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Premier Talent Agency and Jethro Tull

In the spring of 1973, I received a call from Barbara Skydel who was the Vice President and a top agent with Premier Talent Agency in New York. They had a lot of great acts at the time and I booked all of them. Frank Barsalona, the President and CEO of Premier and I had a great relationship. Anytime he asked me for a favor, I delivered. Like the time in 1972 when he was trying to sign a new act from the West Coast that looked promising; Frank called me and said, “Pat I’m working with a group from the coast called The Eagles.  Could you help me get the record played?  It’s called ‘Take It Easy’.          

I was able to get the top stations in town to play the record even when no one in my territory heard of them. Of course that was a great song and went on to become a smash hit and would have done so without my help, but hey, I was there when he needed me. I did him the favor when he asked. But, I would do whatever I could to help someone like Frank who had one of the top agencies that handled rock artists.

At this time, I was the authority in the concert promotion business in my town.  I had no competition.  The most important venues guaranteed me exclusive booking including the Syria Mosque, the premier 3700 seat concert theatre, the Civic Arena, which held 17,000 seats, and Three Rivers Stadium which could accommodate around 60,000 for a concert.  If an act wanted to perform in Pittsburgh, they essentially had to go through me. 

One day Barbara called me on my direct number and said, “Pat, I want the availabilities for Three Rivers Stadium for the summer.”

I replied, “OK, Barbara who’s the act?”

“Never mind who the act is.  Just go and get me your availabilities,” she demanded. This is the way she was – arrogant. She was always too busy to talk. She was difficult to get on the phone and when you did get to talk, you didn’t do too much talking.  She did.

I should pause to explain that the concert industry had changed drastically in the last 10 years.  In 1963 guys wore tuxedos and were happy to get a paycheck and a sandwich backstage.  There was a new generation differed slightly from me in age, but differed drastically in maturity.  These kids either had no upbringing or achieved far too much power at a young age.  So, dealing with the rock star was like reasoning with a three year old.  And if you wanted to make money in the rock business, you had to act like that three year old was making a lot of sense.  Hence, we had acts telling us what color M&Ms they “needed”.  The agents, such as Barbara, relied on these three year olds to stay in business.  As an adult, this made it very difficult to accept the reasoning and behavior of rock acts and sometimes their agents or managers.  As you could imagine, there were many, many times in my career that I had to bite my tongue for the good of my career. 

So anyway, I did as she asked. I had no choice. Hey, it was a ballpark date-the ultimate concert event. It wasn’t a two bit club.  The ballpark date was what you love then learn to hate. I could easily make 50k in a night, which was big money in 1973.  But of course you could just as easily lose 50k.  

I called Three Rivers Stadium Management and talked to, if I remember correctly, the general manager Walter Golby. “Walter, I need your availabilities for a rock concert. What dates do you have between Pirate games?” I asked. 

“Who’s the act?”

“I don’t know yet but I need your open dates.”  When I reserved the dates I called Barbara and said, “Now can you tell me the name of the act?” 

 “OK, I guess I could tell you now.  It’s Jethro Tull.”

“Oh so they’re the headliner.  How many other acts do you have on the show?”

“Jethro Tull.”

There was silence on my part.  I couldn’t believe that she thought Jethro Tull could sell 60,000 tickets.  I had played Jethro Tull several times in different buildings from the 1200 seat Electric Theatre to the Civic Arena and always made money on the show.  I knew them well.

                                                                      

“Don’t you think Jethro Tull can sell out Three Rivers?” she asked.

“Absolutely not!  I just played them last year and I don’t think their product is that hot. Not hot enough for a ballpark date.” 

“Well hold the dates anyway,” she demanded.

The next day she called and asked me to get the availabilities for two consecutive dates at the Civic Arena.

“You want me to do two dates at the arena?” 

“Yes. Now what’s your problem?”

“The act can’t sell out two dates,” I said. The act was strong. I knew that. But, they were not strong enough to sell out two dates. No way!

She commanded, “You get the lease for these two dates and put them on sale. You’ll sell them out.” 

“I’ll do it Barbara, but I don’t think it’s a good idea. Let’s put one show on sale. If it sells out in a hurry, then we will announce something like, ‘Due to an overwhelming demand, we are forced to add a second show’.”  

“No. Put them both on sale at the same time.” 

