Danny Zelisko On 45 Years In The Biz: ‘I Get Up Every Day And Try To Book Shows’

Danny Zelisko
– Danny Zelisko

Danny Zelisko sits at his desk, surrounded by memorabilia from his 45 years as a promoter. An autographed Stevie Nicks poster sticks out among the gold records and personal photographs. 

Throughout the Paradise Valley, Ariz., house that serves as an office – his home is two doors down – are also memories of those who have passed, like longtime friend Jerry Riopelle and comedian Robin Williams. The centerpiece of the foyer is Billy Cobham’s drum kit.
Wearing a Squeeze “Black Coffee in Bed” T-shirt and shorts, Zelisko turns around and sits on his couch. He doesn’t see it as shocking that he is approaching five decades in the industry. It’s just another day on the calendar. 
“I have a funny way of looking at time because my whole life is based on a calendar,” Zelisko says. “Every day – maybe a hundred times a day – I’m looking at a calendar. I’m trapped in ‘Groundhog Day’ because it’s what I do. I get up every day and try to book shows. There are different shows and different people, different music, different venues and different cities all the time, which keep it interesting.”
Zelisko’s longevity is rare in show business. Many of his peers have been swallowed or “just don’t have the stomach for it,” he says. 
“It’s a very difficult business to survive in,” Zelisko adds. “There have been only a handful of promoters who handle the different acts who want to come out and play.”
Zelisko is celebrating his 45th anniversary in the biz by releasing a book tentatively titled “Confirmed,” which he calls a “promoter’s favorite word.” He expects it to hit shelves later this year.
“I’ve been meaning to write a book,” explains Zelisko, who was inspired by a “Shark Tank” episode about a ghostwriter. His ghostwriter is Michael Levin.
“The pictures are finally in place and it’s about 300 pages,” Zelisko says. “It’s not an easy process, unless you have the discipline to sit down and type or talk into a recorder. He interviewed me over the phone and then he transcribed it, typed it and then we sent it back and forth until it read well.”
The book is a good read, he says. There’s no smut and the stories are good. “I don’t think anybody would consider this talking out of school,” Zelisko says. “At least I hope I’m not. Listen, I want this to come out and I’m trying not to piss anyone off or even sell millions of copies – but it would be very nice to do that.”
The Arizona Music & Entertainment Hall of Fame inductee’s story began in grade school in Niles, Ill., when he helped a Little League coach arrange a team visit by Chicago Bears running back Brian Piccolo. For his work, Zelisko was paid $30 – 10% of Piccolo’s take.
Music was a staple in the Zelisko household. He has slight memories of his mother playing Frank Sinatra records and of listening to Elvis Presley on the radio. 
“What I remember mostly is my mom used to play some weird 78,” he says. “It definitely wasn’t music at the time. It was [1953 novelty song] ‘(How Much Is) That Doggie In The Window?’ I didn’t think of that as music. Then, when The Beatles came along, I was into them and I realized later they were a baby band. They had a crummy little deal with Vee Jay Records, then Capitol and then Swan.”
Zelisko fell in love with Arizona when he first saw the state during a college road trip. He started working on a small investment from a friend and his dad, as well as his own dad. He raised $11,000, which lasted three shows.
At age 19, Zelisko’s first show was Mahavishnu Orchestra in Tucson. With his father’s help, he booked Herbie Hancock and the Headhunters to play Phoenix. It was a quick learning experience for Zelisko, who found he had to sell many tickets to cover costs and even more tickets to make money. Tickets ranged from $3.50 to $5.50. 
“It almost broke even,” he says. “I didn’t have any shows until the fall and they didn’t make money. It was a real leap of faith, even for the $11,000 at the time that I raised, which was definitely a larger amount of money than $11,000 is now.”
Danny Zelisko
– Danny Zelisko
Power Circle: Peter Wolf, Frank Barsalona of Premier Talent, Steven Van Zandt, Danny Zelisko and Doc McGhee.
Zelisko parlayed that gig into Evening Star Productions, where he booked acts like The Police, Cheap Trick, Pat Benatar, Talking Heads, KISS, Bon Jovi, No Doubt and Nirvana at the 700-capacity Dooley’s Nightclub in Tempe. 
In the ’80s and ’90s, Evening Star found success throughout the Southwestern United States at major venues including Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum (on the grounds of the Arizona State Fair) and America West Arena (now named Talking Stick Resort Arena).
In 1990, Evening Star began promoting concerts at the Desert Sky Amphitheatre, starting with Billy Joel’s grand opening show. The facility has since undergone several name changes, including Blockbuster Pavilion, Cricket Amphitheatre, Ashley Furniture Homestore Pavilion and finally Ak-Chin Pavilion.
In 2001, SFX acquired Zelisko’s Evening Star and tapped him as the company’s Southwest office president. When Clear Channel Communications bought SFX, Zelisko and his staff became part of Clear Channel Entertainment.
“There was a point in the early 2000s when everybody got lumped into that consolidation – or most everybody did,” he says. “It was definitely weird. It was different to not feel like you’re steering the wheel.”
When Clear Channel Entertainment evolved into Live Nation in 2005, Zelisko became president and then chairman of Live Nation Southwest. He left his post in 2011 to promote shows as Danny Zelisko Presents.
Before explaining the key to his successes, Zelisko peruses his walls and cracks a slight smile. His friendships helped, but occasionally those relationships fell victim to business.  
“I look at a picture and I look a little different,” Zelisko says. “Maybe I’m grayer, but that’s me with whoever, Roger Waters or somebody who I’ve known for 30 or 40 years and we’ve managed to have a connection and a friendship together.”
“I’ve made lifelong friends with people onstage, people offstage, people who are on radio stations, people everywhere, stage hands, you name it. It’s created an incredibly difficult and exciting life.”
He sees friendships two ways: Some people are his best friends because he’s paying them, while others are his best friends even though he’s paying them. Every day is challenging because around the corner there can be something waiting for Zelisko “that’s great or not so great.”
Danny Zelisko
– Danny Zelisko
Such a Face: Danny Zelisko and Sting ham it up during a concert in Phoenix.
The old saying goes, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer,” and Zelisko’s competition in Arizona are people he trained earlier in his career. “They learned from mistakes that were made by somebody other than them, which would be me, or they may have made mistakes while they were working for me,” he says. “Ultimately, it was my responsibility because they worked for me. They got a great learning experience by being with me for years. It’s proven by the fact that they’re successful on their own. So, good for them. I’m proud of them.”
Zelisko doesn’t like when he’s beaten out of a date by somebody “who was a nobody when I met them.” Nevertheless, it’s thrilling because his prodigies had the wherewithal and the ability to get stuff done – and Zelisko admits he would be depressed if his competitors didn’t get any shows, because that would mean he had done something wrong.
Meanwhile, major promoters that make “jillions of dollars” are in a different world than Zelisko. He’s happy where he is today, promoting 120 to 250 shows per year. At his peak, he was doing between 400 and 500 shows. In the ’90s, Zelisko averaged an annual gross of $30 million in sales and annual attendance of 800,000; his top-selling show was a 1995 Grateful Dead gig at Sam Boyd Silver Bowl in Las Vegas. 
The competitors Zelisko refers to are Live Nation, Stateside Presents’ Charlie Levy and Lucky Man Concerts’ Tom LaPenna. 
Zelisko calls trial and error his education. He’s successful because he follows his hunches. 
“People are always looking for shows to book and it just never stops,” says Zelisko, who has a second home in Hawaii. 
During his 45 years, Zelisko says he gave newbie bands plenty of chances. It goes the other way, too. 
Danny Zelisko
– Danny Zelisko
Again, On The Road: Zelisko (left) with Willie Nelson (center) and Nils Lofgren (right), who regularly play sold-out shows at the Celebrity Theatre.
“I remember getting offered Rush for $5,000 plus $3,500 for their sound and lights in the late ’70s, early ’80s,” he says. “It merely came down to personal preference. I just didn’t like Rush at that time. I like them now, but I was into these other groups at the time. I was kind of a snob, like Emerson, Lake & Palmer and King Crimson. I thought they were superior and it turned out Rush held their own pretty well.”
A rival promoter booked Rush into Veterans Memorial Coliseum and it drew 10,000 fans, which Zelisko calls “huge” for a $8,500 spend.
During his “downtime,” Zelisko travels around the world, including Europe for a few weeks annually. Travel, he says, is probably his biggest expense outside of food.
 He prefers not to attend other promoters’ shows, but he admires “civilians”: those who have to buy concert tickets, wait in lines at will call, and who don’t have dressing rooms or parking spaces. 
Danny Zelisko
– Danny Zelisko
Schools Out For Summer: Zelisko and wife Leslie with Alice Cooper and wife Sheryl. Zelisko books Cooper’s annual Christmas Pudding at the Celebrity Theatre.
“Without those things, I’m a little bit like a fish out of water,” he says. “After 12,000 shows, it’s hard to go to another person’s show. It’s weird. I’m not a good civilian.”
Besides Phoenix, Zelisko’s markets include Las Vegas, where he started doing shows in the early ’80s, and Albuquerque. Says Zelisko: “I’m not looking to poach somebody else’s market, but if they’re not happy with who they’re using or, preferably, if they haven’t been there in years and nobody’s asking, I’ll raise my hand.” Zelisko recently delved into new markets, bringing Linda Ronstadt to Folsom, Sacramento, Portland and Reno; he also renewed his Alaskan promoters license.
Phoenix’s Celebrity Theatre is essentially his home turf. “I do feel very at home with the Celebrity, just like Talking Stick or downtown – people I’ve done business with for years. I’ve been doing business at the Celebrity the whole time I’ve been in business.”
Going forward, Zelisko says it’s all about the calendar. 
“I just wake up every day and work to sell tickets and make people happy,” he says. “If I make people happy, it makes me happy.”