Joe Schaffner, Tour Manager For Aretha, Marvin Gaye & The Jacksons, Talks Back In The Day

Tour managers of color:
– Tour managers of color:
(L-R) Lance “KC” Jackson, Joe Schaffner and Dennis Anderson at Mr. Schaffner’s 79th birthday in Detroit .

Joe Schaffner is an old school touring professional. So old school, in fact, that when he started out in the early ’60s there weren’t titles like “tour manager” or “production manager.” Being based out of Detroit helped him to work for some of Motown’s hottest acts, including Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye and The Supremes, and later arena- and stadium-fillers like Earth, Wind & Fire and The Jacksons. Pollstar caught up with Mr. Schaffner, at 80-years young, to get his recollections of what the business and the racial climiate was like back in the day and how it’s developed over his six-decade-spanning career.
Pollstar: How did you get into the business?
Joe Schaffner: I was raised in Detroit, and the block I lived on, Atkinson Street, there were a lot of talented people from different walks of life. Behind me was Melvin Franklin who later became one of the founding members of The Temptations and was the bass singer. Back on my block was Barrett Strong, a good friend and neighbor. He was always playing piano and doing music and along comes this hit record “Money,” and he says, “Hey, Joe. I’m going on the road and I really would like somebody to go with me that I know.” We were friends so I said, “Okay” and we took Berry Gordy’s white Pontiac convertible.

What year was this?
This was in the early ‘60s, I was in my teens. The first gig that I ever did was at the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C. 
If you recall Barrett Strong later at Motown partnered with Norman Whitfield who wrote all the Temptation songs. 

So you drive to DC in Barry Gordy’s white Pontiac convertible, in the early ‘60s and play the Howard Theatre, how did that go?
Back in those days, every theater we played in, we did four shows a day. Take D.C. as an example, I would try to leave around 2 or 3 in the morning. The only real freeway was the Ohio Turnpike and the Pennsylvania Turnpike but I could move on there pretty easily. Now you get to Washington, say 9,10,11 in the morning. By the time you check two groups into a guest house – it was no hotel, it was guest house – you have to remember that things were pretty much still segregated. Not a lot in Washington, D.C., but still it was segregated. You stayed in a guest house where you paid every four hours. By us being a part of the show, the theater arranged for us to just have a flat weekly rate for that period.

Joe Schaffner and  Aretha Franklin
– Joe Schaffner and Aretha Franklin
in 2015 at Chene Park (now renamed Aretha Franklin Amphitheater).
Where else did you play back then? 
There were like four or five theaters: in Washington there was the Howard, in Baltimore there was Royal Theatre, in New York there was the Apollo, in Philadelphia the Uptown Theater, and in Chicago, it was the Regal Theater. These places kept you working and practicing your craft. If you do that many shows in a day you get good at it. You get really good at doing your act. And with the creation of Mr. Gordy’s, his acting school I call it but it’s a performance school, we were able to put on a terrific show. 

I’ll give an example. James Brown was the top of his game and he was always on tour. So I started working for Marvin Gaye and he got the call to do 30 one nighters with James Brown as the opening act. Marvin was terrific. He had the song “Hitch Hike” at the time and he was doing really, really great. But boy, doing 30 one nighters, can you imagine? And you were driving, none of these were flying. We’d drive. Marvin had a Cadillac, so we would drive everywhere.
Marvin Gaye
Afro American Newspapers / Gado / Getty Images
– Marvin Gaye
leaning on his Cadillac circa 1962 before going to play golf with Joe Schaffner (standing off to the side).

So you were driving Marvin’s Cadillac?

Yeah, it was me and Marvin and one musician. Back in the day, just about every act had one musician with them, either a piano player or guitar player that could rehearse the band. Like, for instance, the Marvelettes had a guitar player. Mary Wells had a bass player that did the rehearsals with the band for the show. That’s just kind of what it was like, being on the road back then.

