Saturday, January 29, 2011

Pat DiCesare

Pat DiCesare

Pat DiCesare was born in Trafford on April 12th, 1938, into a family of nine siblings. His father came from Italy and settled in Trafford to work as a shipper for Westinghouse Electric and raise his family.

After he graduated from Trafford High, DiCesare, like his dad, took a job with Westinghouse in nearby East Pittsburgh after a taste of college at Youngstown State.

He left WE just months later to work for Tim Tormey as a stock boy and later record distributor for Regal Records (Dicesare would also work in sales and promotion for Decca Records). Tormey was a local concert promoter and talent agent who DiCesare would eventually partner with in the biz that attracted him from the very start.

As a teenager, DiCesare was in a doo-wop band with a group of friends called The Penn Boys. He wrote, produced, and released his first single in 1957, “Gonna Have a Party,” done by The Penn Boys.

He was a singer for the band, but even then knew what career path was best suited for him. DiCesare stepped out of the spotlight and took on the role of manager, writer and producer.

The budding songwriter penned “I'm Spinning” and “You Say You Love Me,” released by Joe Averbach's Fee Bee Records in 1957. The tunes were recorded by the Kripp Johnson version of the Dell Vikings just after the originals had released “Come Go With Me” and “Whispering Bells” on Dot Records.

He started Bobby Records in the fifties, named after his first recording artist Bobby Vinton, who did "Halellujah I Love Her So" and "Twilight Time". Ray Charles and The Platters also released the songs, leaving Vinton and Bobby Records in the dust, though it did land the Polish Prince a contract with Epic Records. DiCesare later managed The Marcels.

On May 8th, 1962, the first concert that DiCesare promoted solo hit the stage. The show starred the Four Freshmen at Stambaugh Auditorium in Youngstown, Ohio, a venue that seated about 2,500. It was a modest start to a spectacular career.

DiCesare and Tormey were partners by now, and he worked with him on a “Shower of Stars” concert series that bundled several headline acts, usually in partnership with KQV radio. In the fifties, concerts were held at the 3,700 seat Syria Mosque in Oakland or the 2,000 seat Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall across the street.

Even with those small venues, the rule of thumb was that a single act couldn't sell out a house, which is why the old days were sprinkled with so many great shows featuring a half-dozen or more performers. And the rule of thumb was no matter how many acts you brought in, they could never sell out an arena show.

But Porky Chedwick of WAMO changed that thinking. He brought in the first rock 'n' roll show at the Arena in May of 1962, starring Jackie Wilson, The Drifters, The Coasters, The Castelles, Jerry Butler, The Flamingos, The Angels, The Blue Belles, and The Skyliners. It was a roaring hit, and gave DiCesare and Tormey a blueprint to work from for future shows.

Their first "Shower of Stars" hosted by the Civic Arena was held on June 14th, 1963. It starred Dion, The Chiffons, The Shirelles, and Freddy Cannon, and did pretty well at the gate.

It also spawned an innovation - National Record Mart became the first major off-site ticket broker. Sam, Howard and Jason Shapiro, who owned the NRM, distributed ticket vouchers to all their 34 Tri-State stores, adding a quarter to the cost of each ticket. The guys all knew and trusted one another; in fact, the sales were kept in a box kept under each store's cash register.

So hey, for better or worse, Ticketmaster is the oak that grew from the acorn planted by DiCesare, Tormey and the Shapiro brothers.

Though their show was a rollicking success, there wouldn't be another rock concert at the arena until September 14th, 1964. That's when Tormey and DiCesare brought in a mop-headed Brit band called the Beatles.

There are some wild stories about the travels of the $5,000 that DiCesare had to put down as advance money, but this much is gospel: his dad borrowed the money from the Westinghouse Electric Credit Union and put up his house as collateral. No pressure, hey?

And to add to it, DiCesare was in the Army and stationed at Fort Sill while the whole thing was going down. He even missed the show.

It was a show of firsts. It was the first time an arena show would sell on the merits of just one performer instead of a posse of bands. (For the record, there were opening acts: Clarence “Frogman” Henry, Jackie DeShannon, The Exciters, and the Bill Black Combo. But they were there at Beatle manager's Brian Epstein's bequest. He feared that the Fab Four would lose their voices during the tour if they were the only band playing.)

It was also the first time an act demanded and received a percentage of the gate against a guarantee. Tormey whittled the guarantee down to $25K from the asked-for $35K; in exchange, the Beatles got a percentage of the gate if it was worth more (It was; they got $37,000.)

The show sold out in 36 hours, all 12,600 tickets going at $5.90 per pop. The Beatles made out as did Tormey and DiCesare, taking in $8,800. DiCesare's dad got to keep his house. In fact, Pat would end up eventually paying his pop double the amount out of gratitude for launching him into the big time.

And hey, another first: the tickets were all mail order, and Tormey had the sales handled by a convent. "Get thee to a nunnery" took on a whole new meaning for Beatlemania.

