Promoter Danny Zelisko recalls career in first book

BY Christina Fuoco-Karasinski

Danny Zelisko sits at his desk, surrounded by memorabilia from his 45 years as a promoter. The centerpiece is Billy Cobham’s red drum kit.

Throughout the Paradise Valley home that serves as an office—his house is two doors down—are memories of those who have passed as well, like longtime friend Jerry Riopelle and comedian Robin Williams.

The story is clear to visitors of the office, but now the public can read about his career and exploits in his book “All Excess Occupation: Concert Promoter.”

“When I look at it in one collection, it’s an enjoyable book,” says Zelisko, who has produced more than 10,000 concert events.

“I was extra careful not to step on toes or tell tales out of school, which I certainly could. I made sure I didn’t share details in writing for the public of things that people said or did around me that they expected to be in confidence. This isn’t stories about people snorting ants, which was in a recent rock star bio. It’s about how much fun it is to put on concerts, meet people and explain who they are about.”

Zelisko says writing the book was a challenge, as he tried to remember “everything clearly” and include the appropriate folks. The latter was a sticky point, as he doesn’t have photos of many of his friends. After all, success came thanks to his friends.

“I didn’t want to make it a really big bio kind of story about me, because I don’t think people are interested in all my personal details,” he says.

“I tried to get to the concert promoting thing as quickly as possible. How I got to be doing concerts, how I got to being around famous ballplayer and learning the etiquette of going from a fan to a friend.

“So many people I’ve seen over the years lose it and go to pieces when they see somebody they idolize. It’s like, ‘Get a grip, will ya?’”

As he mentioned, Zelisko shares an array of photos from his personal archives, including him with Alice Cooper, Willie Nelson, Roger Waters, Aerosmith, the Grateful Dead, members of Led Zeppelin and the Doors, Herbie Hancock, Jeff Beck, Barbra Streisand, Kris Kristofferson, Chuck Berry, Jon Bon Jovi, Tony Bennett, Muddy Waters, Genesis, Tina Turner, Billy Idol, Bruce Springsteen, U2, Billy Joel, Bob Seger, the Monkees, James Brown and John Prine.

“I went through box after box of photos, and I couldn’t believe how many there were,” Zelisko says. “With each picture, there’s a memory—‘That’s the night such and such happened…’ Putting captions with the photos makes the accompanying anecdotes come to life.”

In addition, Zelisko chronicles his lifelong love of sports, his passion for collecting memorabilia and autographs, as well as some of the friendships he formed while in his preteens with the likes of Chicago Cubs shortstop/first baseman Ernie Banks as well as Chicago Bears stars Brian Piccolo and Gale Sayers (the bond between the latter two was the basis of the tear-jerker film “Brian’s Song”). Of Sayers, who recently passed away, Zelisko says, “Gale knew how close Brian Piccolo and I were and was a great comfort to me and my dad at Pic’s wake. I won’t ever forget his kindness.”

Most notably, former Detroit Tigers player and ex-Diamondbacks manager Kirk Gibson penned the foreword.

“I’ve known him, obviously, for years and years,” he says. “We met at a Who concert that I was doing in ’07. Bob Melvin brought him then. He was just the bench coach.

“I’m very fortunate to have made such incredible friends. I think a big reason for that is because I’m always very honest with the people I deal with. I can admire them and worship what they do, but I deal with them straight and tell them the truth. I think that’s how you last in the business, and it’s how you maintain relationships.”

The beginning

The Arizona Music & Entertainment Hall of Fame inductee’s story began in grade school in Niles, Illinois, when he helped a Little League coach arrange a team visit by Chicago Bears running back Brian Piccolo. For his work, Zelisko was paid $30—or 10% of Piccolo’s take.

Music was a staple in the Zelisko household. He has a slight memory of his mother playing records by Frank Sinatra and listening to Elvis Presley on the radio.

“What I remember mostly is my mom used to play some weird 78,” he says. “It definitely wasn’t music at the time. It was ‘How Much is that Doggie in the Window?’

“I didn’t think of that as music. Then, when the Beatles came along, I was into them. I realized later they were a baby band. They had a crummy little deal with Vee Jay Records, then Capitol and then Swan.”

He fell in love with Arizona the first time he saw it during a college road trip. He started working on a small investment from a friend and his dad, as well as his dad. He raised $11,000, and that lasted three shows.

At age 19, his first show was Mahavishnu Orchestra in Tucson. With his father’s help, he booked Herbie Hancock and the Headhunters to play Phoenix. It was a quick learning experience. He learned he had to sell many tickets to pay for those costs and even more tickets to make money. Tickets were $3.50 to $5.50.

“It almost broke even,” he says. “I didn’t have any shows until the fall, and they didn’t make money. It was a real leap of faith, even for the $11,000 at the time that I raised, which was definitely a larger amount of money than $11,000 is now.”

