Special Venues
Historic Properties / May 02, 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.”

Designing programs such as dinners with the Grand Ladies of the Grand Ole Opry and studio parties with soundboard tours and circles with songwriters who’ve worked with Garth Brooks, Carrie Underwood and Tim McGraw, Owen brings groups into the heart of the scene. “More than a place, Nashville is a feeling, one that you can’t find anywhere else,” he said.

With musical roots in the 1950s, Athens, Ga., once described by Esquire as “the mother of modern music,” has produced more than 400 bands, most famously alternative rock giants The B-52s (see “From the Time Capsule”) and R.E.M.

Kicking off in 1980 at a friend’s birthday party inside the abandoned St. Mary’s Episcopal Church (1869), R.E.M. soared to global fame before moving on in 2011.

Founding member and bassist Mike Mills noted the toll time has taken on some of his favorite local venues.

“Most of our establishing venues are gone, through fire and attrition,” he said. “The history is pretty ethereal now, sadly.”

Yet, some stomping grounds remain.

Likened to The Beatles’ Abbey Road crossroad for R.E.M. pilgrims, St. Mary’s under-renovation 40-foot steeple (the “R.E.M. Steeple”) headlines Classic City Tours’ group (and self-guided) Music Heritage programs. Now in its fifth incarnation, the famed 40 Watt Club hosted early R.E.M. gigs and recently, a January 2017 reunion. The band also performed and recorded videos at the landmark Georgia Theatre.

“Athens has continuing claim as home to hundreds of bands, plus live music venues, recording studios, record companies and soon, a vinyl record press plant,” said Hannah Smith, director of marketing and communications for the Athens CVB. “We remain a great destination for music lovers, with a broader range of music genres than ever appealing to a wide audience.”  

 From the Jazz Age, when greats like Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Louis Armstrong played the 1939 Showbox Ballroom (now The Showbox), to grunge rock, Seattle has made sound waves for decades, showcased in Visit Seattle’s online “Sounds by the Sound” videos and other content.

Born here in 1942, Jimi Hendrix got his chops down following Chuck Berry on the radio. His gravesite attracts thousands of fans each year. Other Seattle stars include Heart, —“the female Led Zeppelin”—hip-hop star Sir Mix-A-Lot and rapper Macklemore.  

In 1991, Nirvana exploded overnight behind Nevermind and its smash single Smells Like Teen Spirit. Previously simmering in the Seattle punk scene, their grunge rock became all the rage, heightened by other Seattle signatures such as Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Alice In Chains. All played at Belltown grunge landmark Crocodile Cafe, now the Crocodile and accommodating private events for 50 to 500 people.

The 1907 Moore Theatre, Seattle’s oldest, staged Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains videos, and a Soundgarden live album. Other event-ready showcases include the Museum of Pop Culture (formerly the Experience Music Project) and perched on Pier 67, The Edgewater Hotel.

Built for the 1962 World’s Fair, this 223-room icon, offering 10,000 square feet of event space, has serious rock cred. Among the highlights: The Beatles fishing from their suite window in 1964 (there is a Beatles suite); the Village People singing “YMCA” in the bar; Led Zeppelin playing soccer with fans in the lobby; and KISS parading about in full costume.

Studio Time

Another heritage-soaked “delta” is the Americana Music Triangle, a 2015 collaborative tourism initiative celebrating some 1,500 miles of highways connecting Memphis, New Orleans and Nashville along the “Gold Record Road.” Encompassing Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee, curated driving journeys (some, advisedly, in impoverished areas) explore the roots of nine original American styles, from the blues to zydeco.   

Essential coordinates include Alabama’s Shoals region, two hours north of Birmingham. Opened in 1959, tour-capable FAME Studios is where greats such as Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett recorded with the Swampers, the house band immortalized in “Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd.

