Concert promotion was ultimately where my greatest success would be. There were a few people that were instrumental in assisting with this endeavor. My associations with Hall of Fame DJ Red Robinson... Recording artists Roy Orbison and Charlie Rich would play very important roles in my success. I was privileged to have these men as personal friends. Unfortunately, both Roy and Charlie have passed away and are no longer with us.
In 1976, while browsing thru an entertainment magazine, I discovered an item that advertised Roy Orbison and his band performing in a bar in Thunder Bay, Ontario. This was unbelievable to me... I knew from 1962 show success that Roy Orbison belonged in the concert theatres. He was travelling around from gig to gig in a station wagon with the band and a U-Haul trailer. I knew I was a good promoter and I was artistically very creative. So, I set out to get him back on the right track.
Roy had been depressed and out of circulation due to a series of heart-breaking events. Firstly, he reluctantly divorced his first wife (Claudette) and then, while he was on tour overseas, two of his three children died in a house fire at his home and, later, after he and Claudette had reconciled and remarried, she was killed in a motorcycle accident. They had purchased dual motorcycles as a wedding gift to themselves. The accident happened on their maiden ride just two weeks after their reconciliation. He became, understandably, depressed and inactive for many years.
I tracked Roy down and offered him a cross-Canada concert tour. I offered to pay him 80% of the box office proceeds after expenses. To make a long story short... we filled up the concert halls right across Canada and Roy asked me to move to Nashville and manage his US tour schedule on the same partnership basis... 80% for Roy and 20% for me after expenses. We made a ton of money in Canada and he and I both thought he would fill up the concert halls all over the U.S. once we reintroduced him to the American audiences.
My brother in law looked after our house (plus the dog & cat) in Vancouver and Elaina (2nd wife) and I moved in with Terry Widlake (Roy's Band Leader) who lived down the road from Roy in Hendersonville, TN. We would later rent a small house on our own in the same area. Roy's success wasn't as great in the US. The Americans have a tendency to place their former hit makers in the "has been" category fairly soon after the hits are no longer coming. Roy had strong hot beds of popularity... But only one in three events would make money... one in three would break even and one in three would be a failure.
Roy had always told me never to book him in Los Angeles or New York as he thought they were all crooks and plastic people... that's why he lived in Nashville. But, one time while Roy was touring in Australia, in 1977, I had the opportunity to book Roy into the Santa Monica Civic Centre with a giant LA "oldies" radio station there presenting the show with unlimited ads for free. They were prepared to make the concert a feature radio station promotion with TV support included. It was too good of an opportunity to pass up. So, I agreed to the booking. When Roy returned home he wasn't thrilled but he agreed to do it anyway, probably, for fear that a cancellation would harm his reputation.
However, that Santa Monica (Los Angeles) performance turned out to be the starting point of Roy's resurgence into the upper echelon of the current music scene once again. Anyone who was anyone in the LA Music Biz was in attendance... The Beach Boys, The Eagles, Huey Lewis, Bruce Springsteen, Linda Ronstadt, Boz Skaggs, George Harrison and Jeff Lynne among others. All were invited backstage offering Roy opportunities to write songs and perform together... they were all telling him of their admiration for him and wanted to be his friend. My assessment was... "Roy... you have to get an LA manager and start working with this current bunch of LA recording stars." It took a while, but Roy eventually not only got an LA manager, he moved to Malibu and began co-writing songs with the top recording acts in the business. This networking led to the formation of the Traveling Wilburys who would put Roy Orbison right back on top once again.
The rest is history... Roy never stopped thanking me (his friend and former business partner / defacto manager) for going against his wishes when I booked him into Los Angeles. I get a great deal of satisfaction in knowing that that I played a part in helping Roy Orbison get back to his rightful place in music history.
Roy Orbison also played a part in the creation of my most successful
and long-running concert production "ELVIS ELVIS ELVIS." In 1978 Roy was
required to undergo triple by-pass heart surgery and would be laid up for
an undetermined period. I had arranged a working holiday in Hawaii where
Roy and the band were to break in a couple of new musicians and basically
rehearse for another Canadian tour scheduled to start shortly afterward.
