Chelsea Lauren/WireImage/Getty Images – Dell Furano
(L) poses with Dave Furano, Paul Stanley, Jon Mesko, Gene Simmons, and Michael Zislis at the grand opening of KISS’ restaurant Rock & Brews PCH on May 8, 2013 in Torrance, Calif.
When news broke last weekend on the passing of Dell Furano, generations of artists and industry personnel alike felt a huge pang of grief. Without The “King of Merch,” the concert t-shirts that are now ubiquitous across the globe wouldn’t necessarily exist, nor would an essential revenue stream that artists and the entire live ecosystem rely on. Pollstar reached out to Gregg Perloff, the CEO of San Francisco’s Another Planet Entertainment and former president of Bill Graham Presents, to get his recollections of Furano’s rise with Bill Graham, his importance to the live industry and the indelible legacy he leaves behind.
Pollstar: Tell me your earliest associations with Dell Furano.
Gregg Perloff: Dell and I worked together for a number of years. When I started with Bill Graham, Dell and Bill had just started the merchandise company, which was known as Winterland Productions. What people should know, because so much of our industry does not know history, but the reality is that the first t-shirts sold for concerts were started by Dell Furano. Dell put a $1,000 into the deal and Bill put $2,000 into the deal and they started selling Grateful Dead t-shirts. Before that, bands didn’t have merchandise, something we take for granted. Dell was so important in starting this whole industry. More importantly, Dell was just a wonderful person. He was always so nice to everybody and he was just a very gentle soul in a tough business.
– Gregg Perloff
Going back to Winterland Productions, do you remember what year it was? Was it the Dead’s first record or later?
It would be later. I went to work for Bill in 1977 and it was before that, but it couldn’t have been very much before that because we were always talking about helping Dell out and helping this new business out.
What kind of relationship did Dell and Bill Graham have?
Well, they had a really great relationship. When you suggest to Bill that, “put a couple thousand dollars into this,” and a few years later, they sold the company for $23 million, I’d say that, normally, you have a good relationship [laughs]. But more than that, Dell was, within our company, a major player. He went off once it was sold to Sony Signatures, and I can’t even remember how many different companies Dell ended up running, but he was the iconic figurehead in this whole industry.
The Grateful Dead (frequently promoted by Bill Graham Presents) cast such an enormous influence on the live industry in so many different ways – audio, fan clubs, production, ticketing, VIP and merch, there was like a brain trust…
The Dead have always been willing to try things. It can be a major item like the Wall of Sound and the work they did with John Meyer from Meyer Sound or it could be having air conditioning units through vents in the stage when they were playing the Sam Boyd Silver Bowl in the middle of the desert and cooling themselves off, so in so many areas and particularly, obviously, this merchandise thing was huge.
The Bay Area has been such an incubator for so many movements, certainly technology and Silicon Valley and all that’s happened there, but before there was the Grateful Dead and BGP brain trust and just incredible visionary people and Dell Furano was a part of that organization.
We were the promoter of the Grateful Dead west of the Mississippi, so we did a great many of their shows over the years. And if you came to the Dead with an idea, they were very accepting of trying things.
Sonia Moskowitz / Getty Images – Dell Furano
Dell Furano and wife Kym Furano pictured in 2014 attending the “Here Comes The Sun” summer solstice benefit at Wolffer Estate Vineyard on June 21, 2014, in Sagaponack, N.Y.
And it’s real entrepreneurship, right? These are start-up businesses, so Dell expanded out like a lot of other Bill Graham businesses, doing a lot of other tours like the Rolling Stones.
He built a company where everybody was using his services. And we were doing merchandise for lots and lots of bands. The Dead just happened to be the first.
So were you in conversation about some of those other big tours?
Remember, I was involved in the booking and running of the concert company. I was not involved with the merchandise company. We had different entities at Bill Graham Presents. We had the management company, the merchandise company and then we had the concert company.
But you would still touch up against that business?
We were all in the same building in the beginning and then Dell grew the business where he took over other warehouses because he started printing shirts.
Were there shows or tours you heard about, just maybe anecdotally, that were outrageous successes in terms of merch?
Well, you mentioned one, which was the 1981 Rolling Stones American tour. It was a hugely successful tour in terms of merchandise. But I remember the Barbra Streisand concerts he set up pop-up stores for in Las Vegas. If you remember, she did those two shows over New Year’s Eve when the MGM was opening. And he discovered pop-up stores, so he was very innovative, very innovative.
Did he work with Shelley Lazar on VIP merch?
Alexandra Wyman / WireImage / Evolutionary Media Group – Masters Of Merch
Masters of Merch: Ozzy Osbourne and the late Dell Furano during “Black Sabbath Resurrection” in Los Angeles in 2006.
You often hear people talk about KISS with Dell who were merch monsters and did everything from caskets to condoms to pinball machines and everything else in the world.
The person who could get you the best information, and he’s wonderful, is Doc McGhee.
Do you know much about his brother Dave whom he worked with closely?
Dave was, well, I don’t know what his actual title was, but he was involved in the running of the company when I joined the running of Bill Graham. It’s been a while and I’m not sure of the relationship on a business level with his brother, I wouldn’t want to speak to that.
If you think back to when you were all coming up, you were probably in your twenties or early thirties when the genesis of our whole business happened, before it turned into the large corporate entities that are now a lot of this industry. But it all came from the minds of these kids who grew up in the Bay Area who were innovative, entrepreneurial and loved music, clearly. What traits and characteristics do you think Dell and some of the other people you touched upon had that allowed them to find success?
It’s so funny that you bring this up because before Bill became Bill Graham, he was an office manager at Allis-Chalmers Heavy Equipment Manufacturing. He ended up doing some benefit shows with the San Francisco Mime Troupe. But he was 36 at the time. Most of us were in our early twenties, so Bill was old.
And he’d been through war, served in the military and did a lot by 36. But did he also have this ability to spot talent, not just musical talent, but executive talent, too, in you and Shelley and Dell and the whole team? You’re dealing with San Francisco where not everybody necessarily is on the ball?
He had great street instincts is how I would put it. He would always talk in terms of, “Could this other person get along with the people who worked in the company? I don’t want to know about how talented they are. Can they get along with the other people?” He would teach us this when we went to hire someone, make sure you can work with them.
And somehow those people turned out to be legends in this business, look at you! I mean, you’re the poster child! [laughs]
Everybody has to have a failure occasionally.
But you all found great long-term success in the industry, just like Dell and Shelley did. People don’t talk enough about Bill’s ability to spot executive talent, which is a gift.
Well, certainly a number of people, I mean, Stan Feig is doing amazing things with Teatro ZinZanni in Chicago right now, so a lot of the people who came through those doors.
But to put $2,000 down on this young kid’s t-shirt business takes a lot of trust.
Well, remember, there was no business. There was no industry. Nobody sold t-shirts and they were right there. And Dell was the guy who convinced Bill to do this.
Closing thoughts just on the legacy of Dell Furano?
Dell did something really important and changed the industry. And here’s a name that nobody outside of the immediate circle in this industry knows and he did something really important to change the industry.