If you’re well north of 40 and grew up in Chattanooga, you’ll recall the many great concerts that visited the Scenic City in its rock ‘n’ roll heyday—and the one place you could see them. Before The Roundhouse and Riverbend, the Memorial Auditorium was Chattanooga’s only venue capable of hosting touring bands of regional and national stature from the 1960s through the early 1980s. During that era, the Auditorium—and Chattanooga—did indeed rock.
Fast forward 30 years. Only two notable rock acts appeared at the Auditorium last year—Crosby, Stills & Nash and Hall & Oates— both still worth seeing, but obviously well past their prime. The Tivoli continues to play host to a string of legacy artists—Kris Kristofferson, Merle Haggard, George Jones—all worth seeing, but each has limited appeal to younger audiences. Besides the infrequent Pops performance featuring such older acts as The Indigo Girls, only The Black Jacket Symphony’s tribute performances come close to rocking the ornate theatre—and that is a generous assessment. As for UTC’s McKenzie Arena, only Elton John—whose November 2010 show was the last of note—stands out. He will visit again on March 23 for a sold-out show marking the 40th anniversary of “Rocket Man” tour. A legend, an icon, great fun? Yes, but hardly cutting edge.
Meanwhile, Track 29 continues to serve up an exciting and eclectic schedule of bands from diverse genres, from rock to country, electronic to Americana.
So what happened? The answer seems obvious, but we turned to Ben Jumper, a former staffer with Sound Seventy (the Nashville-based booking agency that brought Chattanooga the hottest touring bands in the ’70s) and owner of SoundCheck Nashville, one of the nation’s largest rehearsal and production studios, for a professional opinion.
Jumper began his career in the early 1970s working with Sound Seventy, which promoted and produced many memorable shows in that decade—from Southern rock legends Lynyrd Skynyrd, 38 Special, the Atlanta Rhythm Section and Mother’s Finest, to hot rock acts such as Bruce Springsteen, Hall & Oates, Foreigner, Peter Frampton and Roxy Music, to name but a few.
Jumper went on to join the Charlie Daniels Band on the road from 1976-80, returned to Chattanooga and formed ChattaTik, a concert-ticketing operation. He simultaneously launched Catering to the Stars and Mid-America Entertainment, sold them and launched Crew One Productions in 1992. In 2004, he purchased SoundCheck Nashville and has since expanded its operations to Austin, Texas, where I caught up with him recently prior to the launch of the annual South by Southwest Music & Film Festival.
Jumper is busy man, but he was eager to hear about the recent controversies swirling about his old stomping grounds. As he reminisced about the many concerts he’d witnessed at the Auditorium—Paul Revere & The Raiders was his first show, he said, which also featured The Who on their first U.S. tour—I provided him a brief synopsis of the troubles surrounding the Auditorium and the Tivoli. We also discussed McKenzie Arena and the general concert situation then and now in Chattanooga. As a highly regarded music industry professional with many years of experience under his belt—including a wealth of knowledge of the concert tour business here and elsewhere—Jumper has valuable advice to share.
“The whole industry has been in a major shakeup with all the downloads,” Jumper said, referring to the demise of physical album sales. “Touring has become a main revenue stream. The Memorial Auditorium needs an active manager, a member of IAVM [International Association of Venue Managers], someone who knows the promoters and seeks out concerts.”
The Auditorium began life as a community civic center, but following decades of neglect the facility underwent a $2.1 million renovation in the mid-1960s, reopening in 1966 with such amenities as escalators and air conditioning. As rock ‘n’ roll took hold, followed by the British Invasion and the rise of American soul, the Auditorium became ground zero for touring acts visiting Chattanooga. Jumper himself was in the audience during those years. “I remember being one of about 10 white folks at a James Brown show,” he said.