He parlayed that gig into Evening Star Productions, booking acts like the Police, Cheap Trick, Pat Benatar, Talking Heads, Kiss, Bon Jovi, No Doubt and Nirvana into the 700-capacity Dooley’s Nightclub.

Evening Star found success throughout the Southwestern United States in the 1980s and 1990s in venues like Veterans Memorial Coliseum, America West Arena (now known as Talking Stick Resort Arena) and stadiums.

In 1990, Evening Star began promoting shows in the Desert Sky Amphitheatre, with its grand opening show with Billy Joel. The facility has undergone several name changes, including Blockbuster Pavilion, Cricket Amphitheatre, Ashley Furniture Homestore Pavilion and finally Ak-Chin Pavilion.

By 2000, SFX rolled up Zelisko’s Evening Star to the conglomerate the following year. Zelisko was tapped to be SFX’s Southwest office president. A few years later, Clear Channel Communications bought SFX, and Zelisko and his staff became part of Clear Channel Entertainment.

“There was a point in the early 2000s when everybody got lumped into that consolidation—or most everybody did,” he says. “It was definitely weird. It was different to not feel like you’re steering the wheel.”

Six years later, Clear Channel evolved into Live Nation, for whom Zelisko was president and then chairman of Live Nation Southwest. He left his post in 2011 to begin promoting shows as Danny Zelisko Presents.

Key to success

The old saying goes, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” Zelisko’s competition in Arizona are those he’s trained from the 1970s to 1990s.

“They learned from mistakes that were made by somebody other than them, which would be me, or they may have made mistakes while they were working for me. Ultimately, it was my responsibility because they worked for me. They got a great learning experience by being with me for years. It’s proven by the fact that they’re successful on their own. So good for them. I’m proud of them.”

He doesn’t like it when he’s beat out of a date by somebody “who was a nobody when I met them.” Nevertheless, it’s thrilling because his prodigies had the wherewithal and the abilities to get stuff done.

He admits he would be depressed if his competitors didn’t get any shows. That would mean Zelisko did something wrong. Major promoters are making “jillions of dollars” and in a different world than Zelisko. However, he’s happy where he is: promoting 120 to 250 shows per year. At his peak, it was doing between 400 and 500 shows. Throughout the ’90s, he grossed $30 million a year in sales, with an average attendance of 800,000. Zelisko’s top-selling show was a 1995 Grateful Dead show in Las Vegas.

The competitors he’s referring to are Live Nation, Charlie Levy of Stateside Presents, and Tom LaPenna with Lucky Man Productions.

Zelisko calls trial and error his education. He’s successful because he follows his hunches.

“People are always looking for shows to book, and it just never stops,” says Zelisko, who has a second home in Hawaii.

During his 45-plus years, Zelisko says he gave newbie bands plenty of chances. It goes the other way, too.

“I remember getting offered Rush for $5,000 plus $3,500 for their sounds and lights in the late ’70s, early ’80s. It merely came down to personal preference.

“I just didn’t like Rush at that time,” he says. “I like them now, but I was into these other groups at the time. I was kind of a snob, like Emerson, Lake & Palmer and King Crimson. I thought they were superior, and it turned out Rush held their own pretty well.”

A rival promoter booked Rush into Veterans Memorial Coliseum and it brought in 10,000 fans, which he calls “huge” for a $8,500 spend.

Expanding the empire

During his “downtime,” he travels around the world, including Europe for a few weeks annually. Travel, he says, is probably his biggest expense outside of food.

He prefers not to attend other promoters’ shows, but he admires “civilians,” those who have to buy concert tickets, wait in lines at will call, and don’t have dressing rooms or parking spaces.

“Without those things, I’m a little bit like a fish out of water,” he says. “After 12,000 shows, it’s hard to go to another person’s show. It’s weird. I’m not a good civilian.”

Besides Phoenix, Zelisko’s markets include Albuquerque and Las Vegas. He started doing shows in Vegas in the early ’80s.

“I’m not looking to poach somebody else’s market, but if they’re not happy with who they’re using or, preferably, if they haven’t been there in years and nobody’s asking, ‘I’ll raise my hand.’”

The Celebrity Theater in Phoenix is essentially his home turf.

“I do feel very at home with the Celebrity, just like Talking Stick (Resort in Scottsdale) or Downtown (Phoenix)—people I’ve done business with for years. I’ve been doing business at the Celebrity the whole time I’ve been in business.”

He hopes “All Excess Occupation” moves fledgling concert promoters.

“I hope it inspires some people—some young guys and girls, music fans who don’t understand about the legend and the history of the concert business,” he says.

“Mine is merely a part, but nobody has put out a book like this. There have been some biographies, but this book spared no expensive to cover it super well, to give you a bird’s-eye look at what happens. I can’t wait for it to get into people’s hands.”