Danny Zelisko

As everyone is dusting off their year-old tickets and looking forward to their favorite artists playing live music again, they should keep in mind that promoters are the ones who make it all possible. Danny Zelisko is one of these amazing people who actually paved the road for many artists and basically others in the entertainment industry with his exceptional talent for business. His book ALL EXCE$$ Occupation: Concert Promoter details some amazing experiences that he shared, concluding that this book is a must read!

SFL Music: Your book ALL EXCE$$ Occupation: Concert Promoter is awesome. I kept reading until my eyes were blurry. What prompted you to write the book in the first place?
Danny Zelisko: Well, you’re reading it. I mean, I think these tales need to be shared. All the time since this started happening, there’s really special moments that happen that you repeat to people and sometimes because of the popularity of the group or something that reminds you what happens when you’re telling a little story. They come up more and more and more and you realize these things are like golden to people. They love to hear stuff from the inside about people that they’re really used to looking at from the outside. And you know, you could say that about any kind of job or any kind of occupation except these are rock stars or these are football stars or baseball stars. They’re the people that really capture people’s imagination which is why they go pay to see them and anybody that you’re using your valuable time here on earth to go watch play their instruments or watch play a game, that makes them special and people love ‘em. So, I’m happy I chose this as my line of work because there’s always more talented people and special people coming a long all the time, and recognizing them in quantity is harder than doing it yourself. I mean, I tried to sing. I wasn’t good enough. I tried to be a baseball player. I really did and I might have been good enough except the timing was terrible. It was the late ‘60’s where I had to make the decision, music or sports. Music won. So, we’ll never know, but I enjoy playing the game that I grew up playing, which is baseball, and by all rights I should have done that, but I didn’t, and I don’t mind it a bit. I don’t regret it.

SFL Music: You talked in the very beginning about The Beatles and Ed Sullivan. Was he an inspiration to you for your career choice?
Zelisko: Definitely in a big way. I didn’t really realize it at the time, but he was one of the guys, you know when you’re a kid, you don’t know if you trust an adult or if you trust a person in general, another kid. Ed Sullivan was one of those guys who seemed to be, he spoke to me as a straight kind of person, a straight shooter and each week he would be like, what a great gig, He’s launching unknown talents out in front of me to entertain me after we finish watching Walt Disney and before we saw Ben Cartwright and Bonanza, right? That was Sunday night. Ed Sullivan owned it at 7 o’clock in Chicago and yes, he was definitely, definitely an inspiration. No question.

SFL Music: You definitely have a business sense because you talked about you and your brother Jimmy hanging around outside of football and baseball stadiums and meeting people, and you ended up befriending Brian (Piccolo). That was an amazing story right there.
Zelisko: I’ll tell you something funny that just happened. I was in Chicago visiting family and my brother’s wife has a brother who somehow had a connection to one of Brian Piccolo’s daughters. So, I said, hey. Would you mind getting me some addresses? I’d like to send them each a copy of the book. So, I did. I haven’t heard from the girls yet, but they got the moms address for me and I sent it and I got the most beautiful note from her the other day, and it was the first time that I had heard from her or communicated with her since Brian’s funeral in 1970. Really, really, really got me good and I loved it. It was like just such a great warm feeling you know, to know that I was able to communicate with her about him because he was such a big part of my life as far just kind of taking me under his wing and being kind and treating me like an adult even though I was like eleven, twelve years old, but he was only twice as old as me. He wasn’t old (he chuckled). It was really weird.

SFL Music: He was like a big brother?
Zelisko: Yeah, Yeah.

SFL Music: I’m so sorry for your loss and there are so many you experienced. Your brother as well. That’s a tough one.
Zelisko: Yeah. Forty years already and Brian was fifty. It’s amazing.

SFL Music: That was your first close funeral experience?
Zelisko: One of. There was a couple of other like local neighborhood people, but yeah. Of a guy that I was specifically friends with, yes. Even though now your thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, you got more maturity about you. You’ve grown up some. You’re not grown. I don’t think your ever grown up to have like somebody that’s really important to you ripped out of your life. It’s hard enough to rationalize somebody you know, eighty or ninety, passing because they just mean that much to you. Doesn’t mean like you get used up with them. You need them. You need these people around. You need to know you can call on them. You need to just know they’re there and you know, the human condition.