The gig was a month-long engagement at the Boom Boom Club in Waikiki. Our
show would follow a nightly Polynesian Dinner Show starting at 9pm. I was
able to cancel the tour in Canada which was far enough away... But tickets
were already on sale for the Hawaii gig and selling well. So, needless to
say, the club owner was freaking out... what do we do?
At one point during the early 1980's, I had three different Elvis, Elvis, Elvis casts touring somewhere in the world. The tours were strong until 1986 when all the copy-cats starting promoting 3 act Elvis shows. I continued running my Elvis shows but to a lesser degree. I still produce and/or promote them occasionally today.
After Roy's recovery period, doctors advised him to work but "take it easy" and not go on tour right away. So, I booked a 10 day sit-down run at the Cave Supper Club (600 seats) in Vancouver, Canada and later I booked a 10 day sit-down run at the former Seaway Beverly Hills Hotel (700 seats) in Toronto. Both events were very successful... sold-out just about every night.
During Roy's run at the Cave Supper Club in Vancouver, I had the whole group over to my house for a Barbeque on the Sunday... Roy wanted to watch an NFL game and I had a big screen TV and satellite system. Roy got the big recliner right in front of the TV... he loved it! After the game, I took the opportunity to play him a demo video of my "Elvis, Elvis, Elvis" production since Roy had been Elvis' friend. Afterward, Roy said (in front of everyone) "If you are still alive when I die... I want you to promise me you will produce a tribute show like that for me."
At this point, I was busy with Elvis Elvis Elvis tours and Roy was busy co-writing songs with his new LA music business associates. Things worked out pretty well for both of us. Roy would reach international success with the "Traveling Wilburys" before he died of a heart attack at at his mother's home in Hendersonville, TN on December 6th, 1988.
In 1989 I produced & promoted a tribute to "The Legends of Rock'n'Roll" starring Buddy Holly... Roy Orbison and Elvis Presley. This was my tribute to Roy Orbison...the friend I so admired. The show would also surpass all the copy-cat 3 Elvis shows out there at the time. It was a very successful combination that would eventually attract the copy-cat nation as well. Almost simultaneously, I produced "The Roy Orbison Story" a show that was entirely dedicated to Roy.
During the early 1990's, while Larry was performing as Roy in Reno, Nevada, a UK talent scout was there looking for an actor to perform as Roy in a major musical about the life of Roy Orbison. He was so impressed with Larry they eventually hired him even though he was not an actor. He was so perfect for the role, they agreed to teach him to act instead of hiring an actor without the same believability factor. "ONLY THE LONELY: The Roy Orbison Story" became an instant hit playing at the Piccadilly Theatre in London's prestigious West End theatre district. Larry would perform the leading role continually for over three years in the UK. Larry performed "Only The Lonely" on the 1995 UK Olivier Awards TV Show when the show was nominated for Best Musical.
In 1995 I would produce and promote "THIS LONELY HEART"... a musical celebrating the life and times of Roy Orbison starring Larry Branson. Larry and Chris Bradley (local writer and musician) co-wrote the title song "This Lonely Heart." which became a hit locally. I would later produce "An Orbison Christmas" starring Larry Branson who also recorded the Christmas CD that Orbison never lived to record... "An Orbison Christmas" I am certain that one day this CD will be discovered and claimed to be an actual Christmas Album of the late Roy Orbison that was lost long ago and never ever released.
An amicable indifference caused Larry to leave the UK cast in 1995. Basically, Barbara Orbison had demanded such a large royalty that the producers had to cut Larry's salary in half. And, since he could earn the same amount at home doing only a 40 minute set in any one of the the Legends shows... he quit. And, because of his UK "star status" Larry was able to successfully tour England for six different tours during the years after he left the production.
