Special Venues

May 2017

Music venues of yesteryear strike a chord with groups

by Jeff Heilman

  • Bethel Woods Pavilion, Bethel, N.Y.

    Bethel Woods Pavilion, Bethel, N.Y.

    /Portals/0/images/Magazine/2017/0517/Historical_1.jpg

    Bethel Woods Pavilion, Bethel, N.Y.

    Bethel Woods Pavilion, Bethel, N.Y.
  • /Portals/0/images/Magazine/2017/0517/Historical_2.jpg

    Elvis’ 1975 SuperTrike motorcycle, Cleveland | Photo by Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

  • /Portals/0/images/Magazine/2017/0517/Historical_3.jpg

    Fox Theatre, St. Louis | Photo by St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission

From pioneering 1920s bluesman Robert Johnson and 1960s supernovas Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and The Rolling Stones’ founder Brian Jones to Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain and English muse Amy Winehouse, “27 Club” members comprise some 60 musicians who passed away at age 27.

Stones’ guitarist Keith Richards said of his bandmate’s death, “There are certain people…you know they’re not going to be 70 years old, ever. Not everybody makes it.”

The same goes for many historic U.S. performance sites. Among still-lamented shrines that died before getting old is New York City’s CBGB (1973 to 2006), which during its heyday birthed punk rock and rock legends including Television, the Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads and The B-52s. Another is San Francisco’s 1928 Winterland Ballroom, the ice skating rink turned rock palace where The Band’s 1976 swan song was filmed as The Last Waltz and resident band the Grateful Dead led an all-star last night in 1978.

Yet, for every lost temple, there are soul survivors around the nation yet to cross the great divide and take the stairway to heaven.

For destinations, landmark musical venues and accompanying musical birthrights can mean branding and marketing gold. In tune with today’s shift toward more authentic, connected and exuberant experiences, seeing a show, holding an event, taking a tour, meeting musicians and other engagements with historic venues are platinum for groups.

Whether going back to Woodstock or feelin’ no pain in Luckenbach, Texas, groups with a lust for life and rockin’ at the hops eight days a week will find satisfaction at the following group-ready veteran venues. By no means exhaustive, the line-up includes museums, rock hotels and a medley of famed musicians, photographers and journalists speaking to the power of “being there.”   

As pioneering concert promoter Bill Graham used to say to audiences at San Francisco’s legendary Fillmore Auditorium, “Enjoy!”

“Like Ringing a Bell”  

In 1955, a young St. Louis musician named Charles Edward Anderson Berry traveled to Chicago to meet his hero, Muddy Waters. Hailing from Clarksdale, Miss, wellspring of the 1920s-era style known as Mississippi Delta Blues, Waters (real name McKinley Morganfield) had first recorded five years earlier at Chicago’s Chess Records.

Founded in 1950 by Polish immigrants Leonard and Philip Chess, the studio, its signature sound created by legends including Willie Dixon, John Lee Hooker, Johnnie Johnson, Etta James and Howlin’ Wolf, forged the future of rock and roll. Today, 2120 South Michigan Ave. (immortalized in an instrumental song recorded by The Rolling Stones at Chess in 1964 while on their inaugural U.S. tour), Chess’ most famous address is Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation, offering tours by appointment.

Waters introduced Berry and his demo tape for Ida Red to Leonard Chess. Recorded as Maybellene (after the mascara), it became the first of many hits for Berry, followed by other timeless cuts such as Roll Over Beethoven (1956) and Johnny B. Goode (1958).

Passing away last March at 90, Berry’s revolutionary blues pumping, string-bending artistry influenced dozens of legends, from The Beatles and The Beach Boys (both too closely, resulting in copyright lawsuits) to Bob Dylan, David Bowie and even co-pioneer Elvis Presley.

In October 1961, when childhood mates Mick Jagger and Keith Richards reconnected on a London train platform, the albums Jagger was carrying, The Best of Muddy Waters and Berry’s 1960 Rockin’ At The Hops, sparked the conversation that would produce the “World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band.”

