The Music Biz – Establishing Blues For A Big Town

When I left my corporate marketing job to promote shows some friends thought I was crazy giving up a steady, above average, income. But, what they didn’t know was that I had a burning, long-time, desire to be in the music business. And, that I had a partner in crime – my supportive wife Deb – in my corner who would encourage me and help me fulfill my dream.

Looking back, the seed was planted in January 1996. I was sitting in the Toronto airport getting ready to leave for my annual trip to Europe. To pass the time, I was reading the current issue of Blues Revue. The magazine had an offer for tickets to the then named W.C. Handy Awards as well as associated music business symposiums. And, as an added bonus, the Awards were being held during the annual Memphis In May celebration including the MIM International Music Festival at Tom Lee Park on the banks of the Mississippi. Now all of that sounded really interesting.

Having already made up my mind to leave marketing to pursue my dream of promoting Blues in some fashion, I decided right then and there that I would go to Memphis. I sensed that attending the Awards and symposiums would provide insight for a novice like myself. I’d also get to see some live music at the festival, and I’d have an opportunity to visit Memphis and stand on the hallowed ground where Stax once stood.

A quick aside:

Having landed in Memphis, as soon as I got in the cab at the Memphis airport I told the driver that I wanted to make a brief stop at 926 E. McLemore Avenue on the way to my hotel. He gave me a quizzical look, shook his head, and said okay. I understood his reaction when we got there. My heart sank as I gazed upon a fenced in, empty, rubble filled field. That was all that remained of the location where heroes such as Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Booker T. & The MG’s et al recorded all those classic Stax hits.

That night I walked into The Rum Boogie Café on Beale Street and saw that they had one of original Stax neon marquee signs on the wall behind the bar. While grabbing a beer I casually mentioned to the young bartender how cool it was for the bar to have the sign. Rubbing salt in the wound, his comment was “Oh, is that what it is? No one ever told me”.

I have to say that the Handy Awards Show was mostly nondescript save for a few performances, but one of symposiums really caught my interest and made my first of many Memphis trips worthwhile. The topic of the symposium in question was on promoting a show. I’m not sure, but I think Miki Mulvehill, (artist management), was the moderator with a panel that included Jay Sheffield (an agent), and Bluesman Bobby Rush among two or three others. Bobby Rush left the biggest impression because he laid it all out so logically.

He explained that all offers were open for discussion but that a promoter had to understand that, as a band leader, he had certain expenses that needed to be paid to keep the band together and on the road. Any offer had to cover those costs and then some.

He talked about the extras, e.g. accommodations, hospitality, whether he could sell merchandise and determining if the promoter was taking a percentage of the merch revenue, and whether there would be backline. He also talked about routing and how there would have to be a reasonable travel time to the gig and from that same gig to the next one. (He said the band would generally travel a maximum of four hours between shows). This was all invaluable information.

I left my job in November of that year and started to lay the groundwork for starting my own business in the Blues. I felt that I had to quickly establish an identity so, as a starting point, I chose to name my soon-to-be company. I decided that I should come up with a Blues oriented name instead of simply using my name, (e.g. “Rico Ferrara Presents”). My reasoning was that it would give the business a profile and the perception of being a bigger operation than that of a sole proprietor. Also, I wasn’t confirmed at the outset as to what my business would be. Would I be a promoter? Would more opportunities present themselves as an agent? In using a general name, I would be free to pursue any opportunity that came my way.