DiCesare used to emcee the concerts, but his gig with Uncle Sam in Oklahoma precluded introducing the Fab Four. The honor went to KQV's Fun Loving Five of Hal Murray, Steve Rizen, Dave Scott, Dex Allen and Chuck Brinkman.

The Beatles' first US Tour became the genesis for arena-rock, not just in Pittsburgh but around the country. They were the first act that could sell out an arena on their own; many others were to follow. Remember, in 1964 the Rolling Stones played West View Danceland just two weeks before The Beatles show at the Igloo. Geez, would that change by the end of the sixties!

And a new breed of promoters was emerging, too. DiCesare-Tormey, Bill Graham Productions in San Francisco, Electric Factory Concerts in Philadelphia, Belkin Productions in Cleveland and Sid Bernstein in New York were now "rock concert promoters," the new industry Goliaths.

They did several Arena shows a year, bringing in the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, and other rock giants along with the occasional "Shower of Stars" olio.

DiCesare expanded his reach. In 1965, he co-founded the Dapper Dan Roundball Classic with his Trafford and Youngstown State bud Sonny Vaccaro and the help of Post-Gazette sports writer Al Abrams.

It was the first national high school All-Star game and spawned a zillion imitators. The first game of its 43 year national run was played in 1965 at the Civic Arena, its home until 1993.

Tormey left Pittsburgh in 1967 for Hollywood to work with Dick Clark Productions (he passed away in 2009), so DiCesare continued to promote concerts on his own. His first company was called “University Attractions,” later becoming “Pat DiCesare Productions.”

At the same time, DiCesare was booking and managing between 50 to 100 local bands. He was one busy dude - and one you had to know. If you wanted to stage a rock show in Pittsburgh, the odds were that you had to knock on DiCesare's door to get in. And play nice, too - DiCesare was storied to be near blows once or twice with temperamental artists. Hey, it is Pittsburgh, after all, and lawyers aren't the only option to enforce a contract.

DiCesare had exclusive leases with the Civic Arena, Syria Mosque, and eventually Three Rivers Stadium, promoting almost all of the large rock concerts that played Pittsburgh plus booking shows in regional secondary markets like Erie and Johnstown.

The way it worked was that the band's promoter had to cut DiCesare in on the show, and then he would prime the pump in the city, setting up the show and doing the PR.

Still, sometimes a guy needs a hand. In late 1973, DiCesare joined with Rich Engler, who ran an entertainment agency called Go Attractions that booked edgy acts like Lou Reed and David Bowie.

They called the new company DiCesare-Engler Productions, and it became one of the top grossing, powerhouse agencies in the nation. Engler focused on booking the acts while DiCesare focused on one-off opportunities, especially eying real estate. Later, they would add another partner, Ed Traversari, who handled mid-size venues.

Over the years, DiCesare and company brought Chicago, Grand Funk Railroad, The Who, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Janis Joplin, Pink Floyd, Eric Clapton, Aerosmith, the Grateful Dead, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Bruce Springsteen, ZZ Top, Paul McCartney, and Jesus Christ Superstar to the arena.

He also did many of the first shows at Three Rivers Stadium, including Led Zeppelin, Three Dog Night, and Alice Cooper. TRS also hosted his single biggest money loser, the "Monsters of Rock" concert in 1988, featuring Van Halen, the Scorpions, Metallica and many empty seats masquerading as fans.

You may have a memory long enough to remember some of the stories of those shows back in the spoiled-brat days of rock...well, OK, maybe they still are, but not quite like this:

The Led Zep manager smashed $2,500 worth of champagne because he didn't like the brand; Janis Joplin pranced on stage in a see-through mesh skirt sans panties after a backstage tryst; the Rolling Stones refused to let the KQV jocks introduce them, the hubbub that surrounded the Doors after Jim Morrison's Miami flashing, Motley Crue with their X-rated background film and the many groups that needed sweet-talking after refusing to play a sold-out show over one presumed slight or another. But hey, it's only rock 'n' roll, right?

DiCesare-Engler took over operations of the Downtown Stanley Theatre in 1977, buying the old movie palace and turning it into a rock hall. The venue became the number one grossing auditorium in the country.

They sold the Stanley to the Cultural Trust for $12M in 1983. The Trust converted it into the Benedum Center, and it still fills with music on occasion, like during the PBS doo-wop specials.

In 1980 DiCesare-Engler expanded operations to Las Vegas for a brief period. DiCesare moved there, promoting shows and operating the 7000 seat Aladdin Theatre for the Performing Arts.

He returned to Pittsburgh in 1981 and along with Nick Censi and Rich Engler formed DECCO Records. They had signed a few local acts, notably Joe Grushecky. It was one of their few misses.

That same year, DiCesare-Engler was honored with a Variety Club award and were recognized for “Bringing Broadway Back to Pittsburgh” by Mayor Richard Caliguiri.

