Friday, December 17, 2010

September 22, 1968: Del Mar Fairgrounds, Del Mar, CA: Quicksilver Messenger Service/Grateful Dead/others (West-Pole Agency)

(one of the posters for the September 22, 1968 all-day show at Del Mar Fairgrounds in San Diego County)

Many 60s events are only recalled through the posters advertising the events. If the posters feature groups that are now famous, like the Grateful Dead, the events persist in the historical record, but with little consideration about the nature of the event itself. The all-day rock festival at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, in Del Mar, CA, near San Diego, held on Sunday, September 22, 1968, was one such event. There are a few vague eyewitness accounts, and it seems to have been a pleasant enough show. The weather is always inviting on the San Diego coast, and the bands were a mixture of some excellent well and lesser known San Francisco bands. Ten bands were scheduled in a noon-'til-dusk event, followed by fireworks, so it was probably pretty fun.

What were nine San Francisco bands doing playing an all-day festival in San Diego County in 1968? How did this come about? Without any special information, it's impossible to know for certain. However, a careful analysis of the poster will show us some of the now-forgotten factors in play. In particular, I am interested in looking at this minor, nearly unique event as a way of looking at the important role of Booking Agents in 1960s. Booking Agents, sometimes called Talent Agents, were a crucial piece of the 60s rock story and their role has been largely obscured. This 1968 event mostly featured groups booked by the same agency, San Francisco's West-Pole Agency, so I will look at this event from the point of view of the West-Pole Agency, and Booking Agencies in general.

September 22, 1968: Del Mar Fairgrounds, Del Mar, CA: Quicksilver Messenger Service/Grateful Dead/Buddy Miles Express (formerly The Electric Flag)/Youngbloods/Taj Mahal/Mother Earth/Sons Of Champlin/Ace Of Cups/Phoenix/Curly Cooke's Hurdy Gurdy Band

Booking Agents
A booking agent arranges performances by musicians or bands at different venues, in return for a fee, generally capped at 10% of the performance fee. A booking agent--by law--is different from a talent manager, whose fees are capped at 15%, but who can in turn take a percentage from all revenues, including recording and other sources. Booking agents were and are licensed by the different States, and had to follow various rules, comparable to how Real Estate Agents are overseen. In the 1960s, Booking Agents were limited to taking 10% of a performer's fee (for example, if a band was paid $1000 to play the Fillmore, the Booking Agency received $100), but if the Agent performed certain other services, usually involving publicity (such as providing and circulating posters), they could take up to another 10%. Booking Agents can and did share fees with each other.

The importance of Booking Agents to 60s rock history cannot be overstated, but it is generally completely ignored. A practical analysis shows their importance. If you consider Bill Graham's Fillmore operation, open 52 weeks of the year, with 3 bands each weekend, the need to fill the stage with an endless string of performers was critical. It would be impossible for even the most hard-working promoter to ever find the phone numbers of every band in the country that was on tour, much less those coming from England. However, Booking Agents acted as the middlemen for the touring acts, working with venues across the country to insure that there were bands to play the various auditoriums. By the same token, a band like the Grateful Dead (or any other band) could never have found the contact numbers of every venue in the country, so the Agency served as a critical go-between for bands and promoters.

It is common to look at old rock posters from the Fillmore era, like the one above, and think about the friendships of different band members. It's easy to assume that because bands were friendly, they shared bills or worked different venues, but in fact that had very little to do with friendship. The critical relationship outside of a band's local area--and even within it--was always with the Booking Agent. The Doors and The Jefferson Airplane shared many famous bills in the 60s, including an infamous 1968 European tour, but the fact that they shared a Booking Agency (APA) overrode any other connections between the groups. By the same token, venues far from San Francisco that featured then little-known San Francisco bands farther down on the bill indicate a relationship with the group's Booking Agency, rather than the bands themselves.

