As part of Cleveland Magazine's 30th anniversary celebration, the editors have chosen 52 of their favorite stories from the magazine's archives, and wish to share them with you.
A new story will appear every week at Clevelandmagazine.com. It might be controversial, comical, nostalgic or nonplussing. But it will be Cleveland.
From Cleveland Magazine, March 1977
Sixteen thousand kids crammed the Coliseum to hear Queen, the hottest new group from Britain, but the real music was that of cash registers ringing throughout Cleveland's thriving rock industry.
To Slav Petroff, Queen was just another rock and roll band. In his four years as operations manager of Jim Swingos' Keg and Quarter Inn, he had met them all, including the heavies Elvis Presley, John Denver, the Rolling Stones and had come to view their frequent comings and goings from the hotel as commonplace. That Queen, one of a succession of glitter rock bands from Britain, was on the verge of superstardom and that Cleveland had played a crucial role in its rise Petroff seemed unaware or unimpressed. Why, the weekend before Queen checked in, he had played host to no less a supergroup than the Beachboys.
The five aging Beachboys and their entourage had taken over Swingos' like a conquering army, commandeering 40 rooms on the fourth and fifth floors of the downtown hotel that has become since Frank Sinatra gave it his business in 1974 and thus his imprimatur the home away from home for every big-name entertainer who passes through Cleveland. In town for a concert date, the Beachboys ad stayed at Swingos' for two days, dropping over $1,500 on dinner one night in the hotel restaurant alone.
In return, Petroff had personally made sure that the band's every wish and need was instantly catered to. Like most rock stars, the Beachboys who sang of the simple pleasures of sun, fast cars and surfer girls expected to be treated like visiting royalty. They had sent a letter of their demands beforehand.
Lead singer Mike Love wanted a refrigerator moved into his suite. No sweat.
Guitarist Carl Wilson (who was suffering from a back injury) had to sleep in an electric hospital bed that could assume some crazy angle called "the William's position." Petroff scoured the city until he found a rental agency that stocked them.
The group didn't want to be bugged by their adoring fans (some of whom , Petroff knew from past experience, were crazy enough to sneak into Swingos' basement parking garage and sleep in their cars for days, in hopes of catching a glimpse of somebody ... anybody). Simple. Petroff instructed his switchboard operators to put through only those callers who asked for the Beachboys by pre-established code names. (Drummer Dennis Wilson, for example, was "Dennis Doo Write.")
For Queen, whom he really didn't know from Adam, Petroff would do no less. There would be fresh-cut flowers and fruit baskets and matchbooks specially printed with the group's name. And when Queen checked into the Swingos' Suite, a $400-a-day, crushed-velvet, French provincial extravaganza complete with baby grand piano and formal dining room, they would find their latest album playing on the stereo. To Slav Petroff, these extra touches were all in a day's business. Big business. The persnickety rock and roll trade had helped to gives Swingos' an 81 percent occupancy rate last year, when other downtown hotels gasped for customers. In fact, rock and roll the music of adolescent rebellion has been the lifeblood of hundreds of other Cleveland businesses, too an invisible network of record distributors, wholesalers and retailers, concert promoters, radio stations, rock bars and music halls, even musical instrument stores.
Petroff has been informed that Queen would arrive in Cleveland on Sunday, January 23 at 11:41 a.m. via United Flight 642 from Grand Rapids. On the first leg of an extensive U.S. tour, the four mop-top British musicians would then be whisked by limousine from Cleveland-Hopkins to Swingos' and given a few hours to unwind before their departure for the Coliseum, where they would give an evening performance along with an Irish rock band called Thin Lizzy.
If the ol' Coliseum would be swinging that night, it was in a state of controlled bedlam early Sunday morning. The Cavs had played there the night before, and throughout the wee hours of the morning a team of maintenance men (genially referred to as "the Polack crew" by fellow workers) had worked to effect the transformation of basketball arena to concert hall. First, they took down the basketball court, then they installed a false floor over the underlying ice rink and finally they set up the 48-foot-wide stage for Queen's performance. At 8:30 a.m., the sweep crew took over, lining up rows of folding chairs on the Coliseum floor and sweeping out mountains of litter from the night before.
