What Astroworld Could’ve Learned From These Three Historic L.A. Concerts

Decades before Travis Scott’s Astroworld debacle, three historic L.A. concerts laid the template for safely producing large-scale music events
410

Late in 1963, New York concert promoter Sid Bernstein cut a deal with Beatles manager Brian Epstein to bring the English group to America. They performed in Washington, D.C. and twice at New York’s Carnegie Hall and appeared live on The Ed Sullivan Show; their first Sullivan appearance was viewed by nearly 73 million people and primed the market for the Beatles’ monthlong North American concert tour in August and September of 1964. When it was over, a new concert business model had emerged that depended on image, promotion, hype, strategic ticket pricing, venue size, transportation, DJs, record sales, hysteria, and stamina. One of the tour’s key stops was at the Hollywood Bowl, August 23, 1964.

Bob Eubanks
(Los Angeles producer of three Beatles concerts)

Prior to the Beatles arriving in the United States in February 1964, there was no organized touring rock concert business. Dick Clark had his Caravan of Stars road show, but that was it. Producing large-scale concerts in multiple cities wasn’t a moneymaking enterprise yet. Brian Epstein and the Beatles started the business in August and September of ’64.

In earlier years, you’d see a concert pop up once in a while, but you didn’t have bands touring North American cities on a regular basis. Elvis did a couple of tours in the late 1950s but gave up on it for the stability and comfort of Hollywood. Then he was in the army. The Beatles in ’64, ’65, and ’66 showed what was possible. They also exposed the risks. But those were easy to fix or mitigate. The big challenge for rock promoters was finding other highly talented bands and making them popular enough that tens of thousands of kids would do anything to see them in multiple cities.

When the Beatles arrived in the United States in February ’64, New York was the first stop on a two-week East Coast tour. Then they returned to the U.K. and announced plans to come back for a monthlong North American tour in late August and September. At the time, the only other concert promoter of note in L.A. was Lou Robin. But he turned them down because he was used to paying Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra $10,000 at the Hollywood Bowl. The Beatles wanted $25,000.

I was a radio DJ, so I knew the Beatles were going to be huge. I could feel the phone jumping off the hook every time I played their records on the air. It was obvious the Beatles were changing the music world and bringing a generation of record-buying kids along with them. I was determined to produce a Beatles concert in L.A. I had my Cinnamon Cinder teen club, but I clearly needed a much bigger venue. I called Brian Epstein in London and asked him where he wanted to play. His reply was the Hollywood Bowl—the most prestigious venue in Southern California.

So I called General Artists Corporation (GAC), the Beatles’ talent agency in the United States. I told them I wanted to bring the Beatles to the Hollywood Bowl. They said, “But you’ve never done a concert before.” I said, “Yeah, but I’m a club owner and a talent buyer.” They said they’d let me book the Beatles only if I had the Hollywood Bowl.
So I went to the Bowl. They said I could have the venue if I had the Beatles. I finally got everybody together and closed the deal.

“Rock Concert: An Oral History as Told by the Artists, Backstage Insiders, and Fans Who Were” by Marc Myers

The problem was I didn’t have $25,000, so I had to borrow it. I went to Security Pacific Bank for a loan. They said I was crazy and kicked me out. Next, I went to a storefront lender called Trans-World Bank. I told the manager what I wanted and why. She had no problem with the Beatles. Her son was a big fan. Trans-World loaned me the $25,000
with my house as collateral. Which was a miracle, since I was earning only $12,500 a year as a DJ.

Brian needed to be paid in full the night of the concert. The pressure was on to sell seats. I also knew the Beatles came with a lot of fans, but with fans came Beatlemania and chaos. Further complicating things, the group didn’t want ticket prices to exceed $7. I was hoping to charge $10 for a top ticket. To promote the concert, KRLA took out a full-page ad in the Los Angeles Times announcing that tickets would go on sale on April 25. Worried, I asked the box office guy: “Can we sell this thing out in one day?” He said, “You’ll be lucky if it sells out in a week.” About two hours later, he told me we had sold out.

The Beatles flew into LAX on the morning of August 23, the day of the Bowl concert, after performing the night before in Vancouver. They wanted to hold a press conference before the concert, so we had it at the Cinnamon Cinder. But they would only do a half hour, which made everything frantic. The place was a zoo. We had something like 800 people in a 440-person-capacity space. Even worse, security for the Hollywood Bowl in ’64 was a line of cops at the front of the stage. Everyone assumed the worst.

Getting the Beatles into the Bowl wasn’t tough. There was no back or side road into the venue, just a main driveway. There was a ramp under the dressing area that allowed artists to gain access to the facilities under the bandshell. So we brought the Beatles in on the main drive in a limo and brought them to the back door. I knew that getting them out was going to be much more problematic when the audience was hysterical. I had a plan.

We parked a couple of limos behind the dressing area where everyone could see them. But when the Beatles came off the stage, they weren’t sent to the limos. Instead, we took them along a path near the stage to a clearing where a new white Plymouth Barracuda was waiting with a driver. A local dealer had loaned us the car with hopes we’d get a photo of the Beatles climbing out or posing next to it. The Beatles piled in, and the car took off. Cops down at the Bowl’s exit at the bottom of the hill stopped the traffic. We had them off the premises before anybody knew anything.