DiCesare-Engler signed an agreement with the Syria Mosque in Oakland in 1984, where they assumed management and continued promoting rock and Broadway shows ala the Stanley Theatre. That didn't work out quite as well; the Mosque became a parking lot in 1991.

DiCesare began looking for a summer venue at that time. The Mosque didn't have AC and they had sold the Stanley, so they needed a fan-friendly stage to take full advantage of the busy summertime touring season.

In 1986, DiCesare purchased 500 acres of land near Cranberry in Adams Township with plans to build a romper room that would include an indoor mall, waterpark, children's theme park, and a $10 million outdoor amphitheatre with 7,500 covered seats and room for 12,500 lawn spectators.

The Adams Township zoning commission didn't share his dream, and so that plan went down the drain after the lawyers and judges finished doing their sometimes baffling and always expensive thing. DiCesare eventually sold the parcel after starting a 2,100 lot housing project (the media called it "DiCesare City") that's now the Adams Ridge development.

DiCesare-Engler began booking the AJ Palumbo Center when it opened in 1988, and had built the Melody Amphitheatre (aka IC Light Amphitheatre, Chevrolet Amphitheatre, and now the Amphitheatre at Station Square) in 1989.

He purchased 250 acres in Jackson Township after the Adams turn-down as an amphitheatre site, but while in the process of rezoning the property, Pace Concerts of Houston broke ground in Burgettstown for Star Lake.

In March 1990, DiCesare-Engler joined with the PACE Entertainment Group to co-promote the Star Lake Amphitheater (now the Post Gazette Pavilion at Star Lake) which later opened in June of 1990. If ya can't beat 'em, join 'em.

DiCesare-Engler was a big thing in the concert industry. They were in the top 20 in gross sales amongst US concert promoters thanks to the success of their smaller venues such as the AJ Palumbo Center, Syria Mosque, IC Light Amphitheatre, and their 1992 venture with Factory Concerts to build the 4000 seat Bud Light Amphitheatre at Harvey's Lake, 5 miles outside of Wilkes-Barre.

The dynamic duo also continued to fill the Civic Arena and Three Rivers Stadium with warm fannies, along with packing the Star Lake Amphitheatre. In 1997, when the Post Gazette first released their list of the "Top 50 Culture Brokers," Pat DiCesare and Rich Engler ranked third. Hey, who even knew rock was culture?

DiCesare began to branch out, creating and booking festivals and entertainment happenings while Engler continued booking their bread-and-butter concerts.

He created the "Fright Fest," held at the Ampitheatre at Station Square every Halloween season, the "Celebration of Lights," a charity event celebrated at Hartwood Acres every Yuletide, and various ethnic festivals in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and even Irvine, California.

DiCesare even took on the Pittsburgh Three Rivers Regatta in 1998. It was $750,000 in debt and floundering at the time. He added sponsors and cut the event from six days to four, while DiCesare-Engler was able to book performers at better prices. The Regatta got back on its feet in a hurry. It took DiCesare just two years to right the ship once again.

That year would be the last hurrah for DiCesare-Engler Productions. It was sold to SFX Entertainment as local promoters found it harder and harder to compete against the national big boys. The music industry was losing its local roots to industry-wide consolidation; as we can see today, there are no small ponds left.

Engler stayed aboard with the new company and became the CEO of DiCesare-Engler/SFX. DiCesare, 60 years old, opted out, ending a nearly 25 year partnership between he and Engler. SFX would later be sold to Clear Channel, and then fall into the clutches of Live Nation; Rich Engler got off the merry-go-round in 2004 and Traversari in 2007.

DiCesare has been out of the entertainment business since the SFX sale, and now invests in and manages real estate, operating the highly successful DiCesare Investment Group Inc. It gave him a chance to catch his breath and reflect, and in 2014, he released his insiders' memoir, “Hard Days, Hard Nights …,” chock full of yarns and tales of indulgence from the rock era.

He lives in Greensburg with Kathy, his bride of over four decades, and has three children and two grandchildren. Pat DiCesare is enjoying his golden years, serving as a professor emeritus of local rock history.

And hey...for Old Mon's money, you can keep the new music industry. This City made the rock 'n' roll map in 1964, when Pat DiCesare's dad literally bet the house on his kid and a bunch of nuns who stacked dollar bills and stuffed envelopes with Beatle tickets. Let Live Nation and Lady Gaga top that.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Walt Harper

Walt Harper

Hey, Pittsburgh has been home to some of the world's greatest jazz players. And a lot of them have stayed home to play their music, too many to mention. But the guy that's arguably the most synonymous with jazz in the City may be none other than Walt Harper.

Harper was a jazz pianist, club owner, recording artist and producer while living in his hometown of Pittsburgh throughout virtually all of his sixty year musical journey.

He was born on July 3rd, 1926, the sixth of eight children. His dad Charles owned a home contracting and building business while his mom Lucinda was a homemaker with her own home-based beauty shop located on Clarissa Street in Schenley Heights, a middle-class neighborhood in the Upper Hill.