I tossed a lot of ideas around and shared those notions with friends and family. Our oldest thought “Blues Express” was the way to go and I was partial to “Big Road Blues”; and even had a graphics friend of mine, Ed Campbell, design a logo. Then one day I was listening to Anson Funderburgh and Sweet Sammy Myers, and heard Sam sing “I woke up this morning; I had the blues for a big town”. There it was: “Blues For A Big Town”! I quickly registered the name and had Ed Campbell design a logo:

So I had a company name and logo; now what? My thinking was, equipped with my “Bobby Rush information”, I had a knowledge base that I could lean on in conversations with people in the business while I obtained more firsthand information. I spoke to several people, and the following all were very generous with their time and guidance: Joe Ruicci who owned Joe’s Place in my hometown of Port Colborne; Glenn Smith who, at various times, ran The Hoodoo Lounge and Pop The Gator in Kitchener; Gary Kendall the talent buyer from The Silver Dollar Room in Toronto as well as the bass player for Downchild Blues Band; and the person who would be my mentor, Gary Cormier.

Gary Cormier – half of the famed The Garys – was managing The Phoenix in Toronto when I met him. He quickly agreed to a meeting, answered all my questions, commented on the “Bobby Rush information”, and provided some further info of his own, including all the elements that went into developing a prospective show financial. And, not to be discounted, like me, Gary was, first and foremost, in it for the music.

I determined my next logical step to be scouting talent and talking to agents. I decided to go to Memphis once again for the Awards and Music Festival. In addition, I would also attend the annual Chicago Blues Festival. I established contacts with artists, agents, and management – all U.S. based – at both events and came home with the thought of being a booking agent. But before starting on that journey I had an idea that I needed to explore, if nothing else.

When I was at the MIM Festival I happened to catch Boz Scaggs on one of the main stages. It was an outstanding show with Boz playing a lot of guitar just like the old days, (before “Silk Degrees”), and “Loan Me A Dime” was again included in his set list. (I’m sure that a good portion of the audience didn’t know that Boz is a fine, T-Bone Walker influenced, guitar player). He was showcasing his two most recent releases – “Some Change” and the Grammy nominated “Come On Home” – plus selections from “Silk Degrees”. And, he was more than enthusiastically received.

My idea? How about presenting Boz Scaggs at a Toronto venue? I posed that very question to Cormier. But Cormier was skeptical for, as it turned out, very valid reasons. Among others, Cormier noted three primary concerns:

  • Boz had been away too long and was not top of mind with even loyal fans. (Boz had a history of touring infrequently, and last played Toronto some 20 years previous – in 1977 in support of “Silk Degrees” )
  • There wasn’t enough time to promote a show of this magnitude. (It was early June and the prospective date was August 18th)
  • Any promotion would fall on deaf ears because all efforts would be in place during the height of summer holiday season and attendance would suffer accordingly

But I had stars in my eyes. I can remember myself saying to Gary; “But this isn’t just anybody. This is Boz Scaggs!” Against his better judgement, and with more than a little help from Cormier – who rode shotgun on the project – we pulled off the show anyway.

It was a great show although the attendance was less than we / I had hoped for. If there was a silver lining, it was that I was now in the music business.

I decided to circle back to my initial plan of working as a booking agent using contacts that I had made on my trips to both Memphis and Chicago. Based on the economics that were laid out for me by both Gary Kendall and Cormier it was evident that any acts would have to be somewhat cost effective. That insight coincided with my strategy to represent and establish less than high profile / emerging artists. (One of my learnings in scouting talent in the course of my limited travels is that there was a wealth of high quality artists in the Blues world irrespective of marquee value.)

In contacting prospective venues, I encountered a problem when presenting the lesser known acts. Club owners and talent buyers were universally reluctant to take a chance on hiring them. After several failed attempts to sell the acts that I brought to the table, it was evident that a change in direction was warranted. Simply put, if I wanted to establish my artists I would have to promote the shows myself. And, further to that – working exclusively with U.S. acts – I would have to provide a number of gigs to make it worthwhile for them to make the trek to Canada.

(I also learned that conflicting mindsets came into play in dealing with clubs. As a promoter, the entertainment for me was of prime importance; but for the bar owner, the entertainment served as a means to sell beer. Even if an act turned the place out, the final yardstick remained the quantity of beer consumed.)

So I started work on being a promoