Music Producer John Sdoucos

Remembering Remains, Hallucinations, Springsteen, and JT

By: - Feb 05, 2019

After a couple of years of phone tag we caught up with music producer John Sdoucos. He divides seasons between Florida and Cape Cod but maintains a national agenda booking concerts and festivals coast-to-coast.

“I just got off the phone with the Mayor of Denver. We are planning something with them” he said “But I’m all yours.”

For the next hour plus there was a lively discussion of a career that started when he was a junior at Boston University. It was a short walk to Storyville where club owner and entrepreneur, George Wein, hired him to do promotion. That expanded in 1954 when Elaine Lorrilard fell by the club and asked Wein to help do something for the poor little rich people of Newport, Rhode Island.

In 1968 he started booking talent for Summerthing, then Concerts on the Common in 1970. Back then his Music Productions did everything from booking and managing to the launch of music festivals. He created a network of colleges in New England extending to Virginia and Pennsylvania. From clubs to colleges he sustained musicians like Barry and the Remains, The Hallucinations, Barbarians, Bruce Springsteen, James Taylor and Aerosmith. Later he launched New England tours for British Invasion bands like Jeff Beck, Yardbirds, Cream, Led Zeppelin and The Who.

Charles Giuliano Overall, the Boston scene in the 1960s never had the national reputation it deserved. You respond with a list that you characterized as The Beantown All Stars.

John Sdoucos. In no particular order; Peter Wolf, Steve Mindich (publisher), Nate Cobb (Boston Globe), Charles Giuliano, Ernie Santosuosso (Boston Globe), Barry and The Remains, James Taylor, Boston, Bonnie Raitt, J. Geils, James Montgomery, Fred Taylor (Jazz Workshop/ Paul’s Mall), Leah Sdoucos, George Wein, Kathy Kane (Associate Mayor under Kevin White), George Papadopoulos (Unicorn), Al Perry and the folks at WBCN, the WBZ people like Larry Glick, Donna Summers, Kevin White, the Berklee College of Music guys, Herb Pomeroy and his musicians Johnny Neves, Varty Haroutunian, Ray Santisi (piano), the whole Storyville scene, WBUR’s Ken Squier, Father Norman J. O’Connor, Joe Bucci, Lennie Sogaloff (club owner), Aerosmith, The Cars, The Barbarians, The Lost, Modern Lovers, Charlie McKenzie (manager of Boston), oh boy, and I could go on. Those are just some of the Beantown All Stars.

When producing and traveling around the country I hear about Boston music, its groups, the Newport Jazz Festival. We started that at Storyville when Elaine Lorrilard came in and said “Can you do something for us poor rich folks in Newport?”  George (Wein) said “Yes, I’ve been walking around with this idea for a couple of years. I would like to bring jazz down there but I want to do it festival style.”

So we started the first one then Newport Folk Festival. Boston has been a real impact on the national music scene.

CG My focus is on events from 1968 to 1980 which I am describing as an overlooked golden ago for Boston. You were a part of that.

JS I guess so. It got me off and running. Fred Taylor and I discovered Joe Bucci (August 9th, 1927 to September 30th, 2008) the organ player who was playing like Count Basie in a joint in Lynn. I was going to Boston University and working at Storyville (Wein’s jazz club in Copley Square). I was a junior at the school of communications which was on Exeter Street and Storyville was right around the corner. I was doing promotion for George. Fred was hanging out and had that famous tape recorder.

So we recorded Bucci, got him going and landed a record deal (“Wild About Basie” Capitol Records). Fred and I set up at 739 Boylston Street where the Marathon bomb went off a couple of years ago. That was our office. He was HT Productions and I was Music Productions.

Out of the same office he was booking bands locally and I was working with Wein. It was a productive time for me. We went to Newport in 1954. He invented the festival and I made everyone aware of it. My job was to run all over New England to radio and TV stations, and newspapers.

Ultimately, I went national while Fred stayed local. We both got a lot out of Boston. So did George.

CG When did Harry Paul become a part of the Newport organization?

JS His job was advertising. He placed ads. I was the guy running around doing promotion. Harry had a budget and placed ads in newspapers and radio stations. My job was to hit the street. I would go to a radio station and they would say “You’re doing more for Dave Brubeck than Columbia Records.” I was making sure they were playing his stuff because he was a part of the festival.

CG Early on it seems that your primary focus was jazz?

