Tony Pallagrosi is pictured onstage at January’s big Light of Day concert in Asbury Park. The promoter, musician, fundraiser, club manager, mover and shaker joins Concerts East partner Jerry Bakal for an informal talk on THE JERSEY SHORE MUSIC SCENE: PAST, PRESENT & FUTURE, Saturday at NovelTeas in Red Bank. (Photos by Mike Black)
By TOM CHESEK (First published on Red Bank oRBit March 26, 2010)
He’s the man in the picture — seldom if ever in the spotlight or at center stage, but always there in the group shot, at the all-star curtain call, the presentation of the ceremonial check. You’ll find him on the cover of the second album by the Jukes, or sharing the frame with public figures that most mere mortals would never get within 200 yards of. If you knew nothing else about Tony Pallagrosi, you’d take him to be a mysterious character on a par with Waldo, or perhaps a very ingenious gate crasher.
Try “mover and shaker.” Go-To Guru. A maharishi of make-it-so; equipped with All-Access, Level 5, golden-ticket Lifetime Backstage Pass, personally stamped and validated by Saint Peter, Heimdall, and the CSM.
Not bad for a cat from Point Beach who played trumpet behind Southside Johnny back in the day; a guy who generations of performers can recall from his gigs as manager of the old Fastlane (later Hitsville) and the long-defunct Club Xanadu in Asbury. With his longtime business partner Jerry Bakal, Pallagrosi purchased the former Hunka Bunka in Sayreville in 2003, transforming the old barn into the Starland Ballroom and creating an attraction that at one time boasted rights to being the fourth most moneymaking concert club on the planet. For nearly 20 years, the partners have operated as Concerts East, one of the region’s biggest purveyors of live entertainment (with an accent on Le Rock) and the name behind such events as the Warped Tour, as well as major bookings at the Count Basie and the State Theatre. You’ll even find the promoters involved with smaller shows (like a recent appearance by the Blasters at The Saint), where you can still find Pallagrosi the diehard music fan digging on the vibe he’s wrought.
Since selling the Starland to AEG in 2007, however, Tony’s time has been increasingly taken up by a cause with which he’s been involved from the earliest stages — the Light of Day Foundation and its annual benefit concerts dedicated toParkinson’s Disease research. Pallagrosi teamed with fellow promoter/ LOD founderBob Benjamin and musical linchpin Joe Grushecky to build a branded event that’s attracted friends like Bruce Springsteen and Michael J. Fox — an event that’s grown from a loose jam session at Red Bank’s Downtown Cafe, to a series of shows that spans two continents and two calendar years.
This Saturday evening finds Jerry and Tony appearing at NovelTeas Authors Aromas & Gifts, Kim Widener’s recently inaugurated book salon/ tea room/ gift boutique on the Left Bank of Red Bank. And before we go any further, everybody in the regional music biz can relax; the guys haven’t written a kiss-’n-tell memoir that names names — in fact, they don’t have a book to promote at all. They’ll be there at 7pm to present a talk under the title The Jersey Shore Music Scene: Past, Present & Future. As the name only hints at, it’s an ultimate-insider’s look at the bands, the bars, the business, the beef, the ballyhoo — and the barometer of ever-evolving tastes and tech.
It’s also a full-tilt fundraiser for the guest speakers’ favorite causes — Light of Day, and the Joan Dancy & PALS Foundation for ALS patients in our community, of which Bakal is a trustee. And, the presentation will culminate in an interactive Q&A session moderated by Jerry Zaro, director of the NJ Office of Economic Growth.
Until such time as the Concerts East partners have an actual best-seller to plug on the Today show, theirs is a story that can only be heard by literal word of mouth — so Red Bank oRBit rang up Tony P for a preview of Saturday’s topical talk, and our little exclusive is waiting for you, just around the corner.
The cast of January’s Light of Day concert converges on the Paramount stage, with Tony Pallagrosi in there somewhere — along with Bruce Springsteen, Joe Grushecky, Vincent Pastore, Ed Kowalczyk, LOD founder Bob Benjamin and circus star Bello Nock.
RED BANK oRBit: So what can we expect to see at Saturday night’s event? Is this a prelude to you guys writing a “tell all” book?
TONY PALLAGROSI: We’re not going to tell all — we’ll tell a lot, though! We don’t have a book; we’re going to be doing a little talk about our experiences in the business — our successes, failures, miscalculations; our relationships with famous and not-so-famous people. Basically how the music business here began, grew and developed.
Have you done anything at all like this, together or separately, at any time in the past? And if it goes well, could you see it maybe coalescing into a regular, multimedia sort of event that you bring to different venues?
I have done this sort of thing in the past by myself; I speak to a lot of tour groups from Europe and all over the place — Asbury Park music fans; people who like to hear about Springsteen, Southside and the local history.
As far as a multi-media thing, we’re not at that point right now — I don’t know if we’d ever really offer it as an event, but we’ll certainly do things like this to raise money for the two key charities that we’re involved with.
You’re increasingly identified with your activities on behalf of Light of Day, and Jerry with the PALS organization — is there gonna be some discussion of these activities at the event?