Harper didn't take to hammers and saws (or curlers, for that matter), but he did show an early interest in music. His parents were supportive as they were with all the kids, and his brothers Ernie and Nate ended up pretty fair musicians, too.

Ernie was a pianist and Nate a tenor saxophonist who would one day join his brother Walt's quartet. Walt credited older bro Ernie, who became a jazz fixture in Chicago, with being his earliest musical influence on the piano. Ernie was already playing piano around Pittsburgh with young drummer Art Blakey, a fair jazz player himself.

Harper went to Oakland's Schenley High School as did two of his best friends, bassist Ray Brown and saxophonist Stanley Turrentine, the Sugar Man. Harper played valve trombone in the all-city band, but switched to piano. He was also a member of the Swinging Five, a jazz group he founded with Brown.

As teenagers, Harper and Brown would shoot hooky and go across town to Homewood and Errol Garner's house to listen to him play the piano. Garner would have music scores piled on the keyboards; the school-skipping pair never realized that he couldn't read music and was playing by ear.

After graduating from high school in 1947, he studied at the Pittsburgh Musical Institute and the University of Pittsburgh for a couple of years. Harper then led a 10-piece band on the road from 1949 to 1954. The group appeared all over the East and Midwest with artists like Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan and George Shearing. But Harper never took to the road and came back home to stay.

Harper built a following by playing fraternity gigs and the tri-state area college circuit. Early on in his local career, he picked up the nickname "The Prom King" because his band played so many high school and college dates.

He was equally popular at the Mt. Lebanon High School as he was at the House, and throughout his playing days would entertain a racially mixed audience. In fact, the Courier's Teenie Harris photo collection shows white teens dancing to Harper's tune in the fifties.

In 1958, Harper's band started a gig at the popular Crawford Grill in the Hill District as the club's house band. It would run for over a decade during the fifties and sixties. The same fraternity guys and high school kids that he played for earlier followed him in droves to the Crawford.

At the same time, he began producing jazz festivals at the Hilton Hotel Ballroom in the early 1960s, selling out concerts by Carmen McRae, Chico Hamilton and the Ramsey Lewis Trio.

Later in the decade, he joined forces with the Catholic Youth Organization in producing larger festivals at the Civic Arena, featuring the Duke Ellington Orchestra, Thelonius Monk, Cannonball Adderley, the John Coltrane Quartet, and the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra with Joe Williams among other acts.

Harper remained at the Crawford until 1969 when he opened his own club, Walt Harper's Attic, downtown in Market Square up a flight of stairs above a State store. Don't laugh; it ended up the perfect spot for a club.

He did a lot of his own work. First, there was no problem with generating goodwill with the City's jazz fans. He had a photographic memory, remembered names, even if he hadn't seen someone for years, and had a big smile for one and all. Plus he started with that built-in cadre of followers from the Crawford.

And he wasn't afraid to do a little personal tub-thumping. Harper made his rounds in those early days, personally delivering his publicity blurbs and photos to the newspaper desks each week.

Harper brought in the biggest names of jazz. Stan Getz, Ramsey Lewis, Dizzy Gillespie, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Joe Williams and Cannonball Adderley, along with local stars Billy Eckstine, Maxine Sullivan, Roy Eldridge, Ahmad Jamal, and his high school buds Turrentine and Brown graced the Attic.

He would pay those cats to improvise, while Harper, from his piano stool, led his band and played mainstream, get-down-and-boogie jazz jams between sets. A couple of his more popular tunes were "I'll Drink to That" and "It's My Pleasure," but there's no question that his signature song was "Satin Doll," a tune he played so often that many Pittsburghers thought he, not Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn, wrote the tune.

During the first year of operation, Harper had the doormen keep a count of the Attic customers coming up the stairs. They totaled more than 250,000, many of them repeat visits, and it was nothing to see a line snaking around the block to get into the club. And many were well known folk like Terry Bradshaw, L.C. Greenwood and Connie Hawkins, adding some cachet to the joint.

Things went swimmingly until 1976, when after seven years, Harper noisily bumped heads with his partners and sold the Attic. He took the time to perform and do his own projects, but he was back in business soon enough when he opened Harper's Jazz Club downstairs of the Grant Street Oxford Center in 1982.

The Club drew corporate and politco clientele in keeping with Harper's desire to move jazz from the back rooms to the mainstream.

Among the musicians featured at both of Harper's clubs were: Cannonball Adderley, Max Roach, Nancy Wilson, Mel Tormé, Wynton Marsalis, The Modern Jazz Quartet, Dave Brubeck, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Joe Williams, George Shearing, Carmen McCrae and Lionel Hampton; there were many others.

Harper found that the days of the downtown clubs were ending. It was just too hard to put together a business model to cover building and appearance expenses, and he pulled the plug on the Jazz Club in 1988.

