Wouldn’t it be a good story if Louis Messina’s career started with a massively successful show? If it was a memorable performance by a legendary act in front of tens of thousands of fans, screaming and crying and, I don’t know, catching the vapors and falling out in the aisles of some grand old hall? At the end of it all, Louis, being carried out on the shoulders of the fans, catching a glimpse of some wizened old promoter who nods and smiles as if to say “You did it, kid.”
It would be a good story.
But here’s the thing: Louis Messina doesn’t have good stories.
Louis Messina has great stories.
“It was a disaster.”
Messina pulls no punches, not even on himself.
It was Nov. 3, 1972 — 50 years ago, as if the scores of pages in this issue filled with tributes and memories from colleagues and competitors didn’t tip you off — at the Loyola Field House in Messina’s hometown of New Orleans. The bill was Curtis Mayfield — four months after the release of Super Fly – and B.B. King. The show was sold out.
So far so good. So far, so great, even. How can someone – even a rookie promoter – screw this up? The venue’s in place, it’s full, the headliner is a blues legend and the opener just released one of the greatest albums of all time.
“A sold-out disaster.”
OK, Louis, OK. But how in the world could this be that bad?
“Well, they didn’t show up.”
There isn’t a rulebook for concert promotion, but if there was, “Make sure the acts actually show” would probably be Rule 1.
In fairness to Messina — and to King and Mayfield, the latter of whom did actually make it to the venue, albeit without his band — it wasn’t anybody’s fault. The tour had stopped in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the night before and got stuck in Atlanta on a layover due to some foul weather.
That’s easy enough to explain to a rational, calm person — no one can control the weather and controlling the airlines is even harder. But, of course, explaining it to an amped-up, early 1970s throng in New Orleans is a tougher nut; these mix of factors don’t exactly create a rational, reasoned frame of mind.
“I literally had a riot on my hands. The New Orleans riot squad had to come out and empty the building,” he said.
As 10,000 self-help books have said, we learn more from failure than success (or as Louis says, quoting Bruce Springsteen, “I learned more from a three-minute record than I ever learned in school”).
“Here I am a kid and then I’m faced with this. I was just married and I was devastated for three or four days. I locked myself into the apartment and the phone was ringing off the hook and so finally after a few days of self-pity, I just said ‘Fuck it,’” he says. “You have to pay your dues and I just took out a lifetime subscription. What else could go wrong?”
For the self-described street kid from New Orleans, this was his education.
In 2022, there’s internships and online classes and music business majors at colleges. In 1972, there was little more than on-the-job training.
“This was my education. I just did it out of passion and hard work. Back then promoters printed their own tickets, promoters did everything on their own. I was a one-man show. I would get the tickets printed, I would get the posters printed, I would hang the posters. I set up my own ticket distribution. I did everything. I tore tickets, I was the box office, I handled the advertising,” he says.
Prior to that first show, Messina worked for WWOM, one of the Crescent City’s first FM stations (alongside a young John Larroquette, who DJ’d under the name “Judas”; in a very New Orleans fashion, all of WWOM’s jocks used the name of one of the Twelve Apostles).
“That’s how I was able to meet record reps and local record promo guys. I met other promoters who came to town to promote rock shows,” he says. “It was a blast, but the station got sold and became a Top 40 station and I didn’t last much longer after that and then I promoted my first show.”
His first big show, it should be said. Messina promoted local dance bands when he was still in high school. He was also the son of “Leapin’ Lou” Messina, a New Orleans boxing promoter.
Louis said from his father, he learned more of what not to do in the live entertainment business than what to do. Nevertheless, his father was a colorful figure (in the mid-20th century in New Orleans, there was no shortage of colorful figures) who presented the first integrated boxing card in the city and the first card main-evented by two Black boxers.
Most importantly, perhaps, he promoted these boxing matches at New Orleans’ Municipal Auditorium.
The Messinas lived across the street from the venue and, of course, Leapin’ Lou knew everyone there. And when Louis was seven, his dad took him to a show, as usual, through the back door of the auditorium.
“I saw Elvis and he pressed that button in me and this is all I ever wanted to do since I was a kid,” he says.
If Leapin’ Lou taught his son what not to do in the business, he’d need other sources of positive professional inspiration.
