine by feeding Johnny Cash some chopped egg sandwiches in 1968.

You’ve got to seize the opportunity. Instead of pouting because somebody ate my lunch, I turned it into a relationship – and that’s a cornerstone of 40 years as a concert promoter. Now I’m retired and I set up my non-competes when I sold my company, but all of the non-competes are over and, although I’m more day-to-day with my record companies, I still have some old relationships. Howard Rose calls me once in a while and we’ll talk about doing an Elton John date, and this little friendship I have with Michael Cohl and The Rolling Stones over the years allows me to participate as Michael’s local promoter up in the Canadian markets. We’re able to specialize and develop ancillary revenue positions and bring sponsorships to the table.

It’s been great fun and a wonderful ride. And thanks to The Rolling Stones and Michael Cohl for remembering an old promoter who still likes to put his finger in the pie once in a while.