A short time later, Queen's roadies (stagehands) 12 in all pulled in from Grand Rapids in a chartered bus. They had driven to Cleveland through the night, accompanied by three semitrailers full of sound, lighting and band equipment all of which had to be unloaded and set n place on stage in time for a 4:30 sound check by the band. One by one, the trailers were backed into the Coliseum and their contents black steamer trunks emblazoned with Queen's name and crest unloaded by forklift.
Every time the huge loading-ramp door rolled open to admit the next trailer, the Coliseum's entertainment director had calculated, $200 worth of heat disappeared in thin air. But the expense and trouble of renting out the facility for rock concerts was worth it, Chuck Barnett had decided. Tonight, as usual, the Coliseum would take in 20 percent of the gate, and such income in this case, close to $24,000 had breathed new life into the facility Clevelanders once laughingly referred to as Nick Mileti's White Elephant.
As it turned out, one of the roadies helping to unload the trailers a scraggly-haired Briton nicknamed Ratty was celebrating his birthday. As soon as she learned about it, Wendy Stein sent one of her assistants out into the cold Sunday air to scrounge up a birthday cake. Stein the 24-year-old technical director for Belkin Productions, the Cleveland-based promoter sponsoring Queen had arrived early that morning to take care of just such last-minute niceties. It made good business sense, she knew, because the little courtesies performed, the way the dressing rooms were fixed up, were all the band ever saw of a concert promoter. Rock bands apparently like what they see of the Belkin operation. In the company's new Chagrin Boulevard offices hangs a tambourine inscribed: "To Belkin Productions, for the nicest concerts we played in this country. Thanks, The Who."
Not that Stein's bosses, the Belkin brothers Jules and Mike really feared losing Queen's business. Since the company's formation 10 years ago, the Belkins have built up a virtual monopoly in northeastern Ohio through the state, in fact, and as far east as Erie, Pa., and as far west as Detroit. Their clout is based on long-standing friendships and favors exchanged with the country's big booking agents. "A one-shot guy doesn't have much clout with a New York booking agent," explains one observer. "The Belkins, on the other hand, can refuse to take an agent's small acts if they don't get the big ones they want."
Belkin Productions was fortunate. Greater Cleveland's youth already knew that Queen was (and is) one of the hottest rock acts going thanks to the sex appeal and charisma of sloe-eyed lead singer Freddie Mercury; the group's fairly innovative and melodic sound; and a promotional campaign that makes that of the Greater Cleveland Growth Association look like an exercise in understatement ("They're being hailed as the next Beatles in Japan and Australia, you know," confides Rip Pelley, Midwest director of artist development for Elektra/Asylum, the American record label to which Queen was signed in 1973). Some 16,500 hopped-up area kids, a near-capacity crowd, had purchased tickets to see them. At $7 a whack, too.
But the fact of the matter is: If their forte had been dishing up the sound of tires screeching on hot concrete, Queen still probably could have filled the Coliseum. Cleveland, you see, is rock and roll-happy (or -crazy, depending on your point of view and age). In fact, the very term "rock and roll" was invented here, with credit usually going to the late Joe Mintz, owner of the downtown record store, Record Rendezvous. Mintz is said to have suggested the name for and sponsored WJW dee-jay Alan Freed's popular show, "Rock 'n' Roll Dance Party," back in the early '50s.
