Wed 10/4 @ 5PM
When it comes to the life of Mike Belkin, where do you start?
For anyone else releasing a career retrospective book such as “Mike Belkin: Socks, Sports, Rock and Art,” which was written with Carlo Wolff, a natural starting-off point would be discussing the fact Rock Hall inductee Frankie Valli wrote the forward. However, this is Mike Belkin we’re talking about and, well, the Four Seasons frontman’s name didn’t even come up.
Belkin, who was raised in Cleveland Heights and University Heights, is like a Forrest Gump of Northeast Ohio history. Only he’s not witnessing the events, he’s creating them. In addition to being a premier rock music promoter (along with his brother Jules), Belkin was a professional baseball player, band manager and record label magnate. He’s also currently owner and president of Pinnacle Marketing, a professional sports licensing firm, as well as a respected art glass authority.
As far as his book is concerned, it’s a who’s who of not only Cleveland entertainment history, but national acts as well. The official book release for Mike Belkin: Socks, Sports, Rock and Art takes place Wed 10/4 at the Music Box Supper Club.
CoolCleveland talked to Belkin about Uncle Bill’s (we’re showing our age), the Mamas & the Papas and the World Series of Rock concerts.
CoolCleveland:First of all, how long have you been thinking about writing a book?
Mike Belkin: For decades people would ask me how was that person? How was it working with that group? It was continuous questions, so I thought it would be a good time to try to write a book. I contacted Carlo. I saved everything from high school to college to professional baseball to all of the concerts I’ve done and all the artists I was associated with. I had plenty of history. I even saved all of my itineraries and clippings. It was a pleasure really to look back on it and be able to talk about it, because I had some very interesting concerts and worked with some very interesting people.
CC: When you were growing up were you always interested in music?
MB: When I was 6 years old, I had four aunts who lived together on East Boulevard. They loved the hell out of me. Just about every Sunday we’d visit them. I was in some Cleveland Play House productions and they always wanted me to perform for them. I always loved music. So I would perform for them. I used to take a little stool they had at their apartment that I would stand on for my stage. To this day, I still have my little stool at home, but I don’t perform on it.
CC: Did you say you were in Cleveland Play House productions?
MB: Yeah, I was in a couple of plays like Hansel and Gretel. I enjoyed being on stage.
CC: What’s your connection to the old store chain Uncle Bill’s discount department stores?
MB: I learned the clothing business from my mom and dad. I went into Uncle Bill’s a lot. Two of the gentlemen there who were executives took me under their wings and expanded my knowledge of the clothing business. Uncle Bill’s was one of the first discount stores. My dad leased the space at two stores, so I got into the clothing business in Ashtabula and Painesville.
CC: I’m guessing this is where the socks reference in the title of the book comes into play?
MB: When I was in the discount store business, I would buy cartons of unpaired socks. I purchased them from a mill in North Carolina. I was paying 25 cents a pair and then I would pair them up and sell them for 35 cents. So I was the king of socks.
CC: What are your early memories of concert promotion in Cleveland?
MB: The turning point was when George Wein of Newport Jazz Festival came to Cleveland because he was doing a jazz festivals in different cities. He asked if I was interested in doing any jazz festivals. So we did a jazz festival together at the Cleveland Arena. It was two weeks after the Hough Riots. We didn’t know what to expect, but we sold out 8,000 seats. We made money, and it was a great night. From there, I got involved with rock ’n’ roll. The first almost concert was the Mamas & the Papas. I rented Public Auditorium. It cost a lot of upfront money. Two days before the concert, I got a call from their manager saying they can’t play the date because Mama Cass [Elliot] was sick. We had to cancel the concert, and it was costly. We found out later her illness was drugs. We got a call back saying they could redo the date and the exact same thing happened. So it was not a great start financially or credibility-wise, but we got past that and proceeded to do quite a few concerts a month. I even went outside of Cleveland and did quite a few shows. I used to produce all of Johnny Carson’s one-nighters. He was a pleasure. Also I did the same for Sonny & Cher. These were all over the country.
CC: When it comes to ’70s concerts, baby boomers love to talk about the World Series of Rock shows.
MB: They were so successful because they were the first ones being done certainly in Cleveland and around the country. We priced those at a good price and sometimes we had three, four or five artists playing. And playing at the Cleveland Stadium was a plus. In fact, Art Modell was very instrumental in that because he provided the stadium for us. Those weren’t easy dates because of the numbers of people. And sound-wise, it was an unusual situation to be having a concert at an enclosed open-air facility. Every concert was sold out. They were fantastic. I’m looking at a picture of the Rolling Stones date that was more than 82,000 people. It’s a packed stadium. The World Series of Rock shows were notoriously successful.
CC: Tell us about the famous plane that buzzed Cleveland Municipal Stadium before Pink Floyd took the stage in 1977.
MB: They got in trouble for that. They hired a twin-engine plane to fly over and it came in too low. That’s the show they were flying the inflated pigs all over the Stadium. Every date was exciting because I made sure every band was exciting.
CC: Finally, what do you hope people take away from Mike Belkin: Socks, Sports, Rock and Art?
MB: What they should take away from the book is the author enjoyed life, and still enjoys life. Still wants to do everything that other people never did. Because I enjoyed doing the unusual. I live an exciting life. It’s not a dangerous life, that’s for sure, but I try to do everything exciting.