when chatt rocked
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.
In the pre-arena era, venues such as the Auditorium were prime tour stops on almost any band of renown’s concert schedule. In the 1970s, as rock ‘n’ roll became harder, louder and more sophisticated, America’s city-owned municipal civic centers and auditoriums were the only venues capable of holding significant crowds, and towns like Chattanooga were added to a long list of mid-size cities where bands could reliably swoop in to collect a handsome paycheck for a night in between their major stops in bigger cities. And fans reveled.
Hundreds of bands—some now legend, others long forgotten—packed the Auditorium with fans, but those days ended in the early 1980s with the rise of the UTC Arena (better known as The Roundhouse in those days), Chattanooga’s first large-scale venue. Kenny Rogers opened the Arena (since rechristened the McKenzie Arena) in 1982, and Riverbend was born that same year.
Jumper told me the Auditorium suffered a crisis during this period. It had again fallen into disrepair and under the shadow of the Arena—where fewer but bigger-name bands could fill its 10,000 seats—the Auditorium took a hard hit. Jumper said veteran manager Clyde Hawkins retired and his protégé and successor, David Johnson, switched gears, offering up the Auditorium as a home for touring Broadway productions.
By the mid-1980s, the Auditorium was due another renovation and a coalition of public and private groups poured $7 million into an upgrade. After an 18-month renovation, the Auditorium was rededicated on Jan. 31, 1991. The major change was that the Auditorium had been converted from an all-purpose exhibition hall, with a flat floor and movable seating, to a sloped concert hall with permanent seating and greatly improved sightlines. Concerts should have poured in again. But that didn’t happen with any regularity.
Broadway tours, stage shows, comedians and musical superstars such as Bob Dylan and Prince appeared now and then—but times changed. Bigger cities built bigger arenas, concerts moved from those arenas to stadiums and eventually to open-air festivals, and smaller venues such as the Auditorium became the havens of legacy acts and no longer a vital prospect on every band’s itinerary.
Of course, it didn’t help that Chattanooga had drifted into an economic and cultural funk. Along the way, the city’s three major venues—the Auditorium, the Tivoli Theatre and McKenzie Arena—drifted into the hands of poor management. Each awaited—and still do—promoters to approach them, a strategy that guarantees dark halls and very dark days for concert-loving Chattanoogans. Ironically, major touring acts have come around to a 1970’s economic reality—they have to tour—and at no time since then, Jumper said, have bands old and new been willing to revisit such halls as the Auditorium.
“There aren’t a zillion bands that can fill arenas,” Jumper said—but there are hundreds of bands who might kill to play the city’s venues. “The best 3,700- to 4,000-seat venues—which the Auditorium is—those are the places that bands want to play because they can sell ’em out. The Auditorium is beautiful and has great acoustics—it’s the perfect concert venue. It’s sad it sits empty most of the time.”
His answer? While he has no political or business interests in Chattanooga or it’s venues, Jumper’s formidable experience and instincts all point to one key message and the missing element: management.
“There’s no active booking,” he said. “You’ve got to have a manager out there who’ll shake hands with promoters and concerts will happen quickly.”
Chattanooga, Jumper said, began as B market in the 1960s and ’70s, then fell to a C market and it has now earned a solid D (if not an F in The Pulse’s opinion). But all that could be turned around with the right managers, Jumper said, who could spark a resuscitated effort to fill these venues, turning them from dark halls hosting sporadic, pre-booked, family-style shows and the odd ’80s band into vibrant venues filled with concerts by popular new bands. And all that could exist, well, in concert.
“Look at Track 29,” Jumper said. “They’ve done an amazing job and they’re being recognized not just regionally, but nationally.”
Indeed, Jumper said, the popularity of Track 29 has made Chattanooga a hot prospect on the tour schedules of many bands, creatively booked by AC Entertainment, the agency that created Bonnaroo and which also books the Tennessee Theatre in Knoxville. “AC Entertainment really knows how to book acts for specific venues,” Jumper said.
Jumper seemed surprised that the city and UTC had not learned a valuable lesson from Track 29, a venue concert-goers will continue to flock to as the Auditorium, Tivoli and the Arena remain dark. Even Track 29 doesn’t want that. The sad news is that if Chattanooga does not heed Jumper’s advice, the only place you’ll hear about the days Chattanooga rocked is on long-dormant Internet message boards.
Richard Winham has the week off. His column will return next week.