JS I grew up at Storyville where I was introduced to Wein by none other that Father O’Connor.

(Father Norman James O'Connor, nicknamed "The Jazz Priest" (November 20, 1921 to June 29, 2003) was a Roman Catholic priest known for playing and promoting jazz music. On a number of live Newport recording he is heard introducing musicians.)

We were both producing a jazz radio show. Ken Squier was my announcer on WBUR. Father O’Connor was also producing a jazz show. I would get jazz artists who were appearing around town and Storyville was one of the places I would go to.

George invited me to work for him. I made sure that customers who came in were well taken care of. I can still see it now. Elaine and Louis Lorrilard came in. There were settees at the back of the club and George was talking about jazz with them. I was the kid who would stand by listening. They wanted jazz in Newport because that’s where they lived.

CG There is a strong BU connection. Others at BU include Wein, Taylor, yourself, WGBH DJ, Ron DellaChiesa. I was there for graduate school.

JS George was ahead of us and in fact taught a course on jazz. Faye Dunaway and I were in some of the same classes. What a beauty.

CG She married Peter Wolf and inspired the song “The Lady Makes Demands.”

When did you start managing groups? Did you manage The Hallucinations?  (1965-1968 with lead singer Peter Wolf who then joined J. Geils Band.)

JS At that time we were everything. We managed and booked The Remains, The Hallucinations, Moulty and The Barbarians. They had a hit with “Are You a Boy or Are You a Girl.” Leah (Sdoucos) and I managed The Remains.

CG Talk about The Remains. In my interview with Jon Landau he recalled them as one of the best of the Boston bands.

(The Remains were a mid-1960s rock group led by Barry Tashian. Although they never achieved national success, they were popular in New England, and were one of the opening acts on The Beatles' final US tour in 1966.)

JS They were Boston University kids. That’s how we got connected. We were booking and managing them. We got them on some shows with The Beatles. They were going in different directions and broke up. Barry got more into producing. I’ve got his number and we talk every couple of years.

CG Arguably, Barry and the Remains and The Hallucinations were just too early. In the mid to late 1960s there wasn’t the national focus on emerging bands that would come later. Then things got even more muddled with the fiasco of The Bosstown Sound. The Remains got attention opening for the Beatles but it didn’t equate to establishing a national reputation.

JS Later we were booking Aerosmith before they broke out. James Taylor was hanging out in the office looking for gigs. I got him going. There’s another one. I got him his first gig at The Charity Ward in Cambridge. I said “James there’s 35 bucks for it.” That was his first gig ever. He came back and said “John they stiffed me and only gave me 25 bucks.” I pulled ten bucks out of my pocket to make up the difference. Then I got him going for a couple hundred bucks here and there. We started him on the college circuit. We had colleges all over the Northeast, down into Virginia and Pennsylvania. You name it. There were five or six colleges in Worcester.

We got him up to $500 then $1500 and $2500. All the way up to the days of James and Carole King. Fred (Taylor) and I were instrumental in getting a lot of people and projects started.

CG I heard him at one of those early Cambridge club gigs. I talked with him after the gig but he had a curfew.  Then the album came out on Apple. I remember Ken Emerson, who worked with me at Avatar and later Boston After Dark, trashing that album which I just loved. I respected Ken but felt he got that dead wrong. Critics can be like that.

My friend Rick Robbins knew Arlo Guthrie from Stockbridge School. We went together to the Newport Folk Festival. I spent an afternoon in Arlo’s room at the Viking Hotel. He and James were rehearsing Taylor’s “Country Road.” During Arlo’s set he brought James on for a duet. Those are intimate moments you never forget.

JS There were a lot of things we never got credit for. We were ripping and running. We were doing everything.

CG Did you book the Hallucinations?

JS Absolutely we had them all over the place. Do you remember the cellars in Kenmore Square where everyone played?

CG The Rathskeller better known as The Rat.

JS Not the Dugout across from BU. The Rat. My God. We put everybody and anybody we could in there; The Hallucinations, The Remains.

CG Let’s talk about Summerthing. Did it start in 1968 and were you in on the beginning?

JS I was doing its bookings like the Clancy Brothers in Southie. We had Smokey Robinson in Roxbury. That led the next year to Concerts on the Common. Mrs. Forbes came to me one day and said “The Boston Arts Festival needs help.” Just like George Wein I said “I’ve got an idea.” I told her we needed a location like The Boston Common. We can put some acts there and set it up with controls to collect admissions and see that the profits go to The Boston Arts Festival.