Booking Agency relationships are only mentioned in passing, if at all, in most rock histories, so I can only piece together the relationships from fragmentary information. Also, like Real Estate Agents, Booking Agencies shared fees where appropriate. While there were a few National Agencies (usually based in Los Angeles or New York), most Agents worked regionally. If their clients went out of town, like when a West Coast rock band toured the East, they might share with regional agencies with better connections there in return for similar considerations. Nonetheless, the 60s rock business was new enough that some clear outlines could be discerned in San Francisco, where bands had less access or appeal to the big Hollywood agents (like APA, William Morris or Famous).

West-Pole was a San Francisco Booking Agency that seems to have exclusively booked Fillmore-style rock bands in the late 60s and early 70s. They were not a large Agency, in the scheme of things, but as a result it has been easier to discern their operations, and it is thus easier to use them as a template for showing the interrelationship of Booking Agents to the 60s rock business in general. I should add that I am not aware of any history of these matters, so I have had to make educated guesses about a lot of things. Any readers who can illuminate me on either the specific details of the Booking of any of these bands or the general operations of Talent Agents are encouraged to do so.

The West-Pole Agency was a partnership between Quicksilver Messenger Service manager Ron Polte and former Big Brother and The Holding Company manager Julius Karpen. Both were former Chicago labor organizers who had relocated to San Francisco in the early 1960s. For many years, I was confused at Ron Polte's role as Manager and Booking Agent, and most descriptions of that are incorrect. There was even a 1969 TV documentary called "West-Pole," produced for Public Television by Ralph Gleason (available as a Bonus Disc as part of the Jefferson Airplane Go Ride The Music DVD). However, although the show features mostly (but not exclusively) West-Pole bands, the actual function of West-Pole is never explained.

Ron Polte
Ron Polte had come to San Francisco from Chicago, because the Chicago police did not want him in town anymore. Polte was friends with Paul Butterfield and Nick Gravenites, among many other musicians, and these friendships would stand him in good stead in the future. By 1967, Polte became the manager of Quicksilver Messenger Service. As the group expanded beyond just playing local shows at the Fillmore and the Avalon, it appears that Polte looked for other ways to maximize the group's returns. Polte was instrumental in putting on concerts outside of San Francisco, in particular booking the Continental Ballroom in San Jose (actually at 1600 Martin Avenue in Santa Clara) for eight weekends in Summer, 1967. While Polte made sure to hire his own band (Quicksilver), he hired all the other San Francisco groups as well.

Somewhere around the Summer of Fall of 1967 Polte seems to have recognized the expanding appeal of San Francisco music and created West-Pole. Thus if West-Pole booked Quicksilver, Polte got two bites of the apple: Polte-the-manager took 15% of the fee, and West-Pole took another 10%. At the same time, Polte had working relationships with all the San Francisco bands, so he was well positioned to work as a Booking Agent, no doubt presenting himself as more sympathetic than the archetypal cigar chomping middle-aged guy in a suit.

Julius Karpen, another expatriate Chicagoan, had taken over the management of Big Brother And The Holding Company after the band had split with Chet Helms in Fall 1966 (ironically over taking a gig Polte had arranged for them in Chicago). However, when Janis Joplin's star quality manifested itself at Monterey Pop, uber-manager Albert Grossman (who handled Bob Dylan among others) took over Big Brother's management. It appears that West-Pole took over the booking of Big Brother on the West Coast, as a kind of "consolation prize" for being pushed aside as manager. Thus the many concerts where Big Brother and Quicksilver played together resulted not just from long-standing friendships between the band but from sharing the West-Pole Booking Agency.

West-Pole Clients
To my knowledge, my best guess at the West-Pole client list was:
Ron Polte managed Quicksilver and Ace Of Cups, while Albert Grossman managed Big Brother and Electric Flag. The other groups had a variety of managers: Fred Roth managed The Sons, and George Smith managed Phoenix, for example.
(an alternate poster for the September 22, 1968 Del Mar Fairgrounds festival)

Del Mar Fairgounds Rock Festival, September 22, 1968
The Del Mar "Autumn Equinox" Festival seems to have been planned on the Monterey Pop model: using an existing outdoor venue for an all-day continuous music show. It was a nice idea, but none of those Festivals actually made any money. Monterey Pop itself only succeeded because all the bands agreed to work almost for free--an agreement that was not repeated--and because ABC-TV financed a TV special (which ultimately turned into the movie Monterey Pop). Still, it seemed like a good idea for a year or so, until the "Woodstock model" took precedence.

