Give the People What They Want!

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This Time It's Personal

Last night, I watched a television show that reminded me all too much of my life during the early and mid 1970’s. I was at the lower level of the music business but I wasn’t spared from the wretched excess of the era. Many of the experiences portrayed by the show looked all too familiar to me and ultimately were the reasons that I decided to pack up my rock ‘n’ roll hat. It wasn’t for me.  The show I am talking about is the pilot of HBO’s new series, Vinyl. It’s produced by Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger.  Vinyl is about the craziness that was the music industry and rock ‘n’ roll of the early/mid seventies. In principle, it sounds like the making of great TV but in my opinion, the initial episode was soulless.  Rock ‘n’ Roll in the 70’s was anything but soulless. “Soulless” might be an excellent modifier for the music business of today but certainly not in the 70’s where it seemed like one big misadventure after another.  Bobby Cannavale played star maker, Ritchie Finestra, who was searching for the next big thing. Most often, that was a fruitless endeavor until it wasn’t. Perhaps the pilot was about character introduction and will improve as it gets deeper into the story line. It’s worth watching and I won’t spoil the episode for you but I highly recommend that after you watch it, return here to read this story. It will blow your mind – 70’s reference included. It’s about the real-life final scene in the show.

Brofather, Jimmy Smith

One story from my days in the “biz” that I am comfortable re-telling is the time that my colleagues, Howie, Roe, David and I decided to produce a RnB show on August 12, 1976. I stumbled across a blog recap of that concert last week and it reminded me of the night that we all feared for our lives. Here’s the back story: forced desegregation of the Boston Schools was a very ugly period in Boston’s history. Compulsory busing from predominantly white and black areas of the city caused a seismic rift in the city’s racial relations. There were protests and riots that made every citizen afraid of what might lie around the next corner. Two years after the court order to start busing, it seemed like the city was finally coming to an uneasy peace about the new status quo. We thought that perhaps the time was right for a night of disco at the Boston Arena, now Northeastern’s Matthews Arena. RnB shows had come to a standstill in the city. The Sugar Shack, Boston’s soul club, once the venue for Ray Charles, The Temptations, James Brown and every other RnB notable, was now shuttered and it seemed clear to us that city had pent up demand for live music. We booked Archie Bell & the Drells, Brass Construction and The Trammps, all icons of the disco movement. Ticket sales were very slow. Perhaps, we got it wrong. We tried everything then to get the word out. Today, with social media, it’s easy to reach your audience. Then, we had Jimmy Smith, the self-imposed “Bro-Father of Soul” riding down the streets of Roxbury, Dorchester, the South End and other neighborhoods with a bull horn attached to his car exclaiming, “Give the People What They Want” and telling them about the upcoming show. Still, ticket sales were in the hundreds. It looked like it a huge miscalculation of demand. On the night of the show, there were still less than 1,000 tickets sold for a venue with a capacity of over 5 thousand people – a complete disaster. Little did we know that the true disaster was still to come.

Thirty minutes before the show, we had another problem. Word had gotten out and people were streaming by the thousand –  it seemed like 10 thousand – to the Boston Arena to buy day of show tickets. We couldn’t keep up with the flow of people at the Box Office and this caused considerable yet understandable unrest and incivility. One person climbed on top of the arena’s tin roof and was shimmying down the rafters to the general admission dance floor that was a treacherous 100+ feet below him. The ultimate breach came when the doors to the arena were smashed in and the thousands of people waiting outside were now funneling in. Within 15 minutes, we lost control of the concessions. Concert goers were behind the counters taking whatever they wanted. Soon, a fight broke out on the floor where one combatant had a 3 feet long 2×4 with nails in it and was fighting someone with a 6 foot heavy iron chain. The Boston Tactical Police Force was alerted and now Boston had its first full blown riot thanks to us. Every store window within a mile radius of the arena was broken and/or looted. People were hiding under the stage or wherever else they could get cover and the bands didn’t want to go on. We had to convince them that if they didn’t go on, it would only get worse. Play 2-3 songs and get off, we told them or the situation would escalate. They conceded that they would play but wanted to get out of there as soon as possible.  So, did I.

We were the lead story on the 11:00 pm news that night. No one was killed but while it was going on, I would have bet against it. Fun times in the music industry, indeed.

 

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