So the first tour with Barrett Strong , were you the tour manager? What was your role? 
In the beginning, I was just his friend. But when I got back from that trip, Motown approached me and said, “Hey, we need people like you that are experienced on the road and know what to do.” At that point Motown was fast-growing and acts were coming up quickly.  So I was one of the original people that knew what to do as far as being out there on the road because I was very observant of everything that happened in Washington, D.C., with Barrett Strong. 
When you started was there even such a thing as a production manager or a tour manager? 
No, there was no name. There was no such thing as a tour manager or whatever. When you work for the promoter, you were the promoter’s guy. You were his production manager, if you want to call it that, promoters tended to use that term. They would handle all the production. I would make arrangements for the lighting and for the sound, make sure things were done in the building, make sure you had the right people working. 
But you went from being a friend to then doing it as a job and getting paid, what was expected of you?
To drive, make hotel arrangements for the amount of people that we had. You had to do at least three shows in order to come up with a profit. You just can’t go and do one night that’s isolated, it costs too much. You had management fees, agency fees and all these fees that you had to pay. You could do it one night and you pay the fees. The second night became your expenses and the third night became your money. So that’s how you had to work.  
So you were a tour manager, a tour accountant, driver, production manager – were you doing production? 
There was no production. In the theater there was always two spotlights, some had more but not any kind of special effects. 
Aretha Franklin,  Michael Jackson &  Joe Schaffner
– Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson & Joe Schaffner
at Bill Clinton’s 1992 inauguration.
If someone would break a string, or needed an amp cord, or strap, or a reed for their saxophone would you deal with that? 
If a guy did that, like needed a reed for a sax, he’d change it right there at his seat. The first time a Motown act went to the Apollo, the stage manager, his name was Honi Coles (he was part of a two-man tap dancing group with Cholly Atkins), Honi would get arrangements from the acts but we had no sheet music, nothing. We just rolled up to the gig, and that was it. But that was the first place where we had arrangements because they had an orchestra at the Apollo. We just had rhythm sections on the one-nighters. Our first time using a big band it was there.

You were like a one-man show for all these backend things for the show.
Yeah, anything I can do to make the show happen that night.

Joe Schaffner with The Temptations
– Joe Schaffner with The Temptations
at NYC’s Copa in the early ‘70s.

How was diversity in the early days? 
There was none. It just didn’t happen like that. Racism limited what you could do in your activities and where you could go and where you could stay. We were very much limited up until the beginning of the ’70s. When the ’70s rolled around, things changed a lot. 
When you first went on the road, you mentioned you couldn’t stay at a regular hotel. 
They were like boarding houses, they were transit hotels. That’s where guys would take girls and people that didn’t have a home, they would stay there.

Was that the only places African American artists could stay? 
At that time, that’s the only place there was. Like at the Dunbar Hotel in D.C., we would drive all the way to Richmond and come all the way back. It was because you had no place to stay. If you stayed in Richmond, it was a funky hotel, so you would rather just drive all the way back. It’s only a couple of hours drive back.
What about just going to a gas station or restaurant, did you face discrimination or bigotry?
Yes, we did. I’ll give you a perfect example. There was a guitar player that traveled with Mary Wells. And he was so fair, meaning that he was so light-skinned, that he could pass for white. When we got to a certain town, I would stop the car, he would get behind the wheel, drive into a gas station, and then he could get gas. They would wait on him. He also was able to go into the restaurant portion of the gas station and order food whereas me and anybody else that’s in that car had to go around the back and it took forever to get waited on. You were just there and when they were free then they would come to wait on you.

Aretha Franklin
– Aretha Franklin
with Schaffner in 1993 at Chicago’s Theater In The Round.
Did you carry a gun with you on the road?
I carried a gun for one reason and one reason only, for protection. I had no intention of killing and shooting anybody. It was more a weapon to show people that I had it.
How would you get paid in the beginning? 
I got paid from the artist as well as the label. Believe it or not, it was only like $50 a night. You didn’t really make money. It was the joy and the learning of it and being a pioneer in R&B music.