“I modeled my career more off Bill Graham than anybody in the beginning,” he says “He was the frontrunner. He did all this creative shit.”
Young Messina had dreams of opening a dedicated rock venue in his hometown — its own Fillmore, so to speak — but was beaten to the punch when The Warehouse opened on Tchoupitoulas Street.
“It broke my heart because that’s what I wanted to do,” he says (coincidentally, Wishbone Ash played a show at The Warehouse the night of Messina’s first promoted show; unlike B.B. King, the Ash showed up).
But he stuck with that mission, with that dream that Elvis sparked. He got up off the proverbial mat after the sold-out disaster, promoting Seals & Crofts at Municipal, which sold-out and, as a bonus, actually had performers.
“I started chipping away and making a name for myself. I started getting big shows like Alice Cooper and Eric Clapton,” he said.
He promoted his first festival — the Bayou Boogie — in 1973, headlined by Black Oak Arkansas with Wet Willie, Peter Frampton and Bob Seger in support.
Louis started to stretch his wings a bit. In the spring of 1975, for example, he promoted Led Zeppelin and Bad Company at the Palm Beach International Speedway in West Palm Beach, Florida, and that’s where one of the most (in)famous Louis stories begins.
“Our partners were Jimmy Koplik and Shelly Finkel. … We thought they had money, they thought we had money, but neither of us had any money. So we did borrow money from…” — there’s a heavy pause here as he tells the story. “A guy.”
There’s another pause.
“He was kind of a wiseguy.”
Louis’ partner at the time was a glib dude, the kind of guy who could get anybody to agree to anything without knowing what they’d really agreed to. And he got this (pause) guy to agree to pony up some money.
The promoters figured they’d sell tickets by mail order, bringing in plenty of cash to get liquid enough to pay off this Palm Beach (pause) guy, Phil. Shouldn’t be a problem, right? It’s Led Zeppelin. People are gonna buy tickets.
“We’re holed up at the Holiday Inn in West Palm Beach and finally the big day came, where we are expecting all this mail. Thousands and thousands of pieces of mail, that’s how we were going to pay for our deposits. We’re in the conference room at the Holiday Inn and we probably had 15, 20 people ready to sort these envelopes. The mail came on the Monday and there was 50 pieces of mail and the next day 100 pieces and the same thing the day after that,” he says.
Not enough to make things square with Phil.
“So we go back to New York, and my partner wasn’t keeping Phil informed. It’s 10:30, 11 o’clock at night and I’m watching TV and I hear a pounding on the door. And these guys said ‘Come on, we’re going.’ ‘Where are we going?’ and they said ‘Phil wants to see you’,” he says.
So off they go. “The Godfather II” had been released just months before, no doubt influencing Louis’ imagination.
The group — Louis and his partner, along with Chubby (“the kind of guy who would make sure things went the way they were supposed to go, if you know what I’m talking about”) and Larry (“Chubby’s associate, the smart guy”) — sits in the back of an Eastern Airlines red-eye. Coincidentally, first class on this particular airliner was full of bags of mail.
It wasn’t a wholly uneventful flight. Louis’ partner yammered most of the way — “trying to talk his way out of this mess” — prompting a sleepy Chubby to turn to Louis and, uh, profanely encourage him to get his friend to stop talking lest some sort of harm come to him.
“We finally get to West Palm and go to Phil’s condo. He gives us a big old hug and says ‘Where’s my money?’ And then silence, right? .. My partner says ‘I know where to find the money but let me work on it.’ He goes into the bedroom and comes out two hours later and says ‘I’ve got your money but I’ve got to go to New Orleans.’ So he talks Phil into letting him go to New Orleans. Phil says ‘We’ll track you down, we know how to find you, so you go to New Orleans, but Louis has to stay,’” Messina recalls with the effortlessness of a man who has told this story a thousand times and loves it every time.
So Louis is, to put it gently, the guarantee his partner will return.
“I was a hostage.”
OK, that’s another way to put it.
“So after one night or two nights. I was like ‘Phil, I’m just hanging out and I’m not going anywhere, why don’t you let me stay at the hotel? I’m sleeping on your couch here.’ And Phil says ‘You’re not going to fuck me, are you, Louis?’ and he lets me go back to the Holiday Inn,” he says. “So finally they did find the money and we returned it to Phil. My partner just hustled another guy.”