Thank goodness for people like Herb Gleason who was the attorney for the city at that time.  We went to the city and got an OK but had to go to Beacon Hill as well. We met with governor Mike Dukakis. The Hill and Irish politicians were against it. “All those people are going to come and ruin the city, blah blah.”

We finally got that established for 1970. That’s when we met. In 1969 I was involved with John Shearer who got Schaefer Beer to sponsor concerts at Harvard Stadium. I was involved because they were going to help us with Summerthing which never happened.

My job was to see that acts got in, on, and out. I can still see Janis Joplin coming up the stairs. There are about 20 steps to the stage. She’s coming up, not with not one, but two bottles of cheap Kentucky bourbon. She had a bottle in each hand Charles. I looked at her and said “Hey babe, no, no, no, you can’t come on stage with booze.”

Looking at me she did a swoop said “I’m sorry” with the left hand passes me a bottle and keeps on going to the stage clutching one in her right hand. Can you see the picture Charles?

CG I was at that concert. What do you remember about that performance?

JS Ragtag.

CG I covered Miles Davis at Harvard Stadium just after the release of Bitches Brew. Later that week I caught him with the same group at Lennie’s on the Turnpike. The band was Jack DeJohnette, drums, Michael Henderson, bass, Gary Bartz, soprano sax, John McLaughlin sat in. He had Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea playing early Fender Rhodes keyboards.

That night, after the gig, in the Green Room Miles asked me “I got Keith and Chick but can’t keep them both. Who should I get rid of?” He fired Chick which in hindsight seems like a mistake. It’s known that Keith hated playing an electric piano where Chick later went far with developing technology.

JS We worked with Lennie’s. You mentioned Jon Landau. He hung out at our office. He was at Brandeis. I had a lot of those kids hanging out. Don Law ran the social committee that arranged acts for BU concerts. Don worked for us for a while. People would work with us then leave the office like the manager for Dionne Warwick. We were doing a lot of dates with her. Landau asked “Whenever you do Bruce Springsteen can I get in?” We said “Absolutely.” We were doing a lot of gigs. There were a lot of dates all over the place in his early career. We had him in a couple of clubs in Connecticut, Worcester.

Bruce loved to play pinball. He would say “John you have to book me in clubs with pinball machines.” That’s how Landau got to hang out with him. They became friends. That’s the evolution. That’s the process. Nobody all of a sudden become a manager.

CG What kind of money were you getting for Springsteen?

JS Probably in the five hundreds range. Not $500,000 like now. Less zeros. We booked club dates then colleges. We got maybe $1500. We were booking The Kingsmen.

(The Kingsmen were a 1960s band from Portland, Oregon best known for their 1963 recording of Richard Berry's "Louie Louie." It was No. 2 spot on the Billboard charts for six weeks.)

The college circuit was important. When groups outgrew clubs they couldn’t jump to arenas. There had to be an intermediary step. We were getting calls from major New York agencies. They were bringing in the British Invasion. They were asking for gigs to keep them on tour across the country. As New England went so went rock ‘n’ roll.

Frank Barsalona (March 31, 1938 – November 22, 2012) of Premier Talent had one of the world’s biggest rock agencies at the time. He would call me about the British acts and say “John you’ve got to keep these acts going in the colleges in the Northeast.”

CG What were some of the groups? Jeff Beck (with Rod Stewart and Ron Wood)?

JS Absolutely, many times. The Youngbloods many times. The Who, absolutely, we did them all. Boston was important as the jump off point. Maybe because of us, the bookings, people like myself, and yourself.

CG A factor in why Boston was a locus for counter culture and youth marketing is the ratio of college students relative to overall population.

(Greater Boston is ranked tenth in population among US metropolitan statistical areas, home to 4,732,161 people as of the 2014 US Census estimate, and sixth among combined statistical areas, with a population of 8,099,575. It has a density of 13,841 people per square mile (5,344/square kilometer), and Greater Boston is the 4th most densely populated region in the United States, after New York Metro Area, Greater Los Angeles and South Florida Metro Area. The student population of Boston is estimated at 250,000 with 13,736 undergraduate students and 20,709 across the river in Cambridge. There are also a number of schools and colleges within an hour’s drive of Boston,)

JS It’s America’s college town. Students come there from all over the world. Take Clark University in Worcester. They had a capacity of 750 to 850 seats. That was a nicely scaled venue and a step up from clubs. We had Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin there.