SFL Music: What did you think of the movie Brian’s Song?
Zelisko: I loved it. I hated the second one. They made a new one a few years ago. It was absolutely awful. It was worse than Sgt. Pepper’s (Lonely Hearts Club Band) with the Bee Gees. It was worse than The Love Guru (he laughed) if that’s possible. I loved the show. I thought James Caan did a great job with it. I became friends just a few years later with Billy Dee Williams through Herbie Hancock. What a great guy he is to play Gale Sayers. They were quite a team there, but the real guys, Gale and Brian were really, I mean, Brian helped Gale just learn how to acclimate himself in the world. Brian was so easy going and carefree and Gale was so uptight and nervous when he first came around the Bears and within a couple of years, he was as loose as can be. He was a good guy too.

SFL Music: You wrote in your book about working with your co-promoters and there were some instances like the one show, the first one with Stevie Nicks that you didn’t put on. How did you learn how to do this business? What made you not put that show on?
Zelisko: Well, because you’ve got to have a hunch. You’ve got to have knowledge. You’ve got to have experience in order to make decisions that are often, well you often don’t get a chance to think about them very long. You got to know. You got to be ready to say yes or no, and in that case, it just went on for too long and I hadn’t done a show yet. So, it’s about learning how to pull the trigger the first time. Pardon the pun. In anything. Whether you’re dating a girl. Do I put my arm around her or not? Do I hold her hand now? Do I go for the kiss? You know, you don’t want to blow it and it’s so easy to do that in any place and especially in this business, but you know, it’s kind of like following one foot after the other. There’s a lot of common-sense things, and when you get on the inside as briefly at that time as I had, you pick up enough. You got to be a good study. You got to be bright. You got to pay attention and if you don’t do that, you become a crummy promoter and you’re out of business in a matter of moments. In that case with that show with Stevie Nicks, and Dan Fogelberg was going to open solo and Jerry Riopelle is a guy who wrote “Easy Driver” with Kenny Loggins cover and he had some other big hits like that, but he was only a big star in Phoenix. At that time, he was just starting out and he was going to be the headliner and all I had to pay these guys was $1500.00 a piece for the show and I didn’t say yes. I regretted that for so long. I ended up working with all the artists after a while, but that would have accelerated things incredibly because at that time, those three acts got more airplay together than really big groups who were already out at that time. You have to just know. You have to recognize the opportunities and you really don’t want to pick up and do everything that comes your way, but the key thing is to weed out which of these are going to be the biggest paying and the most biggest drain of my time and my emotions, my life, and what’s my return for? What’s my upside afterwards? And it’s not only just about how much money can I make. It’s like, does this set me up for a better place the next time around that I’m dealing with any of these people? The answer is yes, you look at it and you maybe take a potential hit on the risk that you’re taking by doing something risky, but when you’re further along in this business you can afford to take those risks when you’re doing a lot of shows on a daily to weekly level. It makes it possible for you to invest in your own future, much less a new artist and that’s what they need. I mean, they need backing. They need people who believe in them to bring them to the next tier where they can draw on their own without being nobodies. You got to make them sometimes.

SFL Music: You mentioned Herbie Hancock, and in the book, you wrote about that the show was postponed because they didn’t want competition. Then there was the situation of putting on the show for A Star Is Born concert and you chose Peter Frampton. Would you say there’s a lot of marketing and demographic type of skills that you have to acquire as well?
Zelisko: Well, I think that any information, any demographic information, any kind of researching you’re able to do is obviously going to help you out just like in anything else. Again, you know in this business, it’s a lot about hunches. The other part of it is it’s pure mathematics. You have an act that costs you x amount of dollars. You’re going to have to spend x amount of dollars to promote them. I used to like to go in whatever ten percent of the gross was. If the tickets were ten bucks and there’s twenty-five hundred seats, and you have a gross potential in front of you of twenty-five grand. Then I’ll put ten percent down, twenty-five hundred dollars to promote the show. Then you got to pay all the other expenses associated with producing the show and you have a total, and then you got to back into what your ticket prices have to be and then some, so you can cover all your costs and make a profit. But the problem with being a promoter is, you’re not guaranteed x amount of people are going to show up and you’re going to hit that number, but you at least have to have that down so that you know that it’s possible that if you sell the place out, you’re going to cover all your bills and you’re going to end up with some profit. And there have been times where I’ve made a mistake or been in too much of a hurry or too naive or just blind, and you forget certain expenses in a show and it’s a tight deal because it’s a small place and you’re paying the group sell out money that you got to sell out in order to make some money, or else you’re going to lose money and then you realize, Oh hell, I forgot to put in five grand for advertising and if I spend the five grand, I’m going to sell out and lose five grand. You want to avoid that one. So, you got to be on your toes, and you got to be prepared to make sure that you put yourself in a position when all is said and done, to make money. In getting there I found many times I can’t afford what the group is asking because they’re simply asking me to guarantee that their going to draw more people than I know they have any business thinking they’re going to draw in this current state of their career, and that’s where the fights begin or that’s where you start losing shows, or that’s where you re-negotiate it down to a more reasonable fee, so that you can do the show. Each of these groups that you see on tour when they’re touring, they can’t afford to have a date or two dates, you know, not play or not work. So, it’s very important that every date is thought out and looked at, and everybody believes that they can do the business that the deal requires you do. I know that’s a mouth full.

