Frank Fried never set out to be one of the biggest concert promoters of the late 1960s but after falling into the industry, he found himself working with The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Martin Luther King Jr.
Fried recently drew attention during last month’s MLK holiday when he went to speak at a local high school in Vallejo, Calif., reflecting on his days with the civil rights leader.
But there’s even more to Fried. He was a looming figure in the world of concert promotion, but he’s been out of the business so long his name may not be familiar with many Pollstar readers, except for some graybeards from the Chicago area.
Pollstar recently got the chance to speak with Frank, to reminisce about his days as a promoter and what he’s been up to since retiring from the biz.
Frank’s history with the concert industry began in the 1950s when he was working in a steel mill outside of Chicago after attending a military school and joining the Navy. He was around 28 years old and the chairman of a socialist club.
"We wanted to do a benefit and I never knew what a benefit was," Fried said. "So somebody told me about an artist by the name of Martha Schlamme who was a folk singer and a German chanteuse. … So we did the benefit and it was a big success."
Six months later, Fried was laid off from the steel mill and received a call from Schlamme’s manager, Albert Grossman, who also managed Peter, Paul & Mary and Bob Dylan. Grossman was tied to a local folk club and asked if Fried’s group wanted to take a block of tickets at a discount. Fried said no but added he thought he knew where he could sell some of them.
After Fried sold a block of tickets to some friends, Grossman offered him a job "and that’s how it all got started."
Three months later, Fried moved to California and met an act called the Gateway Singers. The next thing he knew, he "fell into the folk scene and then I fell into the rock scene. And then I broadened my horizons and I was in the business for 17 years. I think from 1968 to 1971, we were the biggest in the country."
Fried said that he promoted The Beatles each time they came to Chicago and that he was the only promoter to work with the Fab Four each time they came to the country.
"Well, compared to their status in the rock world, it was very easy" to work with The Beatles, Fried said. "Compared to other popular artists, their demands were modest. I think in the beginning they were overwhelmed by it. They were easy to get to know."
But "I never presumed a familiarity with artists, which was one of the secrets of my success. In other words, a lot of times, promoters or impresarios would try to impose themselves on the artists and I never did that. There were a few I made friends with and there were a few that it was a business relationship and most times was something in between."
Other artists he promoted include The Rolling Stones, Peter, Paul & Mary, The Supremes, Roberta Flack, Count Basie, The Righteous Brothers and Pete Seeger. The list goes on to include Dave Brubeck, Andy Williams, The Smothers Brothers, Bill Cosby, Johnny Carson and Frank Sinatra. There’s also Earth Wind & Fire, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Tom Jones, Barbra Streisand and The Beach Boys.
"In other words, I think I did just about everybody," Fried said.
"We did almost every big act from 1960 to 1975. I’m sure there were exceptions, but they were few and far between," Fried said. "We were at one point considered the biggest concert organization in the country. Bill Graham eventually surpassed us, there was no question about that."
Martin Luther King Jr. was planning a big event in 1966 at International Amphitheatre in Chicago. About eight weeks before the event was supposed to take place, "it was in total chaos" and King called Fried up and "very humbly" asked if he could meet with the promoter.
King asked if he would help produce the event and Fried said yes. He refused to take any money.
"And the event was a huge success, which had nothing to do with me," Fried said. "In the sense that I would say, maybe I helped 5 percent. We were writing history then and you couldn’t make a mistake. The movement was on an upturn and it was the easiest thing in the world."
Fried, who says "civil rights was a part of my being" long before he met King, said he also helped King promote a series of benefits in 1967 – and didn’t take a fee for those either.
"And we had a lot of phone conversations because the tempo of the country toward the civil rights movement had changed both for the white society and the black society.
"So we had a lot of discussions, differences about what he should do in the next period as far as concerts went. … He did what he thought was best for the movement. We exchanged a lot of political dialogue and we were definitely friends. The last time I saw him was 10 days before he died."
Fried said he did some shows out of town but 95 percent of the shows he promoted were in Chicago.
Fried would rarely advertise in the newspaper.
"In the height of the rock days it was radio and in some cases there was no advertising because the word-of-mouth was so tremendous. If you had a really big act, sometimes just the announcement that they were coming in would sell it out for you."
In addition to promoting, Fried managed The Chad Mitchell Trio as well as Steve Miller for one year.
"In the beginning, I enjoyed very much being a promoter because you were a producer. In other words, you not only hired the act, you did everything," Fried said. "I enjoyed when you could put a show together and took two and two and made six.
"It was a very exciting time in my life. It got rather bitter at the end when coke and drugs began to be the dominant aspect of the culture," Fried said. "And it was very difficult negotiating with somebody who was coked up. And I was worn out after 17 years."
So in 1975 he sold his company to Madison Square Garden and moved to New York City as head of Madison Square Garden Productions. After six months he left the position to move back to the Chicago area to work as the "non-construction developer" of the 19,000-capacity Rosemont Horizon, which is now known as Allstate Arena in Rosemont, Ill.
Fried held the management contract on the venue for eight years and rented it out to other promoters. After that he served as the president of the Delta Queen Steam Boat company.
"Which was what you might say was the other end of the entertainment business," Fried said. "My job was to put people into cabins instead of seats."
He worked at the steamboat company for five years and then "did a lot of consulting."
Fried was, as he describes it, "modestly instrumental" in helping start Amandla!, a South African socialist magazine. He is still on the collective that runs the publication but says that it’s more of an honorary position. He is also the chairman of the Daniel Singer Millennium Prize Foundation, which was set up after Singer, a socialist writer and journalist, died. The foundation annually awards a prize to an original essay.
He formally retired around 1991. Although he’s had a series of leg, hip, knee and shoulder replacements, Fried says "he’s in great medical condition" and swims and works out at the gym often.
He also reads a lot, plays bridge and encourages his wife, professional writer Alice Fried.
"I meddle in people’s affairs. I spend whatever time I can with my grandkids," he said. "That’s what an 81-year-old does. I abhor responsibility but I still like the phone to ring. In other words, I like to be involved, but I don’t like to be the one who does the involving. … Now, I want to watch the daisies grow."