And hey, it's not like he couldn't use the time off from the club hamster wheel. He honed his tennis game, and became one of the top celebrity players in the area, achy knees and all. Try doing that while you're running a club by day and a band by night.

Professionally, Harper performed up and down the East Coast, led jazz workshops and cultural programs, recorded, appeared numerous times on national and local TV, received awards, wrote and composed music (he scored a ballet for Dance Alloy)...oh, and he had that Steeler gig, too.

In the seventies, Harper and his group "All That Jazz" were hired by the Rooneys to play as the house band for the Steeler home games, a job they held until 2002. Ya think Three Rivers Stadium was a big enough room for the showman?

"Walt Harper at Fallingwater," filmed at the Kaufmann Home which was designed by Frank Lloyd-Wright, was aired nationally on WQED/PBS in 1975, and Harper was nominated for a local Emmy award for his performance.

Harper recorded four CD’s on his own Birmingham label with his lifelong friend Ray Brown. They were "West Coast On Line," produced by Ray Brown with arrangements by John Clayton; "Gee Baby Ain’t I Good To You," co-produced with Ray Brown and John Clayton; "In Very Good Company" with Ray Brown, Stanley Turrentine and Cecil Brooks III, and "Be My Guest" with Ray Brown and Stanley Turrentine.

Earlier in his career Harper recorded several other albums, "Eddie Jefferson With the Walt Harper Quintet," "Night Thoughts," "Walt Harper at Fallingwater," "Live at the Attic," "On the Road," "The College Jazz Beat," and "Harper's Ferry."

Heck, while we were searching we also found a bit of LP vinyl called "Open Pantry Presents Christmas Eve With Walt Harper" from 1974, which brings us up to an even dozen records for the jazzman.

He was recognized for his work with a variety of awards and honors. Harper was named as the 2006 Musician’s Union Man of the Year Award; was a recipient of the 2004 Harry Schwab Excellence in the Arts Award, and in 2001, he received the Mellon Jazz Community Award for his contributions to the jazz community. Harper was also posthumously recognized by Pittsburgh City Council, and The Legacy apartments across from the Crawford Grill building feature his mural inside along with the other jazz greats from the City.

Harper, who resided in Point Breeze, went to his reward suddenly on October 25th, 2006. He suffered a reported heart attack and died en route to UPMC Shadyside. He was 80 years old at the time (and he probably hated that his true age finally came out; he was famous for knocking five years or a decade off the years he spent on this mortal coil).

Active until the end, Harper was fully booked for the following year at jazz halls in Pittsburgh and the surrounding area. Harper is survived by his wife, Maggie Harper, and his only daughter from his first marriage, Sharynn Harper, a New York based writer/independent producer.

The Walt Harper Jazz Music Education Fund was established in Harper's memory to recognize youth (particularly in the Pittsburgh area) who show outstanding talent and promise in the jazz field.

Walt Harper and Kenny Blake - "The Real Thing"

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Big Weekend...

It starts rollin' on Friday at Altar Bar on Penn in the Strip when Brian Drusky holds his Drusky Entertainment Five Year Anniversary Show, with ticket proceeds going to the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

The bands playing will be: The Buzz Poets, 28 North, Gene the Werewolf and The Composure, Lovebettie, Good Brother Earl, Triggers, Bishop Clay, The Delaneys, Mercury, Crossing Boundaries, Voodoo Babies and Burning Earth.

It's a 21+ show. The tickets are $5, available through Ticketmaster.

And if you like a little hip-hop & country with your football, Wiz Khalifa will rap his monster "Black and Yellow" before Steeler kickoff at 6:30 Sunday, and Martina McBride will sing the National Anthem. At halftime, Mr. MNF himself, Hank Williams Jr., will perform on the South Plaza.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Steeler Polka

Hey, Old Mon is a believer. So is Gene the Werewolf. The band has updated the ol' seventies Black & Gold anthem, "The Steeler Polka." Here it be...and let's hope it works just as well as the original.

Lenny Litman

A 1950 Copa Club ad featuring, of all people, Bela Lugosi

When Old Mon was growing up in the fifties and sixties, Lenny Litman was the alpha dog in the back rooms of Pittsburgh's music business.

Litman was a promoter, club owner, show biz reporter, and sports entrepreneur. If it involved entertainment in the 'Burgh, Litman had his hand in it.

He entered the world as Norman Leonard Litman on May 15, 1914, in North Braddock, and became known far and wide as Lenny. Litman was the son of immigrants who dabbled in a bit of Prohibition-era bootlegging and eventually ended up with a beer distributorship. (In fact, Lenny's attorney brother S. David Litman represented his sibling in some liquor license transfer cases, and was thought to operate the first local firm with its own liquor law section).

His working career began in 1931 as a stringer covering high school sports for his school paper, the Braddock Daily News Herald, The Pittsburgh Press and Pittsburgh Sun Telegraph. One thing he did learn early on was that life was easier using your smarts rather than your back; Litman lasted all of thirteen days working in the mill.