About a mile away, at a gas station on Sunset Boulevard, they switched to a limo. As for the limos at the Bowl, they crawled through the crowd with several hundred kids pounding and jumping on the roof. The cars were ruined. It was just awful. As for the photographer, everything happened too fast for him to get the shot. Instead, he wound up with pictures of the backs of the Beatles’ heads in the car. The local car dealer wasn’t happy. When everything was said and done, I only made $4,000 and had to split it with my three partners.

One of the highest-attended stadium concerts in the U.S. in the early 1970s was Wattstax, a music festival held at the Los Angeles Coliseum on August 20, 1972. All of the groups that performed there were signed to the Stax label, which at the time had shifted to a funk-rock format. Wattstax became the largest one-day gathering of Black concertgoers at a stadium, with 112,000 attending. The Coliseum’s owners fully expected the promoter, Al Bell, to fail at attracting a sizable crowd, so they asked for their money up front. Bell surprised them.

Wattstax Poster

Al Bell
(Wattstax promoter and Stax Records’ co-owner)

Stax artists weren’t well known in Black communities in Southern California. In 1971, I opened an office there, Stax West, with Forrest Hamilton managing it. One day he told me about the Watts Summer Festival. Restaurants and businesses came out and sold food on the street and showed off their wares, and there were all kinds of cultural events. Forrest told me the festival needed help. I liked the idea of doing something. It would bring attention to the festival and raise Stax’s visibility. But even more, Stax would stand for something and the concert could go national.

We soon realized we wanted to do something gigantic that hadn’t been done before. When Forrest mentioned the L.A. Coliseum, the first thing I asked about was the capacity. He said it could hold 90,000. I said, “Great! Let’s put together the entire roster of Stax artists and figure out a way to fill it up.” So we went to the Coliseum’s owners and sat with management—all white guys. Other than Isaac Hayes and the “Theme from Shaft,” they didn’t know anything about us.

One of the guys told us how much it would cost. He asked if I could write them a check for the full amount. I said we could, but there was a condition: I didn’t want any Los Angeles police as security. I said that would just generate friction. The Coliseum guy said, “No problem, write a check.” At that point, you could see he believed we weren’t going to be able to put a hundred people in there. His thinking was for us to give him the money and then go lose our way. The concert date they gave us was August 20, 1972. I wrote the check for something like $10,000 or $15,000 [$63,000 or $94,000 in 2021 dollars]. Six weeks later we had a contract. They put in writing that there would be no LAPD as security.

So now we had the stadium and the date, and we had a roster of artists. But we needed a name. We knew we were going to promote both Stax and Watts. Then we agreed the community was more important, so Watts had to be first. Besides, people in the region would certainly know Watts before Stax. We came up with Wattstax.

We decided to charge $1 per person for admission. From my radio days, I knew that when you put on a promotion where you wanted to attract a lot of people and get a lot of talk going on in the community, you charged $1. To build an audience, we focused on KGFJ-AM, the one radio station that played Black records.

We also wanted a movie crew. Woodstock was massively successful when it came out in 1970. We wanted America to see what Wattstax was about, so Black Americans could see themselves enjoying Black culture at a concert put on by a Black record label. For white audiences, the movie would be a peephole where they could get a picture of us as a community. I asked David Wolper, a major TV and film producer with a specialty in documentaries, to underwrite it. But he didn’t want to deal with something like that. Finally, I told him I’d finance it myself.

We had 90,000 tickets to sell, but when the Coliseum mentioned they had held events in the past with more people, we moved things around and put in 20,000 additional seats. We wound up selling 112,000 seats.

The concert started around 3:00 p.m. and ended around midnight. There were no incidents. The head of security was actor-composer Melvin Van Peebles. Melvin walked around talking to all of the guys in security. It was literally a family affair. That’s why when you watch the film, you see grandchildren, you see children, you see parents and
grandparents. And you see Crips and Bloods sitting side by side—and they were at war with each other at that time.

Wally Heider Studios taped the concert. As a result, I had enough material for two live albums. They both went gold, and I made back my investment on the recording and wound up with additional funds, part of which went toward donations to the Watts Summer Festival and Black social and civil rights organizations.

After Wattstax, the Watts community was proud of us. Our records started to be played on Black and white stations, and we became a mass-market label. So mission accomplished. Wattstax intimidated a lot of people and disrupted a lot of things. I didn’t realize it then, but I understand it now.

The storied Woodstock and Watkins Glen festivals (approximately 300,000 and 600,000 attendees, respectively), were not big money makers because gate crashers accounted for large portions of the audiences. The first California Jam, held in 1974 at the Ontario Motor Speedway, fixed that problem and created the business model for outdoor festivals still in use today. 