Local Warner Brothers Records promo man Mike Dragas would definitely call it "happy." "This is a great rock and roll market," he says. "The kids here are so aware; they know everything that's going on in rock music from London to Australia. And they will accept just about anything ... as long as it's good." Joyce Halasa, publicity and promotion director of the Agora, Cleveland's premier rock bar, would probably call it "crazy." Out of frustration. When the Agora brings in jazz, folk or country acts, the place dies; when it lays on rock, you have to beat your way through the crowds with a bat. "This isn't a balanced music town," Halasa says. "All the kids want to hear is heavy metal schlock." Whichever interpretation is correct, they both play the same riff: Cleveland kids have an endless appetite for what Plain Dealer rock writer Anatasia Pantsios describes as "loud, pulsing, high-energy music."
Critics bemoan the fact that MMS has steered an increasingly commercial course, that the station takes fewer risks in playing music (such as jazz) that is unfamiliar or unpalatable to its mass audience. In the salad days of the early '70s, says a former deejay, "You could play, say, an obscure Mamas and Papas. Today if you play the Mamas and Papas, it better be one of their hits. In fact, the whole format is: Play the hits past, present and, hopefully, future." Indicative of the station's new attitude was a note I saw taped to a record in the MMS library. It read: "More piss from Kiss. The kids love it. Play it!"
But what the station has lost in boldness and freshness, it has gained in audience numbers and advertising success. Last year, WMMS billed over $3 million while turning advertisers away (only eight commercial minutes per hour are scheduled). "We've turned WMMS from a cult into a business," explains Carl Hirsch, executive vice president of Malrite Incorporated, a broadcasting chain which bought the station in 1973. So good is business that Malrite recently moved into lavish new quarters in the Cleveland Plaza downtown, the reception area of which boasts a $30,000 rug.
Business is booming for other local rock purveyors. You couldn't find a more lively concert scene, even in New York. Last year, Belkin Productions, one of the Top 10 concert promoters in the country, brought over 170 big-time rock acts into northeastern Ohio and you can bet the Belkin brothers didn't do it for their health. As if that were not music enough, the 1,000-seat Agora every Monday night serves up such up-and-coming talent as Greenwich Village poet-turned-punk rocker Patti smith (who clears her throat after each number by spitting on the stage). And nearly every corner bar, it seems, boasts its own house band playing more or less competent renditions of the current hits. Some 65 such "bar bands" were advertised in one recent edition of Scene, Cleveland's weekly rock tabloid, alone. Few other metropolises can support such a steady diet of live rock.
Scene itself testifies to the strength of rock locally. While other alternative local tabs have died like flies, the six-year-old freebie paper clings tenaciously to life, churning out record and concert reviews, personality profiles and industry gossip week after week after week. Though its claims of a 65,000 circulation are unaudited, it commands steady advertising support from rock clubs and record retailers, who apparently view it as a useful tool for reaching the 15 to 21-year-old market.
Teens with disposable income have catapulted Cleveland into national prominence as a record market. Since rock and roll now dominates the record industry an astounding 85 percent of all records produced each year are rock-oriented the rock-fevered city has assumed an importance out of proportion with its population. According to Mike Spence, Cleveland branch manager of Warner-Elektra-Atlantic, the country's largest record company, the metropolitan area should rightfully represent only two percent of the national record-buying public. But in actual dollars spent, Greater Cleveland comprises four percent of the record market thanks to the presence of over 500,000 young adults, many of whom are apparently hard-core vinyl junkies (the most confirmed record buyer is said to be the 18-year-old male, who purchases two albums a week).
There are a lot of theories, mostly fanciful, explaining why Cleveland is Rock and Roll City, U.S.A. Schliewan, only half-jokingly, attributes it to northeastern Ohio's lousy weather. "Cleveland kids have to spend virtually nine months of the year indoors," he says. "There are only so many things you can do indoors eat, sleep, get high and ball. Listening to music happens to complement all those activities." Others point to the fact that most industrial cities tend to go in for high-energy music perhaps as an antidote to the kind of numbness that results, as MMS deejay Len Goldberg puts it, "from spending eight hours a day at the end of a drill hammer." Then there's the theory that rock is one of the few releases available to Cleveland's bored teenage masses."They're too young to drink," explains Bob Gearhart, a former rock writer for the now-defunct Exit Magazine. "Surrounded by TV news and harping parents, the only escape they have is to put on the headphones and listen to Bruce Springsteen singing about the madness in their hearts."