All’s well that ends well, right? Like so many great stories, this one has a delightful twist ending.
“So anyway, the show got canceled for lack of ticket sales,” Louis says, the dryness of the delivery emphasizing the absurdity of the announcement. “I’m the only promoter in the history of Led Zeppelin to cancel a show because of a lack of ticket sales.”
But that’s just a (terrifying) hiccup because later that year, Louis got lucky.
“My big break was in 1975 when I met [PACE’s] Allen Becker and he had the grand opening rights for the Superdome and the thing he didn’t have booked was a rock show,” he says.
With the help of Eddie Sapir — a legendary, long-time figure in New Orleans politics — Becker and Messina booked a show at the Superdome for Labor Day weekend: The Allman Brothers Band, Marshall Tucker Band, Charlie Daniels and Wet Willie.
“It wasn’t a disaster, but it was a nightmare,” Messina remembers. “[Southern rock impresario] Phil Walden thought we sold a lot more tickets than we did and he said ‘You’re stealing from us,’ and we said ‘No, you’re trying to hijack us.’ It was two or three days of a nightmare. Allen getting screamed at by Alex Hodges and Phil Walden. Phil was throwing pencils at us in a hotel room.”
But the New Orleans gang had an ace up their sleeves: Sapir, the long-haired “rock ‘n’ roll judge.”
“Phil threatened that the (Allman Brothers Band) weren’t going to go on but Eddie Sapir was a judge and he said ‘You don’t have to go on, but plan on spending a lot of time in New Orleans. You can look out the window and see all those state troopers. You’re not going anywhere.’”
The show went on (“it went great and Phil and Eddie became best friends,” because of course they did) and that led to a huge moment in the rise of Messina.
“Allen had a contract with one of the first state of the art arenas, it was called The Summit. After the Allman Brothers show, Allen said ‘I have a building that I have a deal with and if you want to promote shows, give me a call,’” he says.
Becker’s company was PACE Management, its name a hint at its main line of business: “motorcycle races and thrill shows; Evel Knievel, things like that.”
“So I called Allen one day and said ‘Why don’t we make a go of it and I’ll move to Houston. I need 1,200 bucks a month and I’ll bet on the company.”
And PACE Concerts was born. Starting with Starwood in Nashville, the company also built amphitheaters across the country which form the foundation of Live Nation’s amphitheater assets.
During this period, the now-legendary rock-and-country multi-day festival Texxas Jam was born, the first held in 1978 at the Cotton Bowl and the Texas State Fairgrounds. Messina had been approached by David Krebs, at the time managing Aerosmith and Ted Nugent, about finding a race track in Texas to replicate 1974’s California Jam, held at Ontario Motor Speedway. After attending the CalJam — “I freaked out. They were knocking over the fences, half the people were getting in free.” — Messina looked for a more controllable venue, landing on the Fairgrounds after seeing, of all things, a Lone Star Beer commercial. The festivals had everything — rock, country, skateboarding, a livestock exhibition and a Battle of the Bands headlined by AC/DC (for the full story of the Texxas Jam, see page 51).
“That put me on the map, but a couple of years later, Bill Graham had the Rolling Stones,” he says.
The Stones did a total of five shows in Texas and New Orleans.
“And that really put me on the map.”
It helped that opening for the Stones on the Texas loop was ZZ Top, who “could sell out the Cotton Bowl on their own.”
PACE is rolling now, opening and operating more than a dozen amphitheaters.
“And then Bob Sillerman came along.”
Not to rehash the entire corporate history, but Sillerman’s SFX bought PACE and a host of other regional promoters in 1997. In 2000, SFX sold to ClearChannel.
“I thought that was a great thing. … I thought radio and live music? This is gonna be awesome, like what a way to grow a business. Instead of them coming in to grow the business, they came in with baseball bats and it was ‘How are we going to control this business?’ I hated it. People were trying to shelve me from Day One,” Messina says.
And there was a moment during all this he had an epiphany. He referred to artists as “inventory.”
“Wayne Forte says to me ‘I’m sorry, Louis, did you just call artists inventory?’ And I said ‘Yes I did.’ It stopped me in my tracks. Holy shit. I had lost my desire, my fuel, my emotions. I became just a fucking suit,” he says. “That changed me. I gotta get back to why I am in this business. It’s a personal relationship business.”