In the 1990's I was one of the original partners in a talent agency... International Talent Services. ITS played an integral part in the creation of the Hedley Blast Country Music Festival and I was very much involved with the event. The inaugural festival in 1990 featured Sawyer Brown... Lee Greenwood... Sweethearts of the Rodeo... Lynn Anderson and Michelle Wright among others. I created the Exploding BLAST Poster Image which became the critical market-
ting hook for establishing the Hedley Blast. After the next 1991 event (Featuring Charley Pride... BJ Thomas... Patty Loveless... Dr Hook... Juice Newton & others) there was much controversy over where all the money went from the huge crowd in attendance. I have a pretty good idea... I was on tour thru BC with Dr Hook and was bringing him to the festival site when I saw the huge line-up at the gate. The Hedley Recreation Association (who were 50/50 partners in the event) were responsible for operating the gates to keep an eye on the cash flow. In their wisdom, they had three people and one gate (they were advised to have 3 gates and 12 people) to process ticket holders and buyers. It was obvious that the waiting crowd would not likely get in before midnight... so ticket holders were the first to push over the plastic retaining fences to get on site... and shortly afterward much of the waiting crowd (many of them unpaid) would follow. My ITS partners did their best to assist at the gate but it was simply too late... They were responsible for producing the show not running the gate. The fiasco basically exposed the Hedley Recreation Association as incapable of managing the gates. There was a lot of finger pointing toward ITS running off with the cash. I must defend my partner Claude LeLievre who arranged for family members to bag up the cash (supposedly counted by the gate people) and put it in the trunk of their cars so as to safely get it out of sight before someone possibly stole it. They intended to try and get the cash into the bank night deposit... not sure if it happened that night. Using trustworthy family members for this task was the correct and prudent decision in my view.
After the dust cleared ITS made an attempt to take over the festival operation in its entirety. But, the Hedley Recreation Association were not amicable to such a solution and they fired ITS as producers of the event. They ran the 1992 Hedley Blast with another production company.
I personally printed up a few thousand flyers and put them on all the parked vehicles on and off the '92 festival site... advertising the Merritt Blast coming to Merritt July 8 thru 11, 1993... Starring Tanya Tucker... Ricky Van Shelton and More. I also hired a small plane to fly over the Hedley site with a trailing banner that read... "See You at the Merritt Blast in '93"
There was more trouble after that '92 event and the Hedley Recreation Association again fired the producers and vowed to stage the event (going head to head with the Merritt event) completely alone in 1993. They ultimately cancelled their 1993 festival due to lack of ticket sales.
The Merritt Mountain Music Festival went on to a mostly successful 15 year run that ultimately became one of the most successful festival events in Canada. Claude LeLievre was the major reason for the success of the event. However, I was never in favour of the one man show concept. Once the regular meetings (brain storming sessions, with partners and key staff) stopped, it was only a matter of time before Claude was boss of all things and making decisions without any consultation with partners. I was not a happy camper (to coin an old festival expression) but went along with it because Claude seemed to be doing a good enough job... and I was making a few grand every year by publishing a Festival Guide that was given to everyone upon entry to the festival. It outlined all the services and regulations, etc. which saved the Festival a lot of time explaining and, of course, there were local ads which the local merchants were happy to pay for. What I didn't know was that over the years Claude carefully manipulated investors and shareholders into a minority position. My $100k loan was converted to shares which Claude promised to pay off down the road. After 10 or 12 years, when the attendance dropped for two consecutive years, I reminded Claude about the momentum theory... that is, when attendances are growing, you can do everything wrong and audiences will continue to grow. But, when attendance is falling, you can do everything right and attendance will continue to fall. I suggested he use current revenues to establish the talent budget and let momentum determine just where that might be. I will always remember what he said "No, Les, you are wrong... we have to go bigger than ever" He hired Kenny Chesney for a million dollars that year. That was the moment that I resigned myself to losing my $100k and I abandoned my belief in Claude forever. I believe he knew the festival was doomed... I was told by locals he wanted one more year with a large attendance in order to to skim as much cash as possible before declaring bankruptcy. I do not know for certain that this was actually true. However, he had definitely become mired in his own self importance and believed he deserved some kind of payoff. The funny thing is, I didn't blame him... I had been there myself (to a lesser degree) at one time. So, I simply decided to go my own way... doing what I had always been able to do... promoting concerts. When the Festival finally went bankrupt which was no surprise, I subsequently learned that Claude basically owned the property which obviously had increased greatly in value and I think he was able to negotiate a viable deal of some kind with the bank in order to maintain control of the property and/or sustain himself... or possibly even more. Hmmm?