SFL Music: That’s great advice. Is that what you would advise an up-and-coming promoter?
Zelisko: Yeah, I mean, any business, call it widgets. Call it anything. Call it selling CBD oil. I don’t care. Everything costs you so much to buy and own so that you can resell it, and all the costs that go along with it. Your store, your overhead, your labor, your insurance. All that stuff. You’ve got to know when you go into business with it. I totally advise people yes, it’s a great idea to go into business for yourself. There’s nothing like succeeding at your own hand, and there’s nothing better than not having some boss breathing down your neck, you know, not being cool about things. Or even having a boss in general. I mean for me, I took break for ten years when I sold my company Evening Star in the early 2000’s and I ended up with this company called SFX that was buying up all these concert promoters. Little did I realize that this guy who was doing the same thing we’re talking about. He went around the country, around the world, buying concert promotion companies. Entire concert promoters including some of them had their own buildings, their own amphitheaters whatever, and he bundled them all together and he sold them to Clear Channel Radio. Then they were going to rule the entertainment business, but Clear Channel could not grasp dealing with concert promoters and they lost money for them. So, they got rid of them and that turned to how Live Nation came around. So, it’s a twisted kind of a weird story, but you know looking back on the first group that bought me after the fact it was a very, very cool idea about getting all these promoters together under one roof because then you don’t have any antitrust about making up rules together. You’re owned by the same guy. You’re the same company. So, it’s no longer a conspiracy in the company, and I was really intrigued with the power that we could all have which is what everybody tries to do with their business. You’ve got to get powerful in order to be successful. It worked out really nice for a couple of years. I mean, we were doing great under that, but as it changed, so did the whole dynamic of what I sold to begin with, and I’m happy to say I spent ten years over there on the dark side (he laughed) and now I’m back doing what I do for myself like I used to. So, I can just tell you having gone and worked for somebody else, after working for myself for so many years, the only way for me to be is independent. You know, be on my own.

SFL Music: You mentioned Bill Graham throughout the book. Would you say he was another inspiration? What would you say knowing him and working with him attributed to your career?
Zelisko: Well, Bill Graham touched everybody in the ‘60’s when the sensation of the whole ‘summer of love’ and ‘free love’ you know, turn on, drop out. The whole bit. Everything about the ‘60’s. All of us were discovering, moving into a modern time from what I would consider the war years and almost the olden days, we used to call them. The dark ages. Look at all the improvements and advancements that took place since 1960. You got The Beatles. You got color T.V. You put a man on the moon. I mean, and it goes from there. Everything modern that’s come out of those years. I wonder what would have happened, you know, how different life would have been had those guys not gotten together over there and pretty much changed the world. A lot of people set out to do a lot of big things which good for them. They should. You’re only here for so long, but how many people actually just get on with it without saying this is any kind of a mission. They were just another dumb rock band like everybody else. Like I’m a dumb promoter, you know, and talk about right time, right place. They did all the right things and believe me, they wouldn’t have just kicked around Liverpool and Hamburg all those years, five sets a night, if they could figure out how to catch that lightening in a bottle faster. Believe me. So, what I’m saying is that, that did not happen overnight. Just like everybody wants to be The Beatles or everybody wants to be Jane’s Addiction or Pearl Jam or whoever a big group is. The fact is, all of these groups like all of the sudden came into everybody’s life, but it took three, five, ten years maybe more since they started playing music and had those dreams of getting onstage in front of people, and it’s not easy. I mean, they make it look easy and that’s why we love ‘em, but it’s a big deal. It’s a hard gig.

