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Legendary Concert Promoter Mike Belkin on His Life Around Music’s Biggest Names and Making Cleveland Rock 

From left, record company “insider” Carl Maduri, Mike Belkin and Epic Records head Ron Alexenburg - celebrating a partnership in 1976. - PHOTO COURTESY RON HILL
  • Photo courtesy Ron Hill
  • From left, record company “insider” Carl Maduri, Mike Belkin and Epic Records head Ron Alexenburgcelebrating a partnership in 1976.

By the early 1970s, Belkin Productions, the concert promotion company that Jules and Mike Belkin launched from their father's clothing store on West 25th Street, had become synonymous with rock 'n' roll in Cleveland.

The company that booked the World Series of Rock concerts at the old Municipal Stadium brought all the biggest rock tours to town. It also managed local acts such as the James Gang and the Michael Stanley Band, enabling them to secure record deals and national tours.

The Rolling Stones concert that the brothers promoted at Municipal Stadium in 1978 is reportedly the first concert to gross more than a million dollars.

Mike Belkin: Socks, Sports, Rock and Art, a new biography by Belkin and local writer Carlo Wolff, chronicles the company's glory days and documents its history up until 2001 when it sold to SFX for nearly $11 million. Belkin and his son Michael Belkin now work for the concert conglomerate Live Nation.

At 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 4, Music Box Supper Club hosts a launch party for the book, which comes out on Oct. 1. Wolff and Belkin, who recently discussed the process of assembling the book in separate interviews, will be on hand to discuss it.

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What brought about the idea of doing a book in the first place and how did the collaboration work?

Wolff: It was an evolutionary process, for sure. It began on a much smaller scale and turned into hours and hours and hours of reminiscence. Working together, we got to know each other pretty well. It took place over not-quite two years. It started in spring of 2015. The writing was done this May. It was immersive. It was a way to personalize a timeline that I knew before as an accumulation of facts. This is not only a book about rock 'n' roll, even though that's its focus. Mike's life has other dimensions. To my mind, it's the first book I've written that's well-rounded and not single-topic.

Belkin: We had some long sessions, and we got along very well. It wasn't an easy situation, but he was good. I have saved all of my information relating to every concert we did. I also had the information when it came to the bands that I managed; and also when I was younger and was in high school and college, I had every press clipping from when I played baseball and basketball. I played professional baseball for two and a half years in the Milwaukee Braves chain. I threw away nothing, so I had all this information and I remembered what quite a bit of it was. I would relate to Carlo from my memory what was going on, and in certain instances Carlo would ask me questions and I would give him information with details. The only thing I didn't get along with him on was his one question. He would always ask me, "What was that date?" I would say, "Carlo, how the fuck I am supposed to remember going back 40 or 50 years?" I said that to him about a dozen times. He was good and put up with me. We communicated with no problems. We saw each other on a Saturday and Sunday and would talk for anywhere from two to four hours at a time. He was working harder than I was. I don't think, "Oh, my God. Why did I do this?"

What was it about Cleveland in the late '60s that made it a prime place for rock 'n' roll?

Wolff: I wasn't here. I moved here in 1986. From what I can tell, there was a confluence of radio and record industry and Belkin Productions. They all worked together synergistically to make for a juggernaut that culminated, at least in terms of numbers, with the World Series of Rock. It was in the '70s when rock reached its commercial zenith, I would say. It started to go corporate after that. Cleveland was the template for that.

Belkin: In those years, the only thing that was happening here music-wise was classical music by another company that was doing the Bolshoi Ballet and that type of thing. That was something I didn't want to do. I didn't want to step on their toes. They were doing a good job. At that point, I was working at a clothing store in Ashtabula. The owner of that store was Leroy Anderson, who was a wonderful guy. He became a partner in Belkin Productions. It was short-lived. He was doing big bands and put them in a restaurant. He did Count Basie and Jimmy Dorsey, and I was never interested in that music. I didn't get involved, but he wanted to do something in Cleveland. I didn't know about the big bands. He asked me who I thought would be good. My favorite band at that time was the Four Freshmen. We did that and decided to do the Four Freshman. I called the agency and spoke to someone, and we picked a date. He told me it was $1,500. I said, "Okay." He asked me who would open the show. I was stumped. I thought he meant the curtains. He said the New Christy Minstrels were available. I said it was good. I didn't know my ass from second base. We signed the contract and decided to do that. I think we did that at Music Hall. And it did quite well. The dates went off really well. I thought I was the world's best producer. I was in dreamland, even though we lost about $65.