After graduating from Braddock High School in 1932, he went on to Shenandoah College and the University of Richmond, where he got his first tub-thumping job as the Spiders' sports publicity director. He finally got his sheepskin from the University of Pittsburgh in 1937.

Litman then became a flack for Pitt's 150th Anniversary celebration, setting up shows for the year-long event. Never shy about his talents, he went on a road trip to California with high school buds, aiming to become movie stars. Lenny never did get to perform on the golden screen, but he did make some Hollywood contacts from the production/publicity spectrum.

He returned to Pittsburgh in 1938 at his dad's urging to go to law school. That lasted a year, when he dropped out to produce the Hoot Gibson Rodeo and Thrill Circus, which folded after playing Homestead and North Braddock. Litman's brother Archie paid off the cowboys, Indians, and the hotel bill at Oakland's Webster Hall.

But he kept on keepin' on. He was a press agent for Gibson, the Wallace Brothers Circus and later the Russell Brothers Circus; he also promoted boxing cards and a donkeyball group (no, we're not going there, hey, we're not even asking, lol.)

Then came 1941 and the war. Litman enlisted in the Navy and was a swabbie for the duration, getting his discharge in 1945.

He returned to Pittsburgh, and with a hand from brothers Archie and Gene bought Mercur's Music Bar. From 1945 to 1948, The Music Bar was the downtown jazz joint. Its stage held Art Tatum, Erroll Garner, Ethel Waters, George Shearing, Mary Lou Williams and Walt Harper.

Litman and his brothers bought the Villa Madrid at 818 Liberty Avenue, a block from the old Nixon Theater (now the site of the August Wilson African-American Cultural Center) in 1948 and turned it into the Copa, the last grand dame of the club era in Pittsburgh.

And that block rocked. Beside the Nixon shows, the Copa was right across the street from Litman's main competition, the Carousel Lounge. The action never stopped.

Lenny came from a jazz background, and also knew the nightclub circuit of Vegas-act singers and comedians. But he opened the Copa with a pop singer, Frankie Laine, and sold out the house.

Don't ask how many warm fannies that would entail; the Copa held 287...but only when the fire marshall was in the house, and that wasn't often. There were three shows a night, Monday through Saturday.

We suspect more than 861 fans jammed in there over the course of an evening. Even with a cover, if you look at the ad above the post, you'll see dinner started at the princely sum of $1.50. Hey, a guy gotta pay the bills...

Liking Laine's gate, Litman rolled the dice, booking Vic Damone and Ella Fitzgerald. Their success convinced him to follow the pop charts, a new twist to night club scheduling. Pittsburgh at the time was all jazz, interspersed with visits from the Vegas circuit. So Litman, in his way, helped open the gates for pop musicians to tour.

The Copa's national headliners were many and varied: Sammy Davis Jr., Johnny Mathis, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, Cab Callaway, Mel Torme, Conway Twitty, Patti Page, Andy Williams, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Woody Herman, Henny Youngman, Pearl Bailey, Johnnie Ray, Rudy Vallee, Artie Shaw, Bela Lugosi, Marty Allen, Lili St. Cyr, Jackie Kahane, Buck & Bubbles, Billie Holliday, Bill Haley and the Comets, Al Hibbler and Miles Davis.

He missed a couple of acts, though. Litman passed on Elvis Presley and Lenny Bruce (although he helped book him into other venues), both being a little rowdy for his taste. It was a life-long thing; Pat DiCesare said in the Post-Gazette's 2001 "Hittsburgh" series that Litman left him a niche in the promotion biz because of his preference for MOR-type musicians and shows, leaving DiCesare the hard rockers.

Litman knew all the tricks. Beside squeezing in an extra table or two, he had a knack for picking out up-and-comers. It made great business sense. He signed them to contract options to play at the club, locking them into a low rate for future appearances if they ever hit it big, and providing affordable off-night acts if they didn't.

He also figured out how to skirt the state blue laws that outlawed Sunday entertainment. For New Year's Eve in 1950, which fell on a Sunday, he closed the Copa, rented the upstairs room, and moved the tables there to host a "private" party.

The Copa boomed for awhile, but the club business was being eroded by newer, larger suburban venues and escalating pay scales for the acts. At the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve, 1959, the Copa closed. Funny what a difference the opening and closing of a decade can make.

Over the years, he also shared ownership of a half-dozen clubs and lounges, like the Encore, Midway, Carnival, and Rock and Roll. But that era was done, and without missing a beat, Litman pulled on his promoter cap full-time.

He had been promoting shows through the fifties. After the Copa closed, he booked every act he could find in just about every local venue:

The Civic Arena (Harry Belafonte, Sammy Davis Jr., Bolshoi Ballet); The Syria Mosque (Peter, Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan, The Band, The Kingston Trio, Mort Sahl); Loews Penn Theater/Heinz Hall (Joan Baez, Jefferson Airplane, Ann Corio in "This Is Burlesque"); The Stanley (Carol Channing in "Hello, Dolly!"); Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall (Newport Jazz Festival) and the Carnegie Music Hall (Brenda Lee).