Not necessarily — I’ll have some literature on Light of Day to pass out, but I don’t think we’ll be devoting a lot of time to talking about it. It’s the story of Jerry and Tony essentially; about the concert business, and how we’ve worked together over the past 18 years — and prior to that; we each had our own companies before meeting and forming Concerts East.
So rewinding it back to the beginning for you, how does one of the guys in the band become the promoter? It’s not a real common story, it seems to me — most guys are content with being in the band and getting laid, and nobody ever seems to dream of being the guy on the phone.
It has always been in my blood, I guess — going back to high school. I was president of my sophomore class at Point Pleasant Beach High School, and we needed to raise some money for whatever it was that classes need to raise money for. My idea was to do a rock concert, which was quite a radical thing to do at the time — this would have been 1970.
I got a couple of local musicians who played in a band called Cobalt. They were more or less a Johnny Winter tribute, and one of them — the drummer, Richard Hughes, who sadly passed away a while back — actually went on to play with Johnny!
So, I staged the first rock concert in our school auditorium, and only one glitch skipped my mind — I couldn’t figure out how to pull the curtain! Eventually I discovered the ropes buried behind like three layers of curtain, but it taught me a valuable lesson, which is that you need to walk through all those things that appear mundane (laughs).
Everybody has their musical influences, but who to you was an inspirational figure, a mentor, as far as being a promoter?
Bill Graham, cosmically — I did get to meet him at the Fillmore East, when I was 13, 14 years old. And Jim Giantonio, the guy who used to book the national acts at the Fastlane and Hitsville. I’d help Jimmy with shows — he’s the one who saw something very early on in acts like U2, The Police. He brought Beaver Brown to New Jersey; we brought John Eddie here for the first time. Back then, John Scherwas the big promoter in the area; he was able to keep people out of the larger venues, but he didn’t concern himself with the clubs.
And were you still performing in those days; dividing your time between playing and working the business end?
I gave up playing for a while — but in the 1980s I had developed a pretty intense drug and drinking habit; I ended up in rehab in 1984, and when I got out I didn’t want to throw myself back into the nightclub business.
So, I wound up playing again, in Atlantic City — I played with Benny Troy a lot; backed up people like Julio Iglesias, Suzanne Somers. And it was great sitting behind her. Or on any side of her (laughs)! But, by 1985, ‘86, I was done.
Hey, are you one of the names on that dour-looking plaque by Convention Hall, paying tribute to all the World War I veterans who started the Sound of Asbury Park?
I’m not one of those guys. I’m not a founder, really, of that whole scene — that plaque is for people like Sonny Kenn, Vini Lopez, John Luraschi — cats like that. There are people on there who maybe shouldn’t be there, but to me it really ought to be for the ones who did the most to get the whole thing started, and it wouldn’t be right for me to be there.
So where’s the office these days? I know you were based out of the Starland for a few years, then prior to that you were on Broad Street in Red Bank — which reminds me, have you stepped up your involvement with the Count Basie here in the post-Starland era?
My office is on Maple Avenue in Red Bank — The Courts of Red Bank! I used to go by there and think, “If only I could have an office in the Courts some day!” Now that I’m in there, it’s like — well, it’s fine, really, but I’m not sure what it was I was thinking back then (laughs).
With the Basie, we had a non-compete with AEG for a while there, which has expired, so we got back in there with some shows — a few months ago we hadCounting Crows in there for a big fundraiser. We booked Trey Anastasio, Train — and we have other things going on around the area. Jeff Beck at the Paramount;Alice in Chains in the new MAC at Monmouth University. We’ve got Joel McHale, from The Soup, coming to the State Theater. The Warped Tour, which has been ours from the beginning, over at Monmouth Park. And coming up at Town Hall, we havePat Metheny: Orchestrion, where you have Pat up on stage playing 15 instruments by himself.
I know you’ve been doing some smaller shows as well, which leads me to believe that you continue to do those events because you really like the bands. Who are some of the acts that you really enjoy working with?
Dan Bern, definitely. Jeffrey Gaines; John Easdale. These shows are not where I make my living, but they’re always a pleasure. Some of the bigger acts, too — Chris Cornell, The Wailers, George Clinton and his whole crew. I have to say that I really enjoy 90 percent of the people I work with — the business, for better or worse, is very professional these days.
That kind of gets into the question, which you and I have discussed in the past, of which is better — a slick crowdpleaser show, or a loose, unpredictable set that can either be a train wreck or something legendary?
It’s not like the 60s or 70s, when you’d have an 8pm start time for the show, and the band would take the stage at midnight. That shit can’t happen anymore. The industry is much more corporate; the money is so big that nobody wants to mess that up.
Still, there’s something exciting about not having that well-oiled machine — there’s an element of myself that thinks, will Van Morrison pass out after the second song? Will he walk off the stage?
Obviously, rock and roll can be played professionally — there’s something to be said for that. But there’s also something about going to see, say, the Stones in 1969 — the possibility of magic. It can be a beautiful thing, in a way that a hurricane can be a beautiful thing, if you look at it from the right angle. This uncontrollable force, where you just want to see what the fuck happens.
That’s what rock and roll is all about, really. You just hop in the saddle, and hang on for dear life!