Lessons Learned: Danny Zelisko

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

I left my hometown of Chicago in the summer of 1972 upon graduation from high school. It was my intuition that I would never break in to the concert business with so many people promoting in that city, so why not find a place where there really wasn’t anyone doing it? I moved to Berkeley to cut my teeth, hopefully at the feet of Bill Graham, whom I had heard so much about. By this time, he had already closed the Fillmores, but was active with shows once again.

My first night in Berkeley, I went to see The Allman Brothers with Black Oak at Berkeley Community Theatre. I met the now deceased Twiggs, ABB’s legendary road manager, and he told me I should hook up with a band there at the theatre when they were coming through town, as there was always someone falling off of tours, and it was necessary to be in the right place at the right time.

Twiggs explained, “Try and be a stagehand or gopher.” Nowadays they’re known as runners or production assistants.

The next morning I strolled up to the U-Haul truck behind the theatre with the knowledge that load-in would be taking place for Yes (with brand new drummer Alan White) and Edgar Winter (hot at the time with “Frankenstein”).

I went up the ramp of the truck and inside as if I belonged there, grabbed some gear and, faking an English accent so I could fit in with Yes’ roadies, came back down the ramp.

I found that I could delegate authority because Bill’s stagehands were ready to do anything they could to accommodate anyone with an English accent.

This was when I met one of my best friends to this day, Bob Barsotti, who was the outgoing stage manager at BCT at that time. Only later at dinner, when Bill asked who the fuck this kid was, did I get discovered.

He was taken by my chutzpah (his word) and I sat and had dinner with him. Later that night, when Johnny Winter showed up fresh out of rehab (I was told), I went with Bill to greet Johnny behind the theatre when he arrived in a station wagon and asked Bill if it was all right if he joined his brother for a couple of songs.

Bill told me to gather up Johnny’s guitar (the flying V) and bring it in, and I was treated to an amazing show. People were crying when Johnny hit the stage, as he was at his peak at that time. He just exploded with this aura of electricity that was undeniable. I waited in the wings for him with Bill and towels for everyone.

There was quite a celebration in-between acts, let me tell you! Yes came on and just creamed the place, and I knew I had to do this. Period. Danny Z, this is your life.

After doing miscellaneous factotum work at several Bill Graham shows in 1972-73, I decided it was time to try it myself. I had by now moved to Arizona, armed with my industry magazines that said who was represented by whom. My dad and my friend Larry Kopald (and his dad, Buddy) funded my first company called Sundown Productions with $11,000.

Prior to the first booking I made, Bill called and asked if I would move to Denver to open an office for him for $400.

I said, “$400 a week, that’s not so bad.”

Bill said, “No, that’s $400 a month!”

I told Bill I was happy he thought enough of me to call, which I was, of course, but I thought that it would be best to stick to my original plan. I reached Dan Weiner at IFA, and booked the Mahavishnu Orchestra for $3,500, with tickets priced at $4.50-5.50-6.50, on June 2, 1974, in the Music Hall in Tucson.

Back then, fans were very partial to their star players of choice, which the original Mahavishnu was loaded with, featuring Goodman, Cobham, and Hammer. The ’74 lineup, however, was an all-new group. Fabulous as it was, the audience did not buy the change of personnel. Who knew? Not me, obviously.

Not being from Arizona, I didn’t realize how quickly people got out of this sunbaked desert after Memorial Day, but they left in droves! To increase ticket sales, I booked a new band from the Bay Area called Journey to open the show for $500. I thought I had made the booking of a lifetime, until Elliot Sears called from Nat Weiss’ office, and asked me what I thought I was doing. I was terribly puzzled. I thought this was what you did: make cool bookings.

He explained to me that not only did I have to ask permission from the headliner to book an opener, but it wasn’t possible because Mahavishnu was doing a 3 1/2 hour show, with 20 people onstage, so that would not allow for anyone to touch their gear once it was set up.

Welcome to show business! I had to call Dan Spellens at ABC in Los Angeles to cancel them off the show, much to our mutual dismay. This also must have ticked off Journey’s manager, Herbie Herbert, because I never worked with Journey again until 1986, just before Steve Perry left the band.

I always thought that I never got them because I was still a baby promoter when Journey came to town, and it was hard back then breaking in with Premier Talent. Not an easy club to join, but once you were in, you were in.

I finally did become great friends with Herbie, with many great stories to tell (not here), and Jonathan Cain, whose mom, Nancy, became my daughter Danielle’s godmother in 1988, when she was born. Danielle now attends Sonoma State College, just north of San Francisco. Everything has truly come full circle in my life. I am blessed.

So what is there to learn from this fable?

1. Always ask if you can book an opener before making an offer.

2. Be careful when you book bands who change lineups from one year to the next, unless they are Journey (bullet proof).

3. Always listen to large southern men with braided ponytails when they tell you that you can create your luck only by being in the right place at the right time.

4. Brush up on your English accent; you never know when it might come in handy!

5. Always pay attention to people in charge with the name Wolfgang. I liked to call him Bill.