Sepp Donahower
(California Jam coproducer)

In 1970, I formed a Los Angeles–based concert promotion company with friends Gary Perkins and Robert Bogdanovich. We called it Pacific Presentations and focused initially on secondary markets like Santa Barbara, Fresno, Sacramento, and San Bernardino. We linked up with American Talent International, a new talent agency, and booked as many dates as possible with their clients—Rod Stewart and the Faces, Savoy Brown, Deep Purple,
and others.

Gary and I both had our MBAs from USC, we had street smarts, and we knew the ropes. We quickly became a national concert force. The demand for live rock was growing rapidly and we expanded. Frank Barsalona and Barbara Skydel at Premier Talent, one of the country’s most powerful talent agencies and bookers, also favored us in many markets.

In 1973, promoters Lenny Stogel and Don Branker, attorney and producer Sandy Feldman, and ABC executives approached us to work with them on a rock festival called California Jam. They planned to stage it in California, and it would be produced by ABC Entertainment for television broadcast. ABC had a show called In Concert that had launched in 1972 and done well. Bands played live onstage and the show was broadcast live simultaneously on TV and FM radio. They wanted to stage a daylong multiband concert and air it the same way but on a grand scale.

Gary and I were hired to negotiate and book the Ontario Motor Speedway, sign all the talent, and oversee the festival’s advertising and marketing. We were paid a flat fee of $75,000 ($400,000 in 2021 dollars) and all expenses. Not bad for guys in their twenties. Everyone decided that Gary and I would do the deal with Ontario Motor Speedway. ABC knew that if they went out there to book the track, they’d have to pay top dollar. It was a wise and well-planned hustle.

When Gary and I arrived at the speedway, the manager was arrogant. He had been approached by a number of young promoters who wanted to book the site but then couldn’t pull off a festival or concert. When we told the manager what we wanted to do, he cut us off and said he’d need all of the money up front—$50,000—to hold a date. So we wrote him a check on the spot for the full amount and had him issue contracts.

He didn’t know that ABC Entertainment was involved. He just figured we were two green kids following in the footsteps of others who came before us. Gary and I booked Black Sabbath; Deep Purple; Emerson, Lake & Palmer; Rare Earth; the Eagles; Seals and Crofts; Earth, Wind & Fire; and Black Oak Arkansas.

In those days, the big crowds in Southern California were being pulled in by Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, and ELP. Never underestimate the strength of metal, especially in the mid-’70s. Everybody wanted to do the show. We negotiated the deals, which wasn’t easy. The artists were giving up all their rights to audio and video in perpetuity. So we paid top dollar for the time, and the bands and their management knew the exposure would accelerate their careers.

In February 1974, we launched a print, radio, and TV ad campaign promoting the twelve-hour concert on April 6. There had not been a major festival on the West Coast in some time, as festivals had so many issues with poor planning and violence. After Altamont, states were afraid of them. We sold close to 200,000 tickets at $10 a head, bringing in a gross of close to $2 million. Woodstock and Watkins Glen had more people, but we had more paying fans. We had the highest paid attendance for a single concert or event at that point. Just as important, we had a contained environment. You couldn’t get in without a ticket. The speedway was fenced and access roads were controlled. Tickets were sold at the venue and at Ticketron outlets. We also had all the record stores, head shops, and a network of ticket outlets all over Southern California that were very effective at selling
tickets. We decided to hold the concert in April because that’s when spring break fell that year. But it wasn’t just spring break. It was the first celebration of spring. Kids wanted to be outdoors, and they were starved for a major rock festival.

We went in there about a month before the show to start putting in the infrastructure. There were a lot of firsts. We had a mile to cover with the sound, so we needed a massive system. We hired Tycobrahe Sound, owned by our partner, Robert Bogdanovich. They set up and engineered the entire 54,000-watt system with four delay towers, each a quarter of a mile out and fifteen stories tall. They kept the sound level even all the way to the back of the speedway. It was the biggest sound system ever assembled.

To change bands quickly and efficiently, ABC developed a rail-and-rolling-platform system. It worked flawlessly. When the performing act finished and came off the stage, the next band’s gear would already be set up on the other end. The hundred-foot-long stage slid over into place and the next band was good to go. On the empty side, the next band’s gear would get set up. The whole process took about a minute for set changes. Nothing like this had ever been done before at a festival.

On a humorous note, we had all the acts stay across the freeway at a big truck stop motel. To make sure kids didn’t find out they were there, we had the motel put up lettering on their marquee sign that said: WELCOME WESTERN PEACE OFFICERS ASSOCIATION. Nobody went near the place. We had a helicopter shuttle the acts over the freeway from the motel to a landing pad behind the stage.

There were no giant screens; they didn’t have them yet. That’s why the sound system had to be great all the way to the back. As far as California Jam’s impact on the concert business, the concert went so smoothly that it was almost boring. It ran like a military operation. We finally proved that large outdoor concerts could make money and be safe.

Excerpted from Rock Concert: An Oral History as Told by the Artists, Backstage Insiders, and Fans Who Were There. © 2021 Marc Myers. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.


Stay on top of the latest in L.A. news, food, and culture. Sign up for our newsletters today.