ClearChannel thought Messina had a five-year non-compete. He thought it was one-year. He hired “my friend’s father” as his attorney. His friend’s father was Joe Jarmail, one of the toughest corporate attorneys in America, famous for negotiating a settlement in Pennzoil’s dispute with Texaco in the late 1980s.
The parties agreed on a two-year non-compete, though Louis could carve out five artists from his roster to promote during the interim.
He wisely chose George Strait, The Dixie Chicks, Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill.
That first name is important, because so much of the success Messina has had since hanging his own shingle has to do with George Strait.
Turned on to Strait’s music by Steve Moore, who Messina had sent to manage Nashville’s Starwood, Messina started promoting the man who would be king when he moved from honky-tonks into theaters. He set up Strait’s performance that opened San Antonio’s Alamodome in 1993. All that led to Strait’s four-year stadium tour, where Messina first met McGraw, Hill, Chesney and the Chicks.
“Because of George, I met Tim and Faith and I met Chesney. I met the Chicks through George and of course I met Taylor.”
That’s “Swift” if you’ve been under a rock for the last 15 or so years.
“Because of Taylor, I met Ed Sheeran, I met Shawn Mendes, I met Vance Joy. Because of Kenny, I met Eric. Because of George, I met Blake.”
That’s Eric Church and Blake Shelton, like all of the acts Messina rattled off, massive draws who can easily sell stadiums.
But all of that came after his “two years in prison.” When his non-compete was up, he started making phone calls, only to be told time and again that acts he had once been shepherding through the club circuit were now offering to let him match other offers.
“I decided this was bullshit and I only want to work with bands that want to work with me,” he says.
Messina has promoted shows totalling more than $4.5 billion — he no longer has to see Phil in a West Palm Beach condo, so to speak — and, yeah, it’s a business. He’s as clever a businessman as anyone else. But it’s still about personal relationships at its core.
It’s just that he’s been smart enough to cultivate those relationships with the biggest acts on the planet.
Messina has good instincts. If there’s a black box or some secret formula that clues him in when it’s time to take acts from arenas to stadiums, he keeps it very much a secret.
He had instincts about a teenager with one song on the radio who was the first of three on Strait’s tour.
“By the third song, she had Strait’s audience in the palm of her hand. I knew she was going to be a superstar. I had to get involved with Taylor Swift. I’ve been her only promoter since she’s been a headliner and that’s going on 15 years,” he says.
He can’t do any of this alone and he’s as enthusiastic a booster for the people at Messina Touring Group as he is for the people MTG promotes.
“These are smart people, in fact a lot smarter than me, and that’s why I hire them,” he says. “That’s the first criteria: I hope you’re smarter than me.” (see page 55 and page 96)
And they stay a long time, which undergirds the long relationships he has with his artists. Messina loves to ask his employees and the artists the same question: where do you want to be in 10 years or 20 years or 30 years?
“I asked Haley McCollister where do you want to be in 10 years,” he says. “She said ‘I want your job.”
She was hired by Messina in 2010. She was named the president of the Nashville office in August.
There’s very little that gives Messina more happiness than when an artist compliments a member of his team.
“This is way bigger than me. … We win together and we lose together. And thank God we don’t lose, because we’re damned good,” Messina says.
It’s true, they are, and as good as they are — and Messina himself is — at promoting acts to audiences, the secret may be that he’s able to convince artists that they are good enough, big enough, stars enough to fill stadiums.
When he told Kenny Chesney he wanted to put him in amphitheaters, the singer asked if he was crazy. Chesney was convinced he’d be playing the grass every night.
“Kenny Chesney hasn’t ever played the grass,” Messina says.
Messina’s love and joy for the artists he promotes is obvious. It’s almost tangible. And maybe it’s that. If Louis Messina says you can fill 15 stadiums — as he told The Lumineers — then maybe it’s true and maybe you believe it and you believe in yourself.
“Maybe I gave them that extra 10 percent that gets them into stadiums.”
And there will be more stadiums to come. Swift, Strait and Sheeran already have big tours announced for 2023. Messina has that 15-stadium promise to keep The Lumineers.
Not bad for a street kid from New Orleans who started out with a sold-out disaster.