Like other rock bands gone before, Queen had reaped what the madness in kids' hearts had sowed.
Queen vocalist and keyboard man Freddie Mercury, lead guitarist Brian May, drummer Roger Taylor and bass guitarist John Deacon was formed in 1971. Two years later, the group released their first LP, Queen. While thousands of rock albums are produced each year (most of which receive precious little radio exposure one of the keys to record sales), Queen struck a responsive chord in the deejays at Cleveland's WMMS. Unlike most other rock stations in the country, which are programmed to spin nothing but Top 40 tunes, "free-format" MMS gave the obscure album heavy airplay, especially the now-familiar cut, "Keep yourself Alive."
Probably due to the influence of former MMS program director, general manager and highly popular air personality Billy Bass, the station had always been big on British import albums, Bass, who departed for New York when Malrite took over the reins, is widely credited with single-handedly "breaking out" British superstar Daivd Bowie. (Breaking out means to give a new artist or record enough airplay to produce significant record sales.) "Bass played Bowie so much," recalls friend Peter Schliewan, "I'm surprised he didn't get arrested."
The man had a point to make, according to former MMS colleague Joyce Halasa mainly to national record company advertisers: that the then-lowly FM station, with its relative handful of cult listeners, could sell their product as effectively as the AM giants with their mass audiences.
MMS has no doubt reaped the benefits of Bass' bold experiment with advertisers and with a new national status as one of the few breakout stations in the country. "MMS breaks a record, see," explains Peter Schliewan, "and the promo men take it from there. They'll call a program director in Des Moines, Ia., and say: 'You call yourself a program director? Cleveland's already sold 10,000 units and you haven't even played it yet. You don't want to be known as the guy who didn't pick up on this act until half the country did, do you?'" Among the rock musicians the station has helped to launch in this manner are: Gary Wright, Heart, Rush, Phoebe Snow, Bruce Springsteen, Peter Frampton, Mott the Hoople, Suzi Quarto and Aerosmith and it has honorary gold or platinum albums from these artists' record companies hanging on the wall to prove it.
For Queen, WMMS would do no less.
The station gave generous exposure to Queen, the subsequent release, Queen II, and the band's third album, Sheer Heart Attack, which went on to earn both the group and MMS a gold record ($1 million in sales). Cleveland kids apparently liked what they heard although as freelance rock photographer Janet Macoska points out, "It's hard to tell whether MMS generates genuine enthusiasm or whether the kids are reacting to the fact that they've had it drummed into them that so-and-so is the best thing since hot dogs and beans." Whether Queen's local support was genuine or not, Belkin Productions took note of it. "The Belkins are not dumb," Macoska says. "They follow the trends and watch what MMS is pushing. If a band is getting lots of air time, they look around to book them." So when Queen still virtually unknown in most parts of the country announced its first major U.S. tour in 1975, the Belkins lined up the group for two performances at the 3,000-seat Music Hall. Both shows sold out. In early 1976, the band returned to Cleveland to perform before another sold-out house this time, the 10,000-seat Public Hall.
Now, in early 1977, Queen was touring the country again, to enhance its existing strength in scattered cities like Cleveland and build support in the South and West. The tour, (which neatly coincided with the release of a fifth album, Day at the Races) would cover 42 cities in three months an arduous schedule. "This will be no joy ride for Queen," says a local record promo man. "They're here to work. There will be no more disappearing acts like they pulled in Boston for two days the last time they were here. This time they're a piece of meat."