He even booked West View Park, when he partnered with KQV in 1964 to bring in the the Rolling Stones at Danceland, who as the story goes were outdrawn by DJ Mad Mike.

Litman wasn't limited to working just the Tri-State region. Joining with other partners, he produced concerts virtually across the country, from Cleveland to to St. Louis to Albuquerque. Litman promoted concerts through the seventies.

The Impresario was also the main man when it came to covering the City scene. He was the Pittsburgh correspondent for Billboard Magazine from 1948 until 1960. Then he succeeded Harold V. Cohen as the correspondent for Variety (Cohen actually anointed him as his successor), and he covered the local show biz news for the magazine for the next three decades. From 1970 to 1985, Litman also penned the "Nightlife" column for the Pittsburgh Press.

It was a point of personal pride for Litman that he never wrote a discouraging word about anyone in his column. He was proud of Pittsburgh's entertainment scene (heck, he was usually right in the middle of it) and pushed it and its performers every chance he got.

He could sniff out coming trends as well as anyone in the City. Shows Inc., which he started with Hy Kotofsky in 1958, built Valley Cable TV in Turtle Creek, the first cable company in Allegheny County.

Litman sold his share of the firm in 1978 when he couldn't position the company into the Pittsburgh market. If he'd had only known how cable and sports would become the new peanut butter and jelly, he might have hung on to it and the synergy it would have offered him.

You may remember that Litman started way back in the thirties as a sportswriter, college sports publicity guy and promoted boxing and donkeyball. Well, he also pushed the highly profitable roller derby after his Copa days were done, and had a small piece of the Pirates with his brother Gene.

His best known sports venture was forming the Pittsburgh Rens (for Renaissance) with his brothers and Gabe Rubin, placing the team in Abe Saperstein's American Basketball league after the NBA turned down their application for a franchise.

That gave Pittsburgh fans a chance to catch the great Connie Hawkins, blackballed from the NBA, hoop it up in the Arena. That started him on the road to redemption and eventually the NBA Hall of Fame.

And it was thanks to Litman, who the Hawk called "dad" and was quoted by Post Gazette writer Christopher Rawson as saying of the Litmans "I've gone to all their funerals and bar mitzvahs. I'm family."

Despite Hawkins' warm and fuzzy tale, Litman considered the Rens his greatest bomb, along with booking Charles Laughton, who cost the promoter more in pre-show advertising alone than he got back at the gate.

But even the non-stop Litman couldn't go on forever, although he gave it a pretty good run. He passed away on July 30th, 2002, from Alzheimer's Disease at the age of 88 and was buried at Ahavath Achim Cemetery in Forest Hills.

Left behind were his wife of 55 years, Roz, and his daughter Rebecca. He left behind a legacy, too, the Lenny Litman Performing Arts Fund, which helps support deserving programs with an emphasis on youngsters.

(Old Mon tips his hat to Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette critic, whose obit of Litman provided much of the information in the post.)

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Slim Adds Another Notch

Got a note from my favorite cowboy, Slim Forsythe:

That's right, Pilgrim!

Old Slim hits the "Double Nickel" this week. 55 years walkin' the face of God's Green Earth. And I'm throwin' a birthday party Saturday, January 15th, at Nied's Hotel with my pals, The Stillhouse Pickers. We'll serve up a hearty helpin' of old time/country/bluegrass music for starters and then we're thinkin' the whole thing could devolve into an open acoustic jam with lots of other players.

Have you got an instrument that doesn't need an amp? (banjo, fiddle, dobro, mandolin, guitar, accordion...). Bring it along and join the fun. We'll have one or two room mics available for solos and general traffic control.

Come early and watch the Steeler Game. They got four wide screen TVs!

Then, after the game, we'll play that hillbilly music all night long!

Saturday, January 15th@
Nied's Hotel
5438 Butler Street in Lawrenceville
412 781-9853

Slim Forsythe with The Stillhouse Pickers!
Music starts @ 7:30 PM No Cover
Live Concert followed by Open Acoustic Jam

Monday, January 10, 2011

Keith Dix Oldies Concert


Be there; we can't think of a better way to kick off the New Year than a charity jam than with Pittsburgh's best oldie groups. For tickets, call the Attic (412-821-2424), Wayne Zollinger (724-822-4123) or Sam Ferrella (412-400-3629)

Friday, January 7, 2011

Harold Betters

Harold Betters

Harold Betters was born on March 21, 1928 in Connellsville, the son of Robert and Lela who ran one of the area's hottest jazz spots, Betters' Grill and Hotel.

One of seven children, (brothers George, Jimmy, and Jerome ended up performing professionally; all the Betters kids played instruments), Betters took to music - specifically, the trombone - at a young age, emulating JJ Johnson and Tommy Dorsey.

He led his own local quartet which included pianist John Thomas and brother Jerome (aka "Jerry" or "Romy") Betters on drums. Betters then studied music education at Ithaca College for two years after high school, and then served a year's residency at Brooklyn's Conservatory of Music.

Betters was drafted in 1950, and played in the 308th Army Band for two years. He claims that service tour is when he really learned how to play music. Betters lived briefly in New York City after his discharge before returning to Western Pennsylvania. In fact, he still lives in Connellsville today.

It was a welcome return. Along with Walt Harper, Harold Betters was the face of local jazz in the sixties and seventies and one of the City's must-see acts.

And it's not just a case of big fish/small pond syndrome; Betters can blow his horn. He's performed with Satchmo, Al Hirt, Slide Hampton, Ramsey Lewis, and Urbie Green. The Harold Betters Quartet toured with Ray Charles and appeared with Dick Gregory at New York's Apollo Theater.

Beside the local jazzfests, Betters has also played on the big stages, like the Kool Jazz Festival. He's also given command performances for the late Happy Warrior, Hubert Humphrey, and Cleveland mayor Carl Stokes.

He's been on "The Tonight Show," "The Merv Griffin Show," and "The Mike Douglas Show," as well as on local TV programs in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and San Francisco.

Betters has released over a dozen albums, and has to be considered one of the more commercially successful jazzmen based in Pittsburgh. His 1964 single "Do Anything You Wanna," released on Gateway, cracked the Top 100 and peaked at #74.

The first LP he did was fittingly enough "At The Encore" from 1962, reissued on CD as "Harold Betters Remembers the Encore." It led off the Gateway label Jazz Series; Betters would cut nine LPs for them.

He added three more discs for Reprise, a couple more from his own HB label, and a greatest hits collection on Spotlite to go with a handful of singles. All-in-all, Betters did pretty dang well as a recording artist.

But ask anyone who knew the club scene during that time, and they'll connect Betters with Wil Shiner's Shadyside Encore in a heartbeat. He played there so often that it became known as "The House that Betters Built." In fact, Betters has performed more recently at Cozumel in a homecoming of sorts; the space below the restaurant once was the Encore.

He was also a regular at the Holiday House and his late brother Jerry's club, the Crescendo in Oakland. And if you missed him there, well...

For a couple of decades, Betters led a jazz band which provided game day entertainment, mainly at Three Rivers Stadium, for the Pittsburgh Steelers, joining the team for a Superbowl trip or two. His players provided the musical accompaniment to the crowd's roar of "Here We Go Steelers, Here We Go..." and "Defense, Defense..."

Betters has entertained at Pirate and Pen games, too. He's the answer to this local sports trivia question: "Who played for the Pirates, Penguins and Steelers in the same year?"

But if you're not a sports fan, no worries: Betters can be heard on jazz radio stations and in many area clubs and venues; he's 82 and still gigging, even overcoming a bout of Bell's Palsy in 2008. And teaching, too. He's held shows and working seminars at Pitt, IUP, Penn State and West Virginia.

He's collected his fair share of accolades over the years. Betters was selected in the Playboy Jazz Poll as one of the best trombonists in the country, and as "Mr. Versatility" by Downbeat Magazine. He's also been named "Man of the Year in Music" by the Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce and was inducted into the Pittsburgh Jazz Hall of Fame.

His success in this City is because he fused together its two most endearing and enduring musical forms, jazz and R&B with a blazing trombone and minimal vocals. Betters plays jazz standards, show tunes, and current hits arranged for a quartet and delivered in a soulful "hard bop" style, closer to Motown than Monterey. It's just the way Pittsburgh likes its music served.

LP Discography:

At The Encore (1962) Gateway
Takes Off (1963) Gateway
Even Better (1964) Gateway
Meets Slide Hampton (1964) Gateway
Yesterday, Today, And All Of My Tomorrows ???? Gateway
The Big Horn ???? H.B. Records
Swingin' On The Railroad (1965) Gateway
Ram-Bunk-Shush (1965) Reprise
Do Anything You Want To (1966) Gateway
Out Of Sight And Sound (1966) Reprise
Funk City Express (1966) Reprise
Christmas Album (1967) Gateway
Jazz Showcase (1977) Gateway
Best Of Betters (2000) Spotlite
With Friends, Live In New York (2001) H.B. Records

Selected Single Discography:

Do Anything You Wanna/All Alone (Gateway) 1964 (also released on Sue - 1965)
Stand By Me (Gateway) ????
Railroad/Dirty Red (Gateway) 1965
Moving Out (Gateway) 1966
Tall Girl (Gateway) 1966
All Alone (Gateway) 1966
Ram-Bunk-Shush (Reprise) 1966 (also released on Gateway)
Hot Tamale Man (Reprise) 1967
Papa-Ooh-MauMau (Warner Music UK) 2003

Harold Betters - "Tall Girl" (1966)