Early concert promoters: Jim Pagni, Mark Berman, Terry Phillips, Bob Eubanks, Bill Wright

Rock in San Diego

Drawing of fans waiting for a concert to begin
  • Drawing of fans waiting for a concert to begin
  • Dennis Webb

Jim Pagni was once described to me as “some old guy who puts on all the rock concerts, cheats the people and grins all the way to the bank.” In my mind, I pictured him as a balding, pudgy individual who wore shiny $300 suits and scuffed wingtips. It was said that you could always tell a Pagni concert by the large clusters of people lurking outside the Sports Arena grumbling and shaking their fists as they waited in line.

Sometime later, a friend gave me some tickets to see Dave Mason, and during intermission I found myself backstage, standing elbow to elbow with a man who was introduced to me as Jim Pagni. He was a young man, sharply attired in color-coordinated body shirt, flared double knits and boots. He had mod stockbroker-length hair and he didn’t come on all ego and pseudo-hip. Okay, so who says ya gotta be a freak to be a rock concert promoter? Even Bill Graham has a large share of critics. Jim Pagni looked hip in the late 1950’s sense, more hep than hip (which is not a putdown, that’s how he is), sort of a contemporary homegrown Dick Clark who knows the concert business.

Jim Pagni began promoting concerts ten years ago when he was 18, just out of Hoover High School. Seems his college fraternity needed some beer money for a party, so he came up with an idea for a dance. He applied to the city for a license, did many hours of dirty work, and wound up netting $300 for sixty guys. He figured if it worked for them, he could enlarge his idea and put on dances for bigger crowds, but he was green and lost a lot of money “cause I was bringing the wrong kind of music into places. I learned the hard way.” So he reassessed himself and began putting on dances at the old War Memorial Building in Balboa Park, with such memorable local groups like the Nomads and Arlene and the Proteins, real make-out music; that later evolved in 1963-65 to rock ’n roll acts like the Coasters, Drifters, Ike and Tina Turner, and Sonny and Cher.

Then the scene changed from dances to concerts. “Kids seemed to want to listen to the music instead of to dance to it,” Pagni explains. In 1965, the Concourse was built and it provided an ideal place to stage concerts. The folk scene was in full bloom and Pagni’s first big concert there was The Christy Minstreis, and later on Glenn Yarborough and Peter, Paul and Mary. In 1967, the Arena opened and 8,000 people came to see James Brown. The soul groups dominated for a while and then the acid rock sounds from San Francisco emerged and Pagni was responsible for importing Janis and Big Brother, Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver and Vanilla Fudge, complete with light shows.

Evidently, this is where resentment started building up towards Pagni and he became the proverbial whipping-boy between the powers-that-be at the Concourse and the young concert-goers, who resented being searched and undergoing harassment at his concerts and dances. They began to refer to the guards as “Pagni’s gestapo," maybe forgetting that nobody could put on a concert or dance without a “security force" and if the promoter didn’t like it, he could set up his amps elsewhere. Still, a lot of people I encountered in my interviews bitterly recall going to Pagni’s dances at USD, and having their pillows, combs, and, in those days of bouffant hair-dos, even their hairspray confiscated.

The gap between the money that people think Jim Pagni rakes in and the amount that he claims he clears is tremendous. A couple of months ago a local branch of the Rock Liberation Front made assorted charges against Pagni, including some concerning a Led Zepplin concert. Pagni was charged with raking a huge profit from the promotion of the Zepplin concert. In fact, the group was brought here by a Seattle firm called Concerts West. Pagni was hired by them as a press agent on a 15 per cent basis, a chore which made him a commission of $250. After Zepplin, leaflets were distributed, accusing him of monopoly, and showing an illustration of a shady old guy counting his was of bills. The RLF said that “Pagni expressed a willingness to meet with them," but the meeting never took place.

Pagni says, “they have not returned any of my calls . . . but what good would it do me to sue them? The damage has been done; it would just make me look worse. Anyway, if I did sue, I’d probably only be awarded a jar of mustard and a dog.” For his part, Mr. Pagni says that “Groups like the Moody Blues and Led Zepplin who ask $20,000 a show are responsible for the high ticket prices. Many times it is right in the contract what the ticket prices should be. Grand Funk walked out with $32,000 the last time they were here.” According to Pagni’s assistant, out of the forty or so concerts he had presented in the last nine months, he’s had only a dozen successful ones, the most recent being Rod Stewart, Leon Russel, Alice Cooper, and John Mayall. Some of the many that didn’t fare so well were Cheech and Chong, Van Morrison, Ravi Shankar and Steve Stills.