The James Gang became huge stars. What catapulted them out of Northeast Ohio?

Wolff: Talent. They were good. They were really good. As it states in the book, they kind of lost that when Joe Walsh started to go solo. I don't think anyone would blame him, but it didn't help the band. There's always that tension between the star and the band. The James Gang soldiered on and made some good records without him, but they never had the identity that they had with him.

Belkin: Jimmy Fox came to my office, and they were being managed already. He wanted to talk to me. He said the manager they had was a nice guy but not as good as they needed or wanted. We initially just talked. My whole thing about management is that I have to like the person. I have very strong personal relationships with anyone and everyone that I manage going back to the Gang. They have to be responsible people. They were great. [Jimmy] Fox and [Dale] Peters and [Joe] Walsh were dependable. I fell in love with those guys. They were super creative guys. They were brilliant composers. When they went on the road, they weren't making lots of money, but they never complained. They were hard-working guys. I felt I was more valuable in the office booking the dates and making sure the record companies were spending money on promotion and getting them to come up with the cash for transportation. I didn't spend a lot of time traveling with them. I went over with them to England when they opened for the Who, and that was great. That was the first time outside of the country for the guys.

Cleveland-based singer-songwriter Michael Stanley (left) and Mike Belkin, seen here at the 2015 Cleveland Arts Prize awards, have worked together for decades. - PHOTO COURTESY OF RON HILL
  • Photo courtesy of Ron Hill
  • Cleveland-based singer-songwriter Michael Stanley (left) and Mike Belkin, seen here at the 2015 Cleveland Arts Prize awards, have worked together for decades.

In the 1970s, Scene magazine and WMMS emerged as players. How did they help to transform Cleveland into a vibrant market for music?

Wolff: They created a fan base. They created a community feeling. Rock 'n' roll now is very mature and to some degree largely nostalgic. It's about people looking back on when they belonged to a greater community. That's what classic rock is about. Belkin and Daffy Dan and Scene and WMMS and the Agora, the whole community put that together. It doesn't exist so much anymore but it certainly lingers in memory, especially in Cleveland.

Belkin: WMMS was incredible. What was done was that WMMS wanted visibility. That's how they make money. They worked a deal where it would be "Belkin Productions and WMMS Presents." It was never just Belkin Productions. It was "and WMMS." For them, it was great. They were getting the visibility they wanted and needed. For Belkin Productions, we were able to save money because we didn't pay them for spots. That was the agreement with the sponsorship. That was very good. They were very, very important. I should probably add another "very." It was a great partnership.

If Michael Stanley had signed that deal with EMI Records and continued to receive a big push from the label, would he have become as big as Bob Seger?

Wolff: It knocked him off his feet as far as I can tell. I could never find out why EMI [withdrew its offer after Stanley refused to sign a short-term extension]. According to the story I published and what Michael suggested, Mike called EMI's bluff, and they didn't go for it. Maybe a different approach would have yielded different results. I think it hurt [Stanley]. Mike and Michael wanted it more permanent, longer term. They considered it bad form that EMI didn't think enough of them to offer them more than a six-month extension, especially considering their albums were doing well. It was hard to figure out. The only speculation is that they didn't like them calling their bluff. I think he could have [become as big as Seger]. The records he's releasing now are pretty damn good. The writing is very good. He ages well. I don't know if he could have developed then at that time when he was in his 30s, I don't know. I think he might have. He was on that track. He was in a Seger and Springsteen mold. At his best, he's as good as they are, I think. I respect Michael and I respect what he's made of his career.

Belkin: He's a great person and wonderful writer and singer and player. I couldn't do enough with him. He was just a pleasure. We had a deal with EMI, but then it terminated and it was a case of Michael resigning. They wanted to cut back on the budget for recording. We had a long conversation about what we would be comfortable with and was the right thing. I never made decisions for the musicians in the band. This is their career and their life, and they have to be comfortable with what the future might bring. I told that to Michael. I told him it was his ball game, and he had to be comfortable with it and happy. I wanted him to make that decision. He decided it wasn't the right thing to cut back and get a smaller budget for the recording because it would have an effect on the end result. I told him, "I'm with you." That hurt. At that point, we were doing really well and selling lots of records. Michael didn't get up as high as the James Gang, but he was doing good sales. He was on so many tours as a support act. He really worked hard.

Why did Cleveland embrace Bruce Springsteen early on?

Wolff: That's not really in the book. From what I remember, he was championed by Kid Leo, and WMMS played the hell out of him. He played here a lot. You have to give him credit. He's a workhorse, still is. Only this time, he'll be on Broadway.