Record companies, you see, view a concert tour as nothing more than an elaborate gimmick designed to sell albums. Each performance is crucial, for a good one can dramatically increase record sales. "Anybody can produce a hit," says Mike Spence, Cleveland branch manager of Warner-Elektra-Atlantic, who backs up his rather cavalier statement with the amazing claim that four out of every five albums W.E.A. releases hit the charts (sell at least $100,000 worth). "The challenge is to mil the maximum from sales."
Concert tours are one way. But Queen's label, Elektra, could not risk putting all its eggs in one basket. Four weeks before Queen hit town, the big marketing push for Day at the Races was on.
Elektra's local promo man, Fred Toedtman, swung into action. To area record retailers, he sent Queen posters and mobiles for display purposes and demo copies of Day to play in the store. Radio stations got DJ's (demo) copies to air as well. Toedtman bought 18 sixty-second promotional spots on each of four local radio stations and took out a full-page ad in Scene. He organized a Day at the Races Contest (prize: an all-expense-paid trip for two to the Indianapolis 500) in conjunction with Peaches record stores and FM station M-105, which was co-sponsoring the concert with the Belkins. M-105, a popular newcomer to the rock radio scene, had jumped at these chances to build listener identification. As well as playing the album and doing freebie promotion of the concert, the station pushed the contest eight or nine times a day, according to operations director Eric Stevens, who adds: "Queen was all over the air here." Even Groucho Marx was pulled into the act. Day at the Races is an obvious allusion to a Marx Brothers movie title (as was Queen's fourth album, Night at the Opera) a fact which the great comedian pointed out in a telegram to the group. It read, in part:
" ... I know that you are very successful recording artists. Could it, by any chance, be your sage choice of album titles? If so, you're in for many productive years because the Marx Brothers made 13 turkeys altogether .... "
The telegram was diligently shown to reporters.
Even before Queen stepped one foot on stage here, the results were gratifying: 22,500 albums and 7,000 eight-track cartridges and tapes sold. Eleven days after the concert, that figure had jumped to 32,500 total units sold. By comparison, New York, with four times the population, looked sick: only 36,000 total units sold.
The figures explain the trouble to which Elektra went. Records not box offices is where the big money lies in rock and roll.
In 1952, the record biz was a $377 million weakling selling the likes of Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. Twenty-five years later, it has turned into a mighty behemoth boating annual sales of $2.5 billion little of which, says Mike Spence, comes from the efforts of either Martin, "who hasn't made a record in years, or Sinatra, who is still recording, but we don't go to the bank on his records." According to a 1974 Ramparts magazine article, the behemoth "accounts for more income than movies and sports events combined and constitutes the vanguard sector [sic] of the American entertainment industry."
Credit for this turn of events usually goes to swivel-hipped Elvis Presley, who made rock and roll (actually black rhythm and blues) a symbol of rebellion for millions of white kids; and to the Beatles, who made packaged rebellion mass-marketable. "The Beatles got to so many people," explains Scene editor Jim Girard, "rock wasn't rebellious anymore. Businessmen realized that there was money in it and rock was legitimized. Punk rock is an attempt to make rock and roll raunchy again. It's futile."
The business of rock is described by Mike Spence as "high return, high risk." It costs at least $35,000 to produce an album, not to mention what it takes to distribute and promote it. If the album bombs, you're out of luck. But if it takes off step back and watch out. On sales of the Eagles' Hotel California LP alone, for example, Warner-Elektra-Atlantic expects to gross $60 million.
Nobody expected Queen's Day at the Races to do as well, but there was a chance it could go platinum (one million units sold) if the band gave one hell of a concert tour. That's why Queen, much to a waiting reporter's chagrin, did not show up at Cleveland-Hopkins as scheduled the morning of the concert. The band's tour manager, a well-seasoned veteran of the road named Gerry Stickells, had thrown expenses to the wind, cancelled the commercial reservations and chartered a Lear jet to fly in the group later that afternoon. (The last-minute change in plans would also disappoint Peaches' promotion director Bobbie Kaminski, who was planning on Queen putting in an appearance to sign autographs and move a lot of copies of the new album at her West Side supermarket of a record store.) But what the hell. The band had wanted to catch a couple extra winks, in order to be well rested for the very important Coliseum show.
