Rich Engler: A Life From Drummer To Concert Promoter

The first concert Jon Bon Jovi ever attended wasn’t a Springsteen show in their hometown of New Jersey. It was a Doobie Brothers concert at the County Stadium in Erie where the teen Bon Jovi was visiting his grandmother in August 1976.

It was a life-changing experience, as first concerts are for so many people, made memorable by the fact that because of the threat of storms, the Doobies went on first, making the opening acts, Rush and Heart, the headliners.

Years later, backstage at one of his own concerts, the Jersey rocker would approach promoter Rich Engler and tell him that the first concert he ever went to was one of his shows. Likely, he had saved a ticket that said DiCesare-Engler Productions.

Photo: Rich Engler
Kansas drummer Phil Ehart (L) welcomes longtime Pittsburgh concert promoter Rich Engler back to the biz at the Benedum Center. Pittsburgh.

If you live in Western Pennsylvania and you’re over 30, there’s a good chance you have a scrapbook or drawer full of stubs with the fancy DiCesare-Engler logo.

In the days before Live Nation and the corporatization of the music business, D-E was the dominant concert promoter in this region, doing everything from basement shows at the Stanley to major stadium festivals.

Having presented somewhere in the neighborhood of 5,000 concerts, Engler has a few good stories to tell and if you’ve ever met him – he’s a great talker – you’ve probably heard one or two. He can’t even count how many times someone’s told him, “You need to write a book.”

Now, they don’t have to, because that’s what he’s done with “Behind the Stage Door,” 156 pages of stories and photos from his exciting career.

It might sound like a cliche, but part of what made Engler such a great concert promoter is that he himself was the ultimate fan. He grew up in Creighton, East Deer, in a rowhouse in a family struggling to make ends meet. His life changed in 1963 when he got a drum kit and joined the high school band The Royals, which evolved into his Carnegie Tech band the Grains of Sand, one that managed to get gigs opening for the Beach Boys and the Yardbirds.

Bands would look to the charismatic Grains drummer to help set up shows, and after organizing a free, daylong event at Flagstaff Hill in 1969, he decided to try his hand at promotion and opened an office, with a friend, in Shadyside as Go Attractions. He would book such acts as David Bowie and King Crimson and slot in the Grains of Sand as the opening act. He would be the hippie drummer businessman, and that seemed to work until one night in 1972 at Gannon College in Erie when Yes’ burly manager burst through the doors and threw a fit when he learned that the promoter was on stage playing drums.

“When any of one of my acts come through that door,” he roared after the Grains set, “I want you to be here to greet them and get them whatever they want!”

Engler decided then and there that his band days were over. After achieving some success as the young hotshot promoter, in 1973 he was invited to partner with Pat DiCesare, the man who brought the Beatles to Pittsburgh and controlled the bookings at the Civic Arena.

In short order, DiCesare-Engler became one of the nation’s top promoters, but it didn’t start well. Engler’s job was handling the deals, and the first show he booked was Fleetwood Mac, a band he’d worked with prior, at the Syria Mosque. The night of the concert, “Fleetwood Mac” showed up without Mick Fleetwood, John McVie, Bob Welch or anyone else people knew as Fleetwood Mac. When Engler balked at putting an imposter band on stage, the manager, who owned the Fleetwood name, took a swing at him. After much quarrelling, the show went on and the crowd, inexplicably, loved it.

“Behind the Stage Door” is filled with such stories of petulant rock stars and their last-minute foibles and escapades, the best of which occurred in the ‘70s.

Engler’s first large-scale show was Eric Clapton at Three Rivers Stadium in 1974, a huge financial risk at $100,000, plus $50,000 for opening act The Band. At showtime, the promoter recalls, Clapton was so wasted he had to be lifted by his roadies step by step onto the stage. Somehow, once he got up there, muscle memory took over.

In that same era, in Allentown, Joe Cocker was staggering around with a bottle of red wine before he projectile vomited on the crowd. When he took off his shirt and then started fumbling with his zipper, the police threatened to take both the artist and the promoter to jail.

With drugs everywhere and local authorities skeptical about rock music, the late ‘60s, early ‘70s was wild behind the scenes, and Engler, looking like a rock star himself, was constantly invited to party with the artists.

“As I say in the book, I’ve never taken any drugs in my life, other than smoked some marijuana,” he says. “I would have been absorbed into a crazy life and never would have made it. So, I never said no directly, to make them feel uncomfortable. I would said, ‘I’m already gone … I can’t do anything else.’ “

There were countless occasions where, as a promoter, you could do 99 things right and miss one big thing.

– At an Ozzy Osbourne show in York in the early ‘80s, D-E’s stage manager forgot one small detail: Hire the 20 security guards that were supposed to be around the stage. Engler’s solution: Round up the 20 biggest fans he could find in line, tell them they could stand close to the stage and put stickers on them.

– When a post-Pirate concert was running 20 minutes late because of extra innings, the famously difficult Chuck Berry refused to play. Engler slyly went out and blocked his car in, but even that didn’t work when Berry jumped the curb.

– Nobody bothered to keep an eye on Aerosmith during that huge 1977 Three Rivers Stadium show with ZZ Top, so the band, displeased with everything from the font size of its name on the poster to a fan killing the power during its set, trashed a small fleet of Winebagos backstage with condiment bottles.

– At the biggest Springsteen concert ever in Pittsburgh, Three Rivers Stadium, a few members of the E Street Band missed their stage cue because they were still playing pingpong.

Sebastian Bach of Skid Row barely made it to the stage to open for Bon Jovi in Johnstown because he was in police custody after picking a fight with a cop.

Pop stars were notoriously vain and unpredictable creatures. Carly Simon, freaking out backstage at the Stanley, canceled due to stage fright with 3,500 people waiting outside. Madonna insisted that nobody working at the Arena look at her. Van Halen, indeed, had the “no brown M&M’s” on the rider, forcing promoters to wonder: Do they mean dark brown or light brown or both? Motley Crue’s opening act, DJ Larceny, infamously screened a porn film at the Arena, to the outrage of police, security and parents there with their kids.

On one trip, Kiss’ rider insisted that the promoter dress as his favorite Kiss member or be fined $2,500. So Engler borrowed a costume from a local tribute band and went as Paul Stanley. Axl Rose, during a stadium visit, decided that night that he wanted a $15,000 “Greek orgy” birthday party after the show, which took place in the Steelers locker room.

Sometimes the crowd created the drama. During a Pat Travers concert at the Stanley, there were too many fans in the pit, causing it to gradually sink as the show went on. They needed to get ladders to bring people back up. Even worse, when Nazareth played the Stanley Theatre in 1975, security looked up and noticed a pair of legs dangling from the ceiling. Someone tried to sneak in through the roof and had to be rescued during the show.

Most of the time, DiCesare-Engler turned a nice profit. And then there was Monsters of Rock with Van Halen, Metallica, etc., at Three Rivers Stadium in 1988. D-E needed 40,000 fans and came up 10,000 short for a loss of $400,000. Neither partner could take a paycheck for a year.

The ‘80s and ‘90s is when the concert business became big business and the culture of major concerts changed.

“Managers got better, tour accountants came in, if there were problems with the artist, they couldn’t exist,” Engler says. “It was, ‘We gotta watch the money and keep everybody straight, because now this is a machine.’ Before it was four guys up there and a roadie in an Econoline van. Now, it’s eight semis and 62 people on the road. When this goes down it’s like a little factory, so everyone had to be on their toes.”

He writes that in the ‘70s, the money split was 60-40 in favor of the artist. By the ‘90s, when D-E was involved with the bookings at Star Lake, artists were demanding 90 to 95 percent, leaving the promoter with the parking and concession profits.

By 1998, DiCesare-Engler, like many regional promoters, was bought out by SFX Entertainment, which became Clear Channel and then Live Nation. Engler stayed on as a CEO before leaving the business in 2000. At that point, it wasn’t much fun anymore.

In the past few years, however, he’s re-emerged to produce a handful of events, including two with special meaning to him: 2010’s 30th anniversary of Bob Marley’s final concert, which took place at the Stanley Theatre, and this year’s 40th anniversary celebration of Kansas, which virtually broke out in Pittsburgh.

Both were the kind of spirited, emotional events that took him back to the reason he started doing this in the first place.

“I wanted to be a part of this movement,” he says. “In 1969, when I started my first company, I had the burning desire because this was my music, this was our music, this was our generation, to send a message. And it was a message. It wasn’t just songs, it was a message. That continued on for some time, and then as the business grew, the business started to overshadow the music.”

These days, though, he’s still seeks out new bands to listen to and you’ll still find him at concerts as a fan. And despite the fact that now there are outrageous ticket fees and $40 T-shirts, young people are still signing up for that life-altering experience. Just like Jon Bon Jovi did in 1975.

You don’t even have to flip through the book to recognize that a lot of Rich Engler’s great memories are Pittsburgh’s great memories.

“As I say at the end of the book,” Engler concludes, “I just hope through my career, I brought happiness to some people through music, because that was my mission.”