Belkin: He played at the Agora the first time in Cleveland. With the talent he had and has, they tore the place down. It was fantastic. The word of mouth and radio and print was a gigantic help. I knew the agents very well and was able to get him to play some of the first dates he played down south. It was a club that I can't recall the name of. He played two days there and was fantastic. He's just a natural. He's such a great singer and great player and writer.

Talk about the significance and legacy of the World Series of Rock.

Wolff: It was a monster festival presenting the biggest groups of the time. They took place before there were really good controls of gatherings of that kind. There's a Michael Norman anecdote that's scary. I've been to a couple of big festivals, but nothing as big as the World Series of Rock. They institutionalized the artists they presented and made them bigger than they are, even some artists who might be second-tier commercially. Todd Rundgren isn't as big in sales as he is in representation. He's a monster here, probably because of the World Series. There were some incredible bills. There really were. And people still talk about them.

Belkin: That was one of the best things we were known for. We made sure the bills were strong and that everyone sold a lot of albums and had lots of press prior to being booked. They were great shows. Fortunately, we never had any major problems. One time, there was a fight outside the stadium, but it was minor. People still talk about those shows today. Would I do it again? Absolutely. Unfortunately, it's not so easy to do anymore from a financial point of view. Those shows were expensive and these days promoters will pay a million or two million dollars to get these bands. It pays off. People are paying for these expensive tickets and not complaining.

Mike and Annie Belkin have donated pieces from their art collection to museums in Cleveland, Akron, New York, London and Japan. - PHOTO COURTESY OF RON HILL
  • Photo courtesy of Ron Hill
  • Mike and Annie Belkin have donated pieces from their art collection to museums in Cleveland, Akron, New York, London and Japan.

Belkin Productions opened the Odeon in the 1990s. What were some of the best shows you ever saw there?

Wolff: I saw Cheap Trick there, and they were fabulous. It was the perfect place for them. I remember seeing Chris Whitley there. Not that many people know about him, but he was one of my favorites. He died about 10 years ago. He made interesting records. I liked the Odeon. It was a good club.

Belkin: The Odeon was a place that Michael [Belkin] was involved with. Michael Stanley has played there. That was a great venue. We enjoyed it, and it was a nice size. The sound was excellent, and we put in additional lighting. Michael did a great job of promoting it.

Critics might say that now that Belkin Productions is part of the Live Nation empire, Cleveland is no longer a priority. How would you respond to that criticism?

Wolff: I think that may be right. I'm not sure. It seems like Columbus is drawing shows more than we are. It's hard to say. I don't go to that many shows anymore. The whole rock scene with the spread of conglomerates like Live Nation has become much less personal than it used to be when Belkin Productions was the promoter. People knew who they were. Even though Michael Belkin is an executive at Live Nation, the company is identified more as Live Nation than the people who work there. It speaks to the general evolution of rock 'n' roll.

Belkin: I'd say it's bullshit. I always looked for the best when it came to entertainment in more ways than just the music. You can't just stand there and play music. You have to know how to perform. That's something I always looked for and still look for today. Any of the bands that I managed or manage are doing more than just standing there playing. They're talented and know what they're doing and they're all good musicians and put on a good show. Everyone who's involved now with Cleveland through Live Nation [feels the same way about music]. They're professional and know their job, and they're creative. That's my thing. You gotta be creative. You can't just keep repeating things. You have to come up with new ideas and keep things fresh. Live Nation does something like 28,000 concerts internationally a year. They know what the hell they're doing.

click to enlarge Mike Belkin today. - PHOTO COURTESY OF RON HILL
  • Photo courtesy of Ron Hill
  • Mike Belkin today.

The story of how Belkin Productions began in the back of a clothing store is a remarkable one. Could something like that still happen today?

Wolff: It's hard for me to visualize. I think the way to command a field like that now is to know someone who's already in it. Remember, the Belkins were in on the ground floor of something new. They capitalized on it. It's a credit to their vision that they sensed that. It really was improbable. They parlayed a genius for commerce into a new field. You gotta give them credit for it. They ran with it. Could it happen again today? I don't know. Maybe. It would be just as improbable if it did.

Belkin: It's pretty tough for someone to get to do what Live Nation does just because so many of the artists are locked into deals with the very big companies. The artists are looking for situations like that. You get to know who's who and get comfortable with the person who's on the road with you. It would be extremely difficult for someone to try to duplicate what Live Nation does now. We had a good run, and I'm still running.

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