“You’re the boss Barbara. I think you’re making a big mistake. If I put both shows on sale at the same time, I’ll tell you what I think will happen. We will sell two half houses. I think the act will have difficulty selling out one show. That’s 17,000. If I’m right that means we will sell 8,500 tickets each night. Nobody is going to buy the seats all the way in the back up on the third level for the first night when they could buy seats down front on the second night. You’re not making any sense. Let’s just do one night and sell it out and bring them back next year.” I pleaded to no avail.           

She was the ultimate egotist. She thought she was a genius. I thought to myself, did she ever promote a show?  Why does she think she can tell my about the Pittsburgh market?  Why doesn’t she just listen? But, that’s the way it is with some agents.  You had to play it their way when they had the ego problem or else you risked that the offended agent would give the act to a competitor in another city.  Hey, I didn’t need credit for the success, I just wanted the show to be a success.  I could tell that she needed the praise and recognition and I said, “Whatever you think Barbara, I’ll get the arena availabilities.”

Anyway, I booked the two dates and put the show on sale. The ticket sales went just the way I predicted. She wanted both dates put on sale at the same time and they both sold out half houses.

During the intermission on the night of the first date while I was still doing the accounting work, I received a call in the box office that Ian Anderson wanted to see me in his dressing room. What could he want?  It was a long walk to the dressing room and I was getting anxious trying to think of what the problem might be. 

When I got to the star’s dressing room, I knocked on the door. Ian himself opened the door, “Pat, nice to see you come in and have a seat. Want something to drink?” he asked rather politely. After we finished some small talk, he said in his accent, “So tell me Pat, what went wrong?  I looked out at the audience and it is only half full. Why did you do two dates?”

I couldn’t wait to tell him the whole story.  I told him about Barbara insisting on the two dates and I only wanted one, and how she insisted on putting both shows on sale at the same time.  “Ian, she asked me to hold a date for Three Rivers Stadium!  I didn’t say anything, but I thought to myself ‘you’re telling me from New York what my customers in Pittsburgh are going to buy?’” I told him the truth. After all, why should I look stupid?  He let me go on ranting and raving about Barbara. While I was talking to him I suddenly realized that I was making a big mistake!  When I was done explaining what a genius I was and how Barbara didn’t know what she was doing, he picked up the phone which was on an end table right beside the sofa where he was seated with his legs crossed and immediately called Barbara at her home. “Yeah, Barbara?  This is Ian.  I’m in Pittsburgh with Pat DiCesare,” he said.  My heart sunk and I felt sick.  He started telling her our conversation verbatim. He was on the phone for what seemed an eternity not only for me, but Barbara, I’m sure. He kept asking her why she wanted to do the two dates when I insisted on doing only one. When Ian had finished his conversation and hung the phone up and said, “Barbara would like you to call her tomorrow.” “OK, is there anything else?” I asked.   “No, I had better get ready to start the show. I go on in a few minutes.”           

 

 I knew I was in trouble, but it felt good telling someone that I was right and Barbara was wrong.  I had no idea how costly my mistake was.   The next morning I didn’t have to call Barbara, she called me the very first thing, “How could you tell Ian that it was my idea?  How stupid are you?  Don’t you ever, ever think you are getting another show from Premier!  I will go to any other city but Pittsburgh with all of my acts!” she screamed.

 

She wouldn’t talk to me again.  For quite a while I couldn’t get an act from Premier Talent. She helped establish a competitor in Pittsburgh and went out of her way to encourage outside promoters to go after me with a vengeance. 

 

Fortunately for me, Barry Bell, who was a good friend of mine and an agent at the William Morris Agency was leaving William Morris and going over to Premier Talent. He had a good relationship with Bruce Springsteen and was bringing Bruce with him to Premier and would be the responsible agent for Springsteen.   They assigned Barry to be my agent for Premier. If I didn’t get that lucky break, I would not have been able to book any of Premier’s acts – not if Barbara had anything to say about it.  Just for the record I was still able to book most of the Premier Talent acts despite Barbara’s objection including Grand Funk Railroad (who set and attendance record at the Civic Arena in 1974), Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin, and of course Bruce Springsteen (who for about 20 years held the all time attendance record in Pittsburgh), and later Van Halen, Journey, and Bon Jovi.  Barbara taught me a lesson that I never forgot that day in 1973 – it doesn’t always pay to be right.  Losing money on concerts that agents insisted upon was rare in 1973, but became just part of doing business by the 80s and 90s. 


By Pat DiCesare