The Del Mar festival seems to have been a West-Pole inspired effort to have a sort of "Monterey Pop" event in San Diego. In general, it seemed like a good idea, but the economics did not favor it. Given that there were 10 acts, and a 7-8 hour window for performances (noon until dusk), 5 of the lesser acts must have played about half an hour, the headliners probably played an hour, and some of the in-between a little bit less. A few eyewitness accounts suggest that this was an enjoyable show, if not hugely attended. The members of the group Phoenix recall the show as "an ostrich racing track." While the race track was actually founded in 1937 (by Bing Crosby) as a horse racing track, it's not impossible that ostriches raced there. Nonetheless, the festival was not repeated, so good weather and good vibes aside, it must not have been a profitable event.

Nonetheless, the point I am making here is the critical role of West-Pole as the Booking Agent. Look at the list of acts in terms of Agencies-the West-Pole Acts are in bold:
  • Quicksilver Messenger Service
  • Grateful Dead
  • Buddy Miles Express (formerly The Electric Flag)
  • Youngbloods
  • Taj Mahal
  • Mother Earth
  • Sons Of Champlin
  • Ace Of Cups
  • Phoenix
  • Curly Cooke's Hurdy Gurdy Band
The two key headliners were Quicksilver and The Dead, both linchpins of the San Francisco underground, and essential to giving the Festival the hip cred it would need. The Buddy Miles Express were totally unknown, however, and even the Electric Flag were never really that popular. However, since it was clear that West-Pole played a crucial role in booking the show, Buddy Miles could be given a more prominent position on the bill than they otherwise might have deserved.

As to the Sons Of Champlin, Ace Of Cups and Phoenix, good as those groups were, they were San Francisco bands who were completely unknown in the San Diego area. However, because West-Pole was providing the headliners, they could provide the opening acts, and so were able to put their own bands on the bill. In this case, at least, the hippies of San Diego County were the beneficiaries, as all those groups were excellent. However, if different agencies had played a larger role, different groups would have opened the show.

In the 1968-69 period, the Grateful Dead were booked by the Millard Agency. The Millard Agency was the Booking Agency wing of Bill Graham' s organization, as Graham wanted multiple bites of the apple, just as Ron Polte did. The Dead (Millard) and Quicksilver (West-Pole) shared many bills, but the role of the Booking Agent can often be seen in the opening acts. When the Dead played a show opened by Santana, Sanpaku, Cold Blood, Elvin Bishop or It's A Beautiful Day (among others), the Millard Agency's hand seems plain. When groups like The Sons or Ace Of Cups open a show, West-Pole would seem to have been the driving force.

These bookings weren't just gravy: while some bands are only recalled by the likes of me, others like Santana or The Sons Of Champlin ground out a fan base all over Northern California. In the 60s and 70s, relentless touring was a way to bypass radio and the record companies, and a shrewd and efficient Booking Agent could open a lot of doors to a good live band. The most important Booking Agent in the 60s rock scene was actually Frank Barsalona's Premier Talent Agency, responsible for bringing great English bands like The Who, Led Zeppelin and Fleetwood Mac to America, but that is too large a story to tell here.

The Autumn Equinox Festival at Del Mar Fairgrounds was not repeated. Some of the West-Pole bands probably garnered a few fans, but West-Pole's primary acts disintegrated at the end of 1968. While both Quicksilver and Big Brother returned to touring in 1970, their impact was not the same (and with Janis Joplin permanently departed from Big Brother, this was no small thing). I believe West-Pole lasted until mid-1970, when various management issues caught up with it. However, because West-Pole was a small agency that represented only San Francisco bands, its footprint is easy to discern, and it provides a useful insight into the unseen role of Booking Agents in 60s rock history.