The Stones covered at least nine Chuck Berry songs, including their 1963 debut single Come On. Inducting Berry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s inaugural 1986 class, Richards riffed, “I lifted every lick he ever played.” Remembering Berry, The Stones stated that his music “is engraved inside us forever.”

Berry’s legacy also “be goode” for his birthplace, in 1926, of St. Louis.

“Chuck Berry’s name is synonymous with St. Louis and our region’s long history in music, which has influenced artists from around the world,” said Explore St. Louis President Kathleen “Kitty” Ratcliffe. “From blues, jazz, ragtime and rock ’n’ roll, musicians from St. Louis have been entertaining music lovers for generations. We are deeply saddened by Mr. Berry’s passing, but his revolutionary sound will live on and remains a fabric of the St. Louis music scene.”

With his statue on the Delmar Loop, Berry’s St. Louis Walk of Fame plaque is outside Blueberry Hill, the group-capable 1972 landmark where from 1996 onward Berry played 209 monthly concerts in the 340-person capacity Duck Room. Downtown’s recently opened National Blues Museum features an exhibit dedicated to his work and memory.  

“With more than 70 live music performances every week in some of the best music venues in the country, the sounds of St. Louis will continue to flow and carry on Mr. Berry’s legacy of entertaining fans from across the globe,” Ratcliffe added.

Another group-capable Berry landmark is the “Fabulous” Fox Theatre. Anchoring Midtown’s Grand Center arts district, this 1929 Siamese-Byzantine movie palace, now a 4,252-seat performing arts venue, hosted two all-star shows for Berry’s 60th birthday in 1986. The performances, and rehearsals, were filmed for the 1987 documentary (and album) Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll, famed featuring Berry’s combative (and warm) rehearsal sessions with Richards.

For the Record

Nashville, Tenn.-born “raconteur and meetings industry activist” Michael Owen has created musical memories for groups for decades.

Growing up on rhythm and blues, Owen followed Chuck Berry, Aretha Franklin and other performers on historic (1926), still-broadcasting WLAC radio. Following the break-up of his late 1960s R&B group, he joined a New England-based agency, first booking Lou Reed in 1977. Later, it was star entertainment for Disney’s original cruise package, the Big Red Boat. Then, seeing opportunity in business events and event management, he went to the client side, establishing Nashville-based EventGenuity in 1998.

Owen, whose energy extends to board and leadership roles with organizations including MPI and PCMA, and regular industry speaking and hosting engagements, is active across the nation, from Orlando to Chicago to Hollywood, Calif.

These days, he is rarely star-struck.

“I used to call Chuck Berry at home for bookings,” he said. “He’d answer, ‘Berryville!’ What gets me most excited, though, are historic venues. Standing on stages like the Fillmore in San Francisco and contemplating who played there, man, the sense of wonder is near spiritual. And we have some real treasures in Nashville.”

Opened in 1892 as the Union Gospel Tabernacle, the 2,362-seat national historic landmark Ryman Auditorium, 125 this year, is the “Mother Church of Country Music.” Fifth broadcast home of the Grand Ole Opry (the 1925 radio show that “made country music famous”) from 1943 to 1974, and introducing bluegrass in 1945, the Ryman’s walls reverberate with countless legendary voices that have included Patsy Cline, Dolly Parton and “Coal Miner’s Daughter” Loretta Lynn.

In 1974, the show moved to its current home and popular group venue, the Grand Ole Opry House.

Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum highlights include Historic RCA Studio B and the Hatch Show Print letterpress print shop. The former produced some 35,000 songs between 1957 to 1977, including 200-plus Elvis hits alone, while the former has produced handmade music posters since 1879.  

Other heirlooms include the Bluebird Cafe (1982), and across from the Ryman’s stage door, Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, a 1960 institution on Lower Broadway’s neon-lit “Honky Tonk Highway,” where aspiring talent and celebrity drop-ins play seven days a week.

“Collaborative and community-minded, Nashville’s music industry is driven by uniquely talented songwriters and storytellers,” Owen continued. “The meetings industry also attracts creative, interesting people. It’s a harmonious match.”


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