In early 1969, the Swampers founded nearby Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. Captured in the 1970 documentary film Gimme Shelter, that December, days before their Altamont fiasco (see “A Quick One with Joel Selvin”), the Rolling Stones laid down three timeless tracks here, including Brown Sugar and Wild Horses. Throughout the ’70s, stars following their footsteps included Cher, Paul Simon and Rod Stewart.

Known also as 3614 Jackson Highway, the studio closed around 1979, with periodic revivals such as the recording of blues-rock indie duo the Black Keys’ Grammy-winning 2010 Brothers album.

In January 2017, behind a near-million-dollar restoration gift from rap legend and Beats Electronics CEO Dr. Dre, the studio reopened for daytime tours (groups of 15-20) and nighttime recording. With event hosting presently considered “case by case,” the national landmark is attracting significant traffic as the Alabama Tourism Department’s top attraction for 2017.

In Memphis, Tenn., Sun Studio was founded by renegade producer Sam Phillips in 1950. Widely regarded as the birthplace of American rock and roll, Sun legends include Elvis Presley’s first recorded song (My Happiness, in 1953) and his impromptu 1956 “Million Dollar Quartet” jam with Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. Contemporary artists recording here include U2, Tom Petty and Bonnie Raitt; groups can take a free shuttle service to Memphis’ other major attraction, Graceland, Elvis Presley’s event-capable former home.

Other group-capable Triangle sites include the Stax Museum of American Soul Music in Memphis and New Orleans’ French Quarter jazz headquarters, 1961 Preservation Hall.   

Call Me Anytime

Historic moments in historic venues can be emotional affairs. Just ask Jimmy Webb, a NYC punk and rock celebrity since 1975, about seeing Blondie’s Deborah Harry perform at CBGB on the venue’s penultimate night before closing, in October 2006.

“Moving through a sea of people, I handed flowers to Debbie,” recounted Webb, longtime manager and buyer for famed NYC rock and roll clothing store Trash and Vaudeville. “She called me up on stage and kissed me on the lips. Leaving as she sang ‘Call me, call me anytime,’ I walked all the way to the West Side in tears.”  

For groups seeking memories where great memories were made, ground zero is surely Bethel Woods Center of the Arts, the multivenue cultural campus opened in 2006 at the site of the 1969 Woodstock festival.

Several years ago, I crested the festival field (a gently sloping hill) with Wade Lawrence, museum director of the site’s LEED-certified Museum and its rich multimedia displays of Woodstock and the Sixties.

“Many memorial sites commemorate battlefields and war,” he said. “Here, we celebrate peace.”

For this feature, Lawrence shared a story of original Woodstock performer Carlos Santana.

“Before his 2010 performance here, Mr. Santana walked the festival field with Duke Devlin, an original Woodstock attendee and Bethel Woods site interpreter. At the site of the original stage, tears in his eyes, he declared that ‘this is ground zero for peace and love,’ which he repeated for the audience that night.”

Marking his third performance here since 1969, Santana returns this August for Bethel Woods’ annual summer concert series. Group programs and packages include tours, dining and events.

Like old-school lighters from the crowd calling for an encore, Bethel Woods has kin in every corner. New York City has lost CBGB and other gems over recent decades, including the Hippodrome, Bottom Line and Roseland Ballroom, but alive and well are group-capable strongholds such as Madison Square Garden, Harlem’s Apollo Theatre and the 1861 Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), the nation’s oldest performing arts center. Plus, downtown’s Webster Hall, formerly the Ritz, still going from 1886, and legendary Village anchors Cafe Wha? (1959) and The Bitter End (1961).

Atlantic City’s original convention center, 1926 Boardwalk Hall, is a cavernous sonic national landmark still rocking with legends such as The Who, playing this July. The event-capable Hall is also famed for its massive pipe organ, the world’s largest musical instrument.

In Lenox, Mass., Tanglewood, world-renowned summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO), has been summoning concert-goers since 1936 for classical music, rock, jazz and more. Slated for 2019, BSO’s $30 million expansion will include a new audience-engagement initiative called the Tanglewood Learning Institute.  

In October 1954, Elvis Presley gave his first-ever performance at the national landmark 1929 Shreveport Municipal Auditorium in Louisiana. On December 1956, 83 shows later, “Elvis has left the building” was coined.

Minneapolis groups can tour Paisley Park Studios, the late Prince’s estate and production complex southwest of the city. In “Hitsville U.S.A.” Detroit, home of Motown and seminal bands including Iggy Pop and The Stooges, and MC5, group calls include the Motown Museum and 1915 Majestic Theatre.

Groups can strum up the agenda with tours of historic guitar factories such as Gibson (founded in Kalamazoo, Mich., in 1894) in Memphis and from 1833, C.F. Martin Guitar in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley.

With Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum celebrating rock’s master class, other event-ready stops include the Grammy Museum at L.A. Live (also in Mississippi); the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City, Mo.; Oklahoma City’s American Banjo Museum; Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix; and Birthplace of Country Music in Bristol, Va.

In every state and countless cities, from the Buddy Holly Center in Lubbock, Texas, to the former rock debauchery den Continental Hyatt (“Riot”) House on L.A.’s Sunset Boulevard, now the 239-room Andaz West Hollywood (with legendary 1964 rock club the Whisky A Go-Go nearby), the heritage hit parade is calling.

Music can work wonders, especially in the hands of old masters. In 1971, Americans Isaac Tigrett and Peter Morton, living in London and hungry for a good burger, launched Hard Rock Cafe in an old Rolls Royce dealership. Their combination of American-style diner with rock and roll music and memorabilia was a smash sensation, and rocks on today more successfully than ever with some 228 group-ready branded properties in 74 countries worldwide.

Now, Hard Rock Hotel & Casino is coming to Atlantic City, taking over Trump Taj Mahal in a wholesale makeover that could reach $400 million when completed as projected by summer 2018. For Atlantic City’s ongoing renaissance, driven in large part by investment in meetings and events, Hard Rock’s brand power—which includes presenting more than 30,000 live music events and attracting 100 million visitors globally last year—stands to supply some major marketing power chords.

The project was officially confirmed at a press conference held last month at Atlantic City’s Hard Rock Cafe, which turned 20 last November. Among the dignitaries was Steven Van Zandt, legendary guitarist for Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band and Sopranos actor. “It’s a vote of confidence for the [Hard Rock] brand and for the town,” said Van Zandt, who stated he will be bringing bands to Atlantic City as part of his syndicated throwback rock-radio show Little Steven’s Underground Garage. “And it’s a wonderful thing for New Jersey.”

Like the message of the Hard Rock Heals Foundation, one of the brand’s charitable organizations that will also bring benefit to Atlantic City, “Music is energy; it stirs emotion, inspires, connects and restores.”

Midnight Ramble

Sometimes, you just got to go.

In January 1994, heart pounding, I swept into the main ballroom of NYC’s fabled Waldorf-Astoria hotel and sat at a table two back from the stage, where the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s ninth annual induction ceremony was getting underway.

In pre-9/11 Gotham, hustling and acting like you absolutely belonged no matter where you went was a reliable all-access pass. Security never came, and with Axl Rose to my near left and Bruce Springsteen to my near right, I saw inducted the Grateful Dead, The Band, Bob Marley, Elton John, The Animals, Rod Stewart, Duane Eddy and with Paul McCartney presenting to Yoko Ono, John Lennon.

Chuck Berry was there, too. After inducting Willie Dixon and telling tales of Chess Records in the ’50s, Berry, still the cat in charge, led a jam of Roll Over Beethoven. Much later, departing the Grateful Dead’s suite before dawn (that’s another story), my feet were still 10 feet off the ground. For any delegate or group seeking the same, meetings with music are a rocking place to start.

Hail, hail, Mr. Berry, and the music and venues that play forever. 


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