CG Coming back to Summerthing in 1968. Entertainment went into neighborhoods. It was targeted to specific communities like Irish Americans in Southie and African Americans in Roxbury, Hyde Park. That was a strategy of City Hall to bring a pacifying element into troubled neighborhoods during an era of social and political unrest. Music was seen as a vehicle for unification. When you were approached what were politicians saying to you? Why would you put Smokey Robinson into a neighborhood?

JS Well for just the reasons you describe. To try to calm things down. It showed the neighborhoods that the city cared. Some of the selectmen, however, were opposed to the events. We didn’t have any riots other than Uptown in the Park. Do you remember those concerts at White Stadium? I produced them.

CG I saw a Sly Stone concert and mini riot there.

JS Yeah, there you go. They were breaking in on us if you want to call that a riot.

CG Ok, perhaps rampage is a better word.

JS They just broke in on us. That’s why we stopped the series. The Elma Lewis School was to be the benefactor. We did a couple of events over two years.

CG At that time I was caught up in several riots. In addition to the Sly “rampage,” the Newport Jazz Festival riot (1971), as well as an anti war protest/ riot in Harvard Square. The Square was getting trashed routinely including after the Janis Joplin concert at Harvard Stadium.

Let’s talk about when Kathy Kane (she died at 78 in 2013) took you to meet Kevin White (September 25, 1929 – January 27, 2012) about the 1970 series Concerts on the Common.

JS We were ready to go and Kathy said “Kevin wants to talk to us.” She was a dream, Ms. Everything. Kathy wanted to see that The Boston Arts Festival survived. We became friends.

CG I knew Kathy and Louis when the Institute of Contemporary Art, then all but dead, got restarted under Drew Hyde regrouping at the abandoned former venue on Soldier’s Field Road. Drew worked with architect Edwin Childs and Adele Seronde through Summerthing. He got to know Kevin and the Kanes. Louis was a trustee of the ICA at that time. The Kanes were dedicated to the arts. He later founded Au Bon Pain.

JS Kathy and I went into White’s office. We approached his desk. He looked up at us and said “John Sdoucos if you fuck this up it’s yours. If it scores, then it’s mine.”

I threw him an old Army highball. We did an about face and split. That was it.

CG So who got to own it you or Kevin?

JS (Laughing) We made sure he got good credit. It was on the Common. I have a large aerial photo of the site which had snow fences. It shows people inside and outside.

CG What were you paying acts?

JS The most was $2,500.  Chuck Berry. OMG! He had his car parked on Charles Street not far away. It was my idea to package B.B. King, Bo Diddley, and Chuck Berry. Now here’s Chuck standing in the wings. He hadn’t been paid and we paid as we go.

He said “Hey man I go to get my bread now.” I said “Don’t worry.” I paid everyone cash and they put it in their stocking. Do you remember those days? He said “No man, I gottah get paid now.” I said “Charles you’re going on in about ten minutes.”

I don’t know where I got it but there was some money stashed and I gave it to him. I said what you are going to do now. He said “Don’t worry.” He went into the wings and I followed him. He jumped off the stage and booked it all the way to Charles Street. He got to his car with me following him. He opened the trunk and took out the tire iron. He used it to remove a hub cap. In broad daylight he stashed the money. People walking by figured it was a black guy changing a tire. Then he hightailed it back to the stage. That was Chuck Berry.

CG After one of the events on the Common I watched the cleanup crew. They had a huge pyramid from raking the field. There were hundreds of bottles of Boone’s Farm Apple Wine. Costa del Sol was another version of cheap wine. That was a product of M.S. Walker based in Boston. They sponsored a series of rock concerts of local bands at the Hatch Shell.

My editor, Sam Hirsch, insisted that I write a Sunday piece. After the interview the owner asked if I would like a few samples. He gave me an assorted case of gin, tequila, vodka and bourbon. Not long after I threw a party. When I got back to the office, with a smile Sam asked “Did he take care of you?” There was a lot of that. Cameron Dewar, an old hand at the drama desk, regaled me with tales of how, back in the day, at Christmas the office would be piled high with cases of booze. Payola scandals changed that by the time I was on the beat.

There was always beer and wine back stage during the concerts. After your Allman Brothers date I was feeling mellow. The norm was to file right after a concert. But I hooked up and found myself in a North End apartment cracking a couple more bottles. Nearing deadline, remembering the gig, I begged her to take me to the office. Wearing a bikini and a big sombrero she draped over me as I wrote the review.

At my desk that morning you called but couldn’t stop laughing. “What the heck happened to you man” you asked. I didn’t know what you meant until I read the paper. The headline was “25,000 Fans See the Allman Brothers.” It seemed that I added a zero. Also the second graph more or less repeated the first one. Nobody other than you said a word to me. A rule of journalism is, no matter what, never blow a deadline. Many a story gets saved at the rim.

JS I have a great photo of that gig taken from a nearby roof top. I will try to find it.

CG There is a long history of racism in Boston particularly the issue of bussing which divided the city. Did you have anything to do with the James Brown Boston Garden concert during the weekend when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated?

JS Yes. Kevin White called me and said “You can’t do this there’s going to be a riot.” I said, “Your Honor, if you don’t do it we will have a riot.” I distinctly remember my words to him. I did the booking for the James Brown concert. He said “We’re going to have all those people down there and it’s going to cause a riot.” He said “Those people.”

I said “If we don’t do it we will have a riot.” It clicked with him and to his credit he was a quick study. With him it didn’t take long for a yes or no answer.”

CG WGBH broadcasted the live concert and looped it all weekend. The city remained calm and mourned a great loss through the soulful performance of James Brown.

Mayor White had a way of grabbing the spotlight. It was getting late at Boston Garden when he came on stage and announced “The Stones have been busted in Rhode Island.” There was a howl of protest from the audience. After an interval he called for our attention then stated “But I got them out.” It was a long wait but the Stones finally went on for a great concert.

My attorney friend Marty Kaplan tells a different version of getting the Stones out of jail. There had been an altercation and Keith clocked a photographer. Several quick deals went down but, as usual, Kevin took the bow.

JS We had a similar problem getting Cream from Rhode Island to a gig at Brandeis. They went on at 4 AM. We sent vehicles to get them. I was on the phone to the social committee chairman. At 2 AM I asked if they wanted to cancel. They hung in and it paid off.

CG That’s the concert that Jon Landau covered for the Brandeis Justice. Another version of it ran in Rolling Stone. Famously, he trashed the group.

JS Then there was the opening of the Jesus Christ Superstar tour.

CG You were working late in the office with no time to drive to the gig during rush hour. You hired a chopper and invited me to join you. I vividly recall flying low and noting all the swimming pools in the suburbs. We landed in a football field and getting out we caused a fuss. The headline of my piece, a national scoop, was “Holy Smoke in Holyoke.” I remember that there were nuns at the concert.

JS Jesus Christ Superstar is coming out again with John Legend.

Looking through my files I found your obit for Richie Havens. It talks about interviewing him after a performance of Concerts on the Common. We worked a lot with Richie who was a great guy. You mentioned in the review that he had taken out his choppers and mostly mumbled. It was crossover as we managed and booked Richie. It was anything and everything.

CG What started as Concerts on the Common switched to the edge of Boylston Street and became The Sunset Series.

JS By then I was on to other things. I get things started and then do something else.

CG As I recall George Davis took over.

JS He was Kathy’s assistant. The Sunset Series started in 1970 but he wants to take credit for it. I booked the acts and produced the shows. He was that kind of a guy who wheedled in and wheedled out. He was an OK guy but wanted to take credit. After 1970, a year or two later, I turned it over and let them run it.

CG  Acts I covered there were Willie Nelson, Go Gos, Milton Nascimento, Wayne Shorter, Pat Metheny, Julio Iglesias, Marvin Gaye, Dionne Warwick, Gladys Knight, Chaka Khan, John Denver, Whitney Houston, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Miles Davis, Johnny Mathis, Linda Ronstadt, Melissa Manchester, Oscar Peterson, Cyndi Lauper, Hall and Oates and others.

There was another venue and a few concerts. It was on the Common and close to Beacon Street. I saw the Chambers Brothers there.

JS That could have been ’69 and not ’70. We did a lot with them.

CG Jimi Hendrix was supposed to play the Common.

JS Yeah, I remember, remind me what happened?

CG He died just before the gig.

JS We booked that date. There is a lot of this I have to look up. It’s hard to keep track there were so many things we were involved with and still are.