The future of other San Diego rock promoters is more precarious. Mark Berman and Jeff Carson run Good Times Productions. They have recently taken over the club Earth, where they have held dances for the past few months along with some recent concerts featuring Tim Weisburg, Hedge and Donna and the Youngbloods. Recently they had Boz Scaggs and band for two successful sell-out shows along with Fairfield and the Don McLeod Mime and Music Machine. Boz played for almost two hours. For S3.50, it was a lot of music. Unfortunately the rent-a-cops were a bit uptight and the refreshments were limited to soft drinks and candy bars, but it was one of the best concerts I’ve seen in the past few months. The management let the artist really enjoy himself and go beyond the normal 45 minute set. When Good Times Productions featured the “complete" Youngbloods earlier this year at the Scottish Rite Temple off Highway 80, the concert lasted some four hours, and it was a low ticket price also.

I spoke to Terry Phillips of Concert Express, who promoted the Three Dog Night and Procol Harum concerts a few months back. Phillips is not new to the concert scene in San Diego and along with his work with Concert Express, runs Wall-bangers. He said that he “is moving out of larger promotion and attempting to concentrate on booking top bands into Wallbangers." The subject of other promoters came up and Terry commented that he felt “Jim Pagni has received a lot of bad rap, especially in the early part of concert promotion when he was one of the first people around, and the city would hand him ultimatums which he had to take, and in turn take the brunt of them. When they said people couldn’t bring pillows, it was the Fire Department regulation, not Pagni’s.’’ Some people have said because of Pagni’s nonfreak image, it doesn’t help him have rapport with people, but Terry feels “that everyone has a different way of doing things, and I’m not exactly super freak."

Bob Eubanks, former KRLA disc jockey and resident troubleshooter/idiot boy on the Newlywed Game began Concert Associates several years ago with Jim Rissmiller and Steve Wolf, and they were responsible for promoting the first Beatles tour in the United States. Since Los Angeles is an important city for a group to play, the promoter often buys four-block dates, and since Concert Associates was well-respected, they consequently got first crack at the top groups and the major cities. Bob Eubanks got more involved in his television ventures and Rissmiller and Wolf took over, with the Filmways organization becoming the new owner. Eubanks went on to form Concert Express, which is branching out quite a bit, but Concert Associates still reigns as the leader in concert promotion on the West Coast.

Asked about the rise in ticket prices, Terry Phillips felt “that the agent is the extension of the act. The acts decide if they want $5,000 or $25,000, and then they often put on a bad show cause they’re so tired from doing such a heavy tour. What I don’t like is to see some cheap act with a semi-bit record stuffed into a building with a high ticket price and low entertainment threshold. There are many times when I don’t think it’s necessary, but it’s a supply and demand thing. It depends how greedy the band is, and the promoter.” Jim Rissmiller of Concert Associates added a different explanation: “Our prices have not really increased since 1967 and the only two acts that commanded more were the Rolling Stones who had a $7.50 ticket, and Elvis Presley, who had a $10 ticket. What has brought the ticket price up and promotion expenses in general are the increases in union fees, advertising rates, arena rentals, and equipment costs.”

Concert Associates has been putting concerts together since 1967, and does about 40% of their work in Arizona, 30% in Los Angeles, and the remainder in San Diego. They were the original promoters who, in an attempt to make rent-a-cops obsolete, introduced the concept of Peace Power, an organization of muscle bound college jocks who hold forth as security forces at their concerts. The idea was basically a good one-even O.J. Simpson did it one year-but a lot of these guys have been known to take their work too seriously. This “greatly alarmed" Jim Rissmiller, and “forced him to get rid of some of them immediately." They pack their 54" chests into Hang Ten T-Shirts. You can’t miss ’em.

Bill Wright is another local promoter who put a lot of energy into doing outdoor concerts at Balboa Bowl last summer. He called them People's concerts, for the people, $2 prices for the people, good vibes for the people, and is now scratching his head because of lack of support from the people. Bill had some good ideas, and humbly, in a very low key, tried to execute them. Some people who watched him slowly exhaust his financial resources felt that he tried to promote too much of a good thing. Bill would attempt to book four good acts on a bill when two would be quite sufficient. He booked some of these concerts during the week, when at midnight, the third act would just start going onstage. A lot of people had to go to work or to school in the morning, so it just didn’t work for them. Consequently, attendance was small. It was almost as if Bill felt guilty doing concert promotion. If he made a profit, he'd be labeled an “exploiter of the hip culture,” and a “ripoff,” so Bill Wright tried harder to show the “hip community” he was one of them. The unfortunate part was, he didn’t have to. Bill brought in groups such as Wishbone Ash, the New Riders of the Purple Sage, Flash, Foghat, and Chuck Berry, all in a period of a few months, and it just didn’t work in a big way.

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