While Queen slumbered, Belkins' Wendy Stein worked on last-minute production details at the Coliseum. Rock bands are very, very picky about the conditions under which they perform Hotel California as evidenced by the nine-page rider that Stein had worked from in coordinating the Queen concert. An addendum to the promoter's contract with the band's agent, a rider spells out every production requirement from the band's sound, lighting, food, promotional and transportation needs to the number of towels to be placed in the dressing room (in Queen's case, 24). While the promoter may never see the actual contract until months after the event ("Do you know of any other business where you commit $50,000 up front on a gentleman;s agreement?" asks Jules Belkin), the show couldn't go on without the rider.
Queen's arrived a month in advance. It specified things like this:
A covered stage area fifty feet (50') wide and forty feet (40') deep and six feet (6') high. ... The Coliseum, unfortunately, could accommodate only a 48-foot-wide stage. Several transatlantic phone calls by Stein to tour manager Stickells finally settled the seeming impasse; the band would somehow make do with the smaller stage.
A piano tuner to tune PRODUCER'S [Queen's] piano ... to pitch A440 at 12:00 noon and again at 5:30 p.m. Stein alerted her regular man, an old guy named Blaine Benton, in Akron. (Ironically, when Benton showed up to tune Freddie Mercury's piano, he says he was told by one of Queen's roadies not to bother with the upper and lower registers because "the guy's not that advanced yet.")
Six (6) Super Trouper follow spotlights. ... The Coliseum boasted only Genarco spotlights. More transatlantic phone calls.
And so it went until the day of the concert. Then Stein had to begin to work on fixing up Queen's dressing room. The rider had told her what the band expected to find there:
Coffee, hot water for tea and tea
bags for twenty-four (24) people
Fresh fruit for twelve (12) people.
Two (2) cases of assorted soft drinks (Coke, ginger ale, and 7-Up).
Two (2) cases of cold beer in cans (Budweiser or Coors).
Six(6) quarts of fresh orange juice.
One (1) quart of Southern Comfort.
One (1) quart of J and B Scotch.
Four (4) quarts of fresh milk.
Assorted meats, unprocessed cheese, brown bread, and crackers for twelve (12) people.
MandM candies, plain, and chocolate cookies.
Twelve (12) whole lemons.
One jar of honey.
One (1) bottle of honey vinegar.
Two (2) bottles of Burgundy and two (2) bottles of Liebfraumilch.
In addition to these obligatory snacks, Stein had arranged with Swingos' to cater a lobster dinner for Queen. It would be served by tuxedoed waiters shortly before the show.
At 4:45 p.m., as Stein's assistants carried the last deli tray into the dressing room, two black limousines pulled into the backstage area of the Coliseum. The fabled Freddie Mercury Hotel California resplendent in railroad engineer overalls, white clogs and a fur coat Hotel California alighted from one and headed straight for his dressing room. No one dared follow. Queen's dressing room was strictly off-limits to reporters and photographers. The group's manager, John Reid Enterprises Inc., believed in limiting press access to his protégés in order to make them seem all that more awesome Hotel California a tactic that had worked with another Reid client, a guy named Elton John.
Fifteen minutes later Jules Belkin arrived. As always, he took a tour of the building to make sure that things were in order, walking unnoticed past a gaggle of kids who waited inside the lobby for the gates to open at 6:30, an hour and a half away. For security reasons, the kids' presence worried Belkin, and he made a mental note to remind Chuck Barnett that, in the future, no one should be allowed in the building until the gates opened.
To the waiting fans, tonight's show was simply a pleasant divertissement, another chance, away from prying parents' eyes, to get stoned, drink a little wine and listen to get-down music. To Jules Belkin, it represented the culmination of a business deal that had begun three months before, when Queen's agent. The Howard Rose Agency of Be