Lessons Learned: Bo Black

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

I remember my first year at Summerfest in ’84. I had just come out college, the mayor’s office and working at the MS Society.

We book Huey Lewis And The News for the last night of Summerfest. It was before we had the amphitheatre; it was in the old main stage that held about 15,000 people. Between the time we booked Huey Lewis for a mere pittance – I think it was $17,000 – and the next summer, the album Sports became a huge hit and Lewis and his band became one of the hottest acts in the world.

The night before he was at our place, he appeared at Poplar Creek, and he was getting paid in the hundreds of thousands. Remember, that was a lot back in 1984. By the time he got to Summerfest he was the hottest thing going.

I’m 60, retired and disabled now, but back then I was still young and wet behind the ears. Here I am, the first year at Summerfest, the last day of the festival, and there must have been 35,000 to 40,000 people crammed into a space that held 15,000. It was absolute, utter chaos. The people were climbing the light towers, the sound towers, jumping over the front fences, and the back of the amphitheatre looked like a Red Cross zone. In fact, the Red Cross was in the back of the amphitheatre. I thought, “What is this? What am I doing? I’m going to have one very short-lived career.”

At that time, I brought some of the board members over because this was really something that could have erupted into one of the worst situations in music history. On top of that, Huey wouldn’t go onstage because he was just loving it. Everybody was chanting, “We want Huey! We want Huey! We want Huey!”

And I went up to him and said, “Get your butt on that stage!” and he looked at me like, “Who are you?” At the time I was some 37-year-old chick and he just wouldn’t do it.

I told somebody, I think it was Bob [Babisch], “Either he gets on stage or everybody can kiss their jobs goodbye, because we can’t control these people.”

He finally goes onstage and people are still continuing to climb over the fences, climb up the sound towers. I’ve never in my life ever witnessed anything like it. Ever! The crowd kept pushing foward so the people at the front had no choice but to either get crushed by the fence or climb over it. Security guys were taking people out of the crowd and bringing them to the back of the amphitheatre.

And the facility was just basically a stage. I told the board that night that we would have to do something about this.

I went out and hustled my bustle, we found somebody to donate money and the Marcus Amphitheatre became a reality. We have a wall of fame at the amphitheatre and I believe Huey Lewis was the first person we inducted. To this day, everybody in Milwaukee has a story from that show. When I used to give speeches, I’d ask if anyone remembered it and I’d always hear, “Oh, yeah!”

First of all, I learned that some of these cheap flyers you book can turn into big acts later – but that’s not necessarily the case anymore. You’re usually paying a good sum up front for an artist these days. And I also learned you can’t be sure when an artist is going to go onstage. They tend to do what they want! Of course, it’s a lot different now at the big amphitheatre shows.

Most importantly, though, we learned you have to control the crowd and you have to have the right-sized venue. At Summerfest, we had 11 other stages that weren’t amphitheatres but, if you were going to book a big name, you had to have a technically sophisticated facility. We were the early people; we took a look at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre and another one in California, but there weren’t many amphitheatres at that time. We needed a technically advanced facility that you could keep secure and be able to control the crowd, because it was all general seating back then.

Besides, artists were beginning to refuse to play venues that were not technologically advanced. Looking back, Summerfest got lucky with the Marcus. You can control the seating, except for the scalpers you can control the tickets, and it’s secure – the things you needed starting in the ’80s to get the big acts.