SFL Music: What prompted you to move to Arizona? Why did you choose Arizona?
Zelisko: At an early age, being from Chicago where if you don’t really have a skill or you don’t know exactly what you’re going to do, being in a big city for me was like it strangled me. The very thought of going out and competing in a world as old as Chicago. As tough as Chicago. I mean, you couldn’t even buy a ticket to a Bear’s game because they had generations of people that held onto those tickets. You had to wait for somebody to die in order to buy a season ticket and that’s the way I felt life was like there too. I just couldn’t figure out what would I do to break through and when you’re a kid, you don’t sit there and think about making moves or being strategic. I mean, you just want it. I came out here to Arizona on my Easter break of High School in 1972 and I came out through Berkeley, San Francisco, down to L.A., drove here, drove home, and that was my first time away from my home in Chicago by myself. I really loved it. It blew my mind. I was just absolutely crazy about it. After I got out of school a few months later, I moved back to Berkeley, but the Arizona thing was very simple. There was only one concert promoter here. I wanted to put on shows. I didn’t know where I was going to get the money from or the connections or how I was going to do it. I just knew that I wanted to do it and if I was going to do it, it wasn’t going to happen in Chicago because it was too big of a thing there. Money was a big deal and all that. Somehow, I managed to catch on here. I got a little bit of money from my dad and a couple of other people. Friends of mine, and that’s how I got started doing my own shows. So, I went from a guy cleaning buildings on the side to just eat to, going and putting on a couple of big shows. I got fired from my maintenance job for taking off the two nights to do my frickin’ show (he laughed). I mean, you know, it was tough, but that’s the way it is. It should be tough when you’re a kid. You shouldn’t be handed stuff. Otherwise, you turn into a jerk. I mean, you ought to know what you’re doing when you become successful. Whether or not people like everything you do is another story. That’s going to happen. People have opinions. Bottom line though is, keep your head down. Keep moving. Keep going forward. Here we are (he chuckled).

SFL Music: You’ve had some great experiences, like with Earnie Banks. Were you there when he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom (awarded by President Obama)?
Zelisko: No, no, no, no. No, that was one of the pictures in the book that I actually had to pay Getty Images to use because I loved the picture so much. I wasn’t there, but I was with him when he got his statue unveiled in front of Wrigley Field. Not long before he died, and it was a really fun day for me. I was especially proud that he invited me himself so, it was great.

SFL Music: You also knew Robin Williams. The one thing that struck me is that you wrote you wished you could’ve helped him. What do you think that you might have done? What was in your mind when you wrote that?
Zelisko: At the very beginning before I did any of this stuff, I often noted when I would hear on the news or somebody talking about it older than me, or in the newspaper where you would hear about people committing suicide or dying young and you just wonder. It always occurred to me, it was like, do they have somebody to talk to? If I was feeling that way and I’ve never really embraced that feeling or felt that way about anything. It just seems me if I was in that frame of mind, I would have a friend or two that were close enough or a business associate, or somebody who would understand what was going on sort of. At least, if you were that troubled. It just goes to show you when people send off signals about not being themselves which people do sometimes and its noticeable. You have to stop and take stock in it and find out if they’re truly ok because I know myself, I’ve been surprised many times by people who maybe I got out of touch with or just haven’t been that close with lately or whatever, and suddenly they’re gone. I always thought from a young day in my life that I could be of assistance to people like that. Even just as a friend to just say, what’s so bad? You know, you feel lousy about something. There’s a wire not connected right in your brain. Let’s go get it fixed. Don’t kill yourself. Come on. I don’t know what to say or do about something like that, but doing nothing when you’re aware of it is not a possible solution.

SFL Music: You shared such a wealth of knowledge with so many stories like the Guns N’ Roses and the Whitney Houston is a great story about how you escorted Mike Tyson off of the stage. How do you keep your cool?
Zelisko: You have no choice. You have to I mean, you’re in that position. And when you’re in that position, the buck stops there, and you asked for it. You’re the guy. So, if your star, the person you’re paying. The person whose name is on the ticket isn’t happy for whatever reason. I’ve had sometimes over the years, and not a lot of them. I think too many people have ideas that a lot of these people are prima donnas and so on and so forth. I mean, just imagine. Put the shoe on the other foot. You’re Whitney Houston. You’re in your dressing room and you hear all this noise outside of your dressing room and people are screaming about Mike Tyson because he’s on the stage. So, this is her feeling her bad self and she just says, “get him off my stage! What is he doing there?” She goes, “I’m about to go on. He’s up there, they’re chanting Mike champ, Mike champ!” It was fun. It was a great show. I remember walking to that stage going, you know, this could be the last time I do this (he laughed). Whitney Houston wants Mike Tyson off the stage. After the show I saw her, she was so happy with me and everything. My hero, and then the door closes and he’s standing behind me going (in a gruff whispery voice) “Now you’re mine!”

SFL Music: He seemed ok from the way you wrote it in the book.
Zelisko: Yeah. I asked somebody in Vegas to find him for me because I want to make sure he gets it, but he came to a show later. I think there’s a picture of us in there together. I would love for him to see it because I did get to tell him about it when we were together with Mike Epps. He said he remembered. I couldn’t tell for sure if he was telling the truth, but he was kind enough to say he remembered, it was ok, he’s not going to kill me so, you know.

SFL Music: You worked with many different artists, different genres. What would you say are the same with the audiences or are there differences? Was there anything that stood out? Differences from a Jazz audience, to pop, to metal.
Zelisko: You know, as I’ve gotten older and doing this for a long time. When I look at a show of my peers out there in the audience, the only difference is they paid less to get in the show that day than I did. You know what I mean? What I’ve seen and felt and observed is that everybody more than ever, especially for the prices these tickets are being charged, they want things pretty smooth. They want things seamless. They want to buy their ticket easily. They want to get to the show easily. They want to get inside the house easily. They want to find the drink. They want to have a nice seat. They want the sound and lights to be nice. They want the ushers to be nice. They want the show to start on time. They don’t want the guy behind them to puke on them. And there of course, I say from the old days because most of the shows I’m doing these days. I don’t do as many of the super hard rock shows as I used to. Not by choice especially, but because the big hard rock bands that are still real popular, there are these big concerns out there that the concert promoters can buy forty or fifty shows at a time, and that kind of renders guys like me you know, useless as far as right now goes when they do that kind of thing. So, they kind of move through your town without you, which is sad and a shame especially when you’ve had history with helping maybe bring them to town for the first time, and for half a dozen times since then and suddenly, you’re not working with them anymore because somebody owns the business. So, you have to make do with what you can get and enjoy them and those are my stars. I wish everybody the best at this. It doesn’t help anybody to grouse and I’m not really grousing here, I’m just saying the fact is that I have a great, great bunch of people all over the spectrum that I work with and it’s a pleasure. I mean, there’s a lot of guys that I work with for over forty years, and we all grew up together. More than I can say a lot my personal friends like say that I grew up with back in Chicago or were here in Arizona when I first came around. It’s really great to have those long relationships that you can look back at the pictures and you know, see how you’ve aged or whatever, and that we’re still here and you can still give everybody the raspberries about it.

SFL Music: I like how you ended the book talking about how you admired celebrities, but you really focus on your family. Through all of the deaths that you have experienced with celebrities and personal, has that changed your perspective on how you live your life?
Zelisko: I think it helped build the perspective more than changing it because when it comes to things like that, you know life things, you develop an outlook on it. You’re just not assigned one I don’t think, and certain things that happen throughout your life can adjust how you feel about it, but the bottom line is, it doesn’t change anything other than what I’ve known all along. I had a brother who I was told is going to die from the time I can remember, so I was very aware of the possibilities as much or more than anybody else from the time I can remember thinking about it. I didn’t quite grasp it. I didn’t know what it meant, of course I learned, and what I learned is every day has to count and you have to make it count one way or another as opposed to I’m bored. I’m depressed. I got no direction. Well, go get some. Quit your wining. I mean, you got to start with an outlook even if you don’t know what it is you’re aiming for. You got to develop an outlook that puts you in a place to be embraced by somebody who’s looking for you, whether it’s at a personal basis or a job basis or a business basis. You got to put yourself out there. Half of life is showing up. Not showing up, you’re not putting yourself in play. It seems pretty simple to me, but I can say that. I’m a successful concert promoter, but I wasn’t and I’m still that same guy that wasn’t successful at this for many years because I just didn’t have the experience or the recognition or the credibility for people to sell me a big name group, which is who everybody wants to promote the Eagles and Bob Seger and all these great big bands; but the bottom line is, those people have been working with people for many years to get where they’ve gotten and they’re not about to drop them because you decided one day you want to be a concert promoter. So, you got to go back and book all those new bands and break some new bands for yourself that you can point at in five years and say, I helped make them big. That’s what it’s all about.

SFL Music: What would you want people to take away from the book?
Zelisko: Pretty much that anything can happen. I mean, if you press hard enough and you move after things and you keep after it, you can pretty much achieve what you want unless you say or do something really stupid. So, my advice is don’t say anything stupid. You know, be able to be counted on. Be solid with whoever you encounter. Pay it forward whenever you can and don’t ask for compensation every time you do it. Just know that that good karma’s going to come back to you when you’re known as somebody who can connect dots and get things done. Help people get together. I’m really looking forward to shows coming back and everybody getting to use those tickets they’ve been sitting on for a while. Buying some new ones, and let’s have some new stories.

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