Backstage Pass

Hawai’i’s legendary concert promoters reflect on a life built on rock ‘n’ roll.

As the monkees got off the plane on their first trip to perform in Honolulu in 1966, they were greeted by hundreds of screaming fans. The band took the time to snap a few pictures and sign a few autographs-until the fence that separated them suddenly broke. A man whisked them into the waiting limo, but the doors closed before he and the last band member-Peter Tork-could get in. The two jumped on the back of the limo, and as they drove away from the screaming crowd, Tork extended his hand to the man, “Tom Moffatt, I presume?”

As one of Hawai’i’s premier concert promoters, Moffatt had brought The Monkees to the islands-as well as countless more acts before and after that-and this is just one in a slew of exciting times he has had in his decades in the industry.

Being “with the band” comes with its share of war stories. And, like rescuing teen idols from adoring fans, there is an unseen world behind the stage-from marketing a band, to ticketing, to putting on a show.

“You fly by the seat of your pants, even if you are very good at it,” explains Shep Gordon, Alice Cooper’s longtime manager who now lives on Maui. “There aren’t any rules. There is no real job description.”

Ron Gibson, another well-known Hawai’i promoter, can rattle off dozens of what he calls “groupie stories.” He’s dined with Aerosmith, thrown parties for Judas Priest at his home and hung out with Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant at a concert-which he says tops the list. Gibson hit the local scene when Hawai’i promoter Ken Rosene called him to get Van Morrison, one his clients, to play a show. Since then, Gibson has made a few lasting impacts locally. In 1976, he hosted the first show at Aloha Stadium, featuring War and Pablo Cruise.

“I saw the possibilities of the stadium,” recalls Gibson, who splits his time between California and Hawai’i to run concert production and event marketing company Ron Gibson Entertainment. “We were able to sell close to 4,000 more tickets [than at the Blaisdell].”

The fact that concertgoers no longer had to drive all the way to the box office to get tickets after the late 1970s is something Hawai’i can thank Gibson for. “Ticketing was a very hard thing to do,” Gibson recalls. “If you wanted to see something out at Turtle Bay, you would have to drive all the way there to get a ticket,” he explains. So Gibson introduced computerized ticketing to Hawai’i, enabling purchases to be made from a number of outlets.

Constantly a pioneer, Gibson also brought the return of the Diamond Head Crater Festival in 2006 and 2007. He dedicated the events to his close friend and colleague Ken Rosene, who had been instrumental in putting on the events in the 1970s and passed away in 2002. Because of that connection-and the fact that the events raised funds for the Waikiki Health Clinic and the Fisher House-Gibson counts these events as some of his most memorable ones.

In addition to Alice Cooper, Shep Gordon’s client list also includes Blondie and Raquel Welch. Locally, he has worked with Moffatt to produce shows that included The Who, Rod Stewart and UB40.

Despite his impressive career, Gordon had no intention of getting into the entertainment industry when he happened to check into the same L.A. motel as Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix.

“When I met Jimi, he said, ‘You Jewish?’ And I said, ‘Yeah,’ and he said, ‘You should be a manager,'” recalls Gordon shortly after returning to his Kihei home after being on the road for several showings of Mike Myers’ newly released documentary, “Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon.” “So I became a manager. You can’t argue with Jimi Hendrix.”

Hendrix connected him with the Alice Cooper band, which had seen a few small successes but hadn’t managed to break into the mainstream. People didn’t seem to know quite what to do with the band’s dark image, but Gordon decided to run with it, encouraging the group to up the ante on its on-stage antics, which included gory fake executions with guillotines and electric chairs and clothing adorned with dead rats.

“With Alice, we really felt that the easiest path to success was to irritate parents, and they would tell their children,” Gordon says. “So that is all we did. We irritated parents. And we did a good job at it.”

Strewn about Tom Moffatt’s Honolulu office are dozens of relics from past shows that he has brought to Hawai’i-autographed photos from Lionel Richie, Janet Jackson and Elvis, along with a scrapbook full of legends like The Eagles, Jimmy Buffet, The Beach Boys, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Buddy Holly and Elton John.

“It is a thrill to look back on all of the shows I brought in,” he says as he flips through dozens of pages of show names.

Moffatt, who has been running his own production company since the 1960s, got his start in radio while attending University of Hawai’i at Manoa. He later joined Hawai’i’s first rock station KPOI, where he became one of the “Poi Boys,” disc jockeys known for not only embracing the rock ‘n’ roll that other stations considered too risqué, but also for pulling a number of crazy stunts as promotions. (Once, Moffatt bowled from Friday until Monday, straight, with no sleep. Another time, he broadcasted his show from a car suspended by a crane, five stories up.)

One moment that has stuck with Moffatt through the years is the first time Elvis visited Hawai’i, in part because it heralded in an era of rock music. It was November of 1957, and as a KPOI DJ, Moffatt had the honor of emceeing the concert.

“Elvis was the first major rock ‘n’ roll concert to appear here,” Moffatt recalls, “and the first major star to appear here in a really long time. You could just feel the excitement.”

Living in Hawai’i has always presented its own set of island-specific challenges: “Two thousand miles separate us,” Moffatt says. “It is much easier for [artists] to drive to cities on the mainland than it is for them to fly to Hawai’i.”

The challenges of distance have been exacerbated in recent years. While planes in the 1960s and 70s often would have to stop over in Hawai’i en route to international destinations, direct flights now enable them to bypass Hawai’i, meaning that it doesn’t always make economical sense to do a show here.

The music industry also has become increasingly fractured, making it more difficult to identify an artist’s audience. A few decades ago, Gibson explains, “You could depend on a certain age group to be listening to a certain [radio] station. They didn’t have CD players. They barely had eight-tracks. You were not going to listen to all of your own music the whole time. Nowadays you are.”

While it may be easy to slip into nostalgia for this gone era of rock ‘n’ roll, there does seem to be a prevailing optimism in the future of the Hawai’i music industry-at least as far as Gibson and Moffatt are concerned.

“It’s still very active and healthy,” asserts Moffatt, who has continued to bring indelible artists like The Beach Boys and James Taylor in the last couple of years.

Gibson, meanwhile, was responsible for Bob Dylan’s April shows in Honolulu and on Maui. In addition to these classic acts, both promoters also are excited for up-and-coming performers and feel that there is top-quality talent among younger artists and bands.

“One of the biggest shows we have ever had is … Bruno [Mars],” Moffatt says. “It sold out three shows in under two and a half hours-that’s faster than anything we have ever seen at the arena.”

But even as the industry has faced changes, Moffatt still carries the same mantra that has guided him through his career: “It’s only rock ‘n’ roll. No matter what happens, that is the way I look at it.”

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