When I reach legendary concert promoter Danny Zelisko by cellphone, he’s just finished dinner and saying goodbye to “a bevy of beautiful women” who look after the hostess desk at one of his favorite restaurants. He asks me to hold for a moment as he embraces one of them, then returns to the phone. “She has the best-smelling hair in the world—like strawberries.” As if I wasn’t already impressed by Zelisko’s career in live music, I’m now downright jealous of how this 57-year-old Phoenix-based promoter continues to surround himself with ladies and rock icons such as Alice Cooper and Yes—not to mention a gorgeous wife he met in Las Vegas some years back.
And he shows no signs of slowing down.
In fact, Zelisko is gearing into overdrive, especially in Vegas, where he’s now the main booking force at the Pearl in the Palms, securing such upcoming acts as Styx (Nov. 15-16), Cooper (Nov. 30) and the Moody Blues (Dec. 15). Zelisko has always enjoyed a Vegas presence, including booking several concerts over the years at Rain nightclub (also in the Palms), such as Counting Crows and No Doubt. But long before he became a force locally, the protégé of legendary rock promoter Bill Graham had a hand in nurturing live music on a national scale starting in the ’70s.
Before booking and promoting shows, you sang in a rock band for a time, right?
Well, it was my eighth- and ninth-grade band. We were OK. I can carry a tune, but I soon realized I was never going to be good enough to make it as a singer. I did know I had a knack for recognizing talent, which is how I ended up doing this for a living. I was a student of the 1960s’ music scene, and [was] the first and only kid I knew who’d heard of The Beatles before they blew up. Do you know the material that came out when they were just a baby band? They released early songs that never made the Top 40—“P.S. I Love You,” “Thank You Girl,” “Please Please Me”—which came out before “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” Of course, once The Ed Sullivan Show happened, it was all over. But I felt like I’d stumbled upon a sensation that was in the midst of happening, and it was by accident. It’s a feeling I’ve been after ever since.
From Chicago, where you grew up, you moved to California, where music was really happening in the early ’70s. Looking back on it, how would your describe the Berkeley scene then?
When I got there it was 1972, everything was upside down. Vietnam was raging, and there had just been a riot that tore apart and burned down a lot of downtown Berkeley. I moved there right after high school, and it was life-changing, because so many incredible artists were playing the community theater there—Allman Brothers, Yes, the Kinks—and I managed to get into the backstage world, using my ears enough to learn something. I mean, no one has moxie or wisdom at 17, but I listened, and good people gave me good advice. Bill Graham was the first to tell me: “There’s a reason you have two ears and one mouth.”
Graham was your mentor, but after your career started, you two rarely worked together. Why?
He wanted me to work with him full time in the Bay Area, but I had a lot going on in Phoenix. “I’d always be in your shadow,” I told him. But he inspired a lot of my life and career, and it was a real pleasure to do those Grateful Dead shows at Sam Boyd Stadium in Vegas with him and Bill Graham Productions in the ’90s.
How did you come to settle in Arizona?
In ’72, my favorite bands to see were Frank Zappa, Pink Floyd, Yes—a lot of British acts. Chicago was a great market for all that, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to promote there. After rubbing shoulders with Bill in Berkeley at 17, I knew I had to find a place that didn’t have a Bill Graham or a Chicago booking firm like Triangle. I’d been to Phoenix and saw they had an amazing radio station. I borrowed money from my dad and his friends, and got to work on my own company, Evening Star. … Eventually I learned how to call agents and secure contracts. You learn by doing. It was the right time in the biz for 650-seat shows. I booked Chuck Berry, the Outlaws, J.J. Cale—artists they used to play all over the radio in the ’70s. Phoenix gradually turned into a very strong concert market.
What do you make of the Pearl?
It’s the perfect nightclub and concert-hall experience. Sound is great, sight line is great, drinks are great and access is easy. I’ve been there for the shows we’ve done, and it’s always a warm, receptive crowd. I haven’t heard any complaints. We got the deal in March, and I’m looking forward to 2013 when we have a real head of steam going, and we’ll be neck-and-neck with our competition.
A lot of the artists you’re booking at the Pearl are what many would call “iconic.” Do you plan to bring in lesser-known acts?
The lifeblood of live entertainment is new blood. Today, younger bands struggle to build audiences, to fill clubs and stadiums. There’s a disconnect. So many big bands don’t get played on the radio, yet Dave Matthews, Phish and Mumford & Sons fill stadiums. It’s nobody’s fault, but it happened. It’s frustrating too see how hard it is for up-and-coming bands. Don’t get me started on radio. They’re slaves to their ratings. If they did the right thing, their ratings would go through the roof. Instead they give listeners the same thing over and over. But that’s another story.
What would Graham have made of someone like Axl Rose and his blatant disregard for the showtime printed on the ticket?
Bill and I went to see [Guns ’N Roses] at the Warfield, a show he’d booked. Bill had no patience for lateness; he believed in politeness. When Axl went on late and refused to leave his dressing room to meet Bill, he was very unhappy.
Do you know I’m the only promoter to ever ask Axl to go on late? The raceway in Phoenix had flooded, and everything was down to a one-lane road 15 miles long through a mountain pass. Metallica and GNR were ready to play, but 30,000 people were still en route. So I went to see Axl, who was shadowboxing next to his trailer, and I asked him to wait to go on. He still reminds me he was ready to hit the stage on time. “Let the record show,” he says.