Danny Zelisko can’t help but be a name-dropper.
That’s what happens when you spend your whole career with celebrities. When he says Alice, he means Cooper. When he mentions Perry, he means Farrell.
Zelisko, the president of Danny Zelisko Presents, has been a concert promoter in Phoenix for well over 40 years, during which he’s brought the biggest musical acts in the world to town for the listening pleasure of generations of local music-lovers.
Of course, 2020 hasn’t been the best year for anyone whose livelihood centers around concerts, which is why Zelisko thought that now was the right time to finally finish his memoir.
All Exce$$ — Occupation: Concert Promoter is the tale of an incredible life, from Zelisko’s childhood in Chicago (when he earned money booking speaking engagements for baseball players who needed extra cash) to his arrival in Phoenix in the early ’70s, to his decades of working with the most famous names in music. Packed with photos and stories, it’s an in-depth look at what happens behind the curtain and offstage.
People always told Zelisko he should write down his stories, but the ball got rolling in an unexpected way.
“I saw a guy on Shark Tank who was selling that he was a ghostwriter,” he says. Zelisko ended up hiring him, which meant that he could just talk about his life and not worry about writing everything down in chronological order.
The project began in 2016, and there were periods when it was abandoned for months on end (hey, Zelisko’s a busy guy). Then, the pandemic hit.
“Suddenly, we weren’t promoting shows anymore. This seemed like the best time to get it going,” he says.
To promote All Exce$$, Zelisko will participate in a live Zoom event at 7 p.m. on Thursday, October 22. The event is hosted by Changing Hands Bookstore. The cost is $5 to watch, $37.84 to watch and to pick up an autographed copy of the book at either Changing Hands location, or $42.84 to watch and receive an autographed copy in the mail.
“In lieu of having no shows, this is the next best thing. You can picture all the shows in your mind while you’re reading it, and there’s a lot of pictures to help you along with the story,” Zelisko says. “I’m very proud of it; it’s a great collection of stories that actually happened. It reads like a fantasy story in some parts, but it was my fantasy and it turned out to be my life.”
We recently spoke with Zelisko as he zipped around town delivering copies. Here are some highlights from the interview. (Quotes have been edited for length and clarity.)
On what a concert promoter actually does:
You gotta figure out where the best place is to do it, secure the hall for the date or dates that [the band wants] to play, and it all takes off from there. You’ve got to put an offer together that everybody agrees on that’s going to dictate the terms of the show between you as the buyer and them as the band, and then you gotta promote it, you gotta raise the ticket sales, you gotta have all the people who are going to work at the show to pull it off, from the ushers to the stagehands to the caterers and everybody in between, and you gotta buy all the advertising and sell the tickets.
And at the end of the day, if you don’t sell enough tickets to meet your proposed expenses … all those costs, you gotta pay for for that show. There’s a million things that all fold together, and you’re responsible for every one of those things. And they gotta all work together for the person who buys the ticket to be able to just go in and enjoy themselves. We’re there to make sure get what they paid for.
On when regular live shows will return:
Your guess would be about as good as mine right now. My crystal ball is foggy. … Originally, we thought that by this time this year, we’d be back to normal again. Like long before now, we were thinking it’d be a month or two. … If right now, everything was fine and everything could resume, or at least we could go to shows and wear a mask, and have enough people come to the show to pay the bills for doing the show, you’d still need a couple, three months to mobilize to begin. … Think of the dozens of people for each show, between the agency, the manager, the band, the crew — all those things are going to have to be started from scratch in many cases. You watch how fast these people mobilize once it’s able to happen.
On drive-in concerts:
I know there are a bunch of people doing these drive-in concerts and parking lot things. I’m sure those are fun and good; I just haven’t gotten my arms around doing that just yet. I like doing shows in real places, not makeshift ones. Good for them they’re doing it — people gotta work. People gotta play, they don’t want to get rusty. If you don’t use it, you lose it.
On his most memorable Phoenix show:
It was the first Paul McCartney show I did, at Sun Devil Stadium [on April 4, 1990]. He had come out of retirement; he had stopped touring after he got busted in Tokyo on that pot charge. It really came together magically, and he was fantastic, and it was really quite an event for months leading up to the show, from selling it out right away to dealing with all of his people for the first time.
On his favorite Beatles song:
God, there’s so many. That’s such a tough question. You know, “Please Please Me” was the first song I ever heard by The Beatles. It was so fantastic to hear that song, and what it did from there and how it inspired me to like them, love them, and tell my friends about them. And I’ve been a fan ever since. Anytime I’m listening to a Beatles song, it’s my favorite song, but I would have to go with [“Please Please Me”] just for that reason.
On missed opportunities:
I was with Perry [Farrell, of Jane’s Addiction] when he came up with the concept [for Lollapalooza]. He’d been working on it for quite a while, and actually, it was one night around 2 a.m. when we decided the name would be Lollapalooza. At the time, we didn’t realize how huge it was going to be and that it would still be going on 30 years later or something. But it is, and it’s a big deal, and we were just a couple of young kids talking about it. And good for him that it happened. I wish I got a piece of it.
On being inducted into the White Castle Cravers Hall of Fame:
Last year, they gave Alice an Alice Cooper’s Corner at the one in Scottsdale. Both Alice and I are big, big fans. One time, at a dinner that Alice and Styx were being honored at in Nashville, we didn’t like the food they were serving, so I sent out for White Castles for everybody in the middle of dinner, so I got to the know the people from White Castle.
When Alice was doing this thing last fall with them, I said John Prine would like to go in the Hall of Fame; John had White Castles after every show when he’s in a White Castle city. I asked him if he wanted to go in the Hall of Fame and he said, “Sure, I’d love to,” and they asked me if I would, and I said yeah, and then Tommy Shaw [of Styx] is also a big White Castle fan. That’s how it all came to be, and we had a beautiful little ceremony last week.
On what he hopes people get from the book:
Whatever it is that you like, especially when it comes to the arts, all you have to do is be persistent and be willing to go hungry, and you can survive at it at it, if you’re good enough to be better than somebody else.
This isn’t the kind of career or life that a lot of people last at a long time. It seems to spin off into other things, or in many cases, luck runs out as a promoter, or you just make the wrong moves, or say yes too many times to the wrong things, and boom, you’re out with the trash. Fortunately for me, that hasn’t happened.
I still really like doing it, and I think I’m more into it than a lot of other people. I like the takeaway that you better be good at something after all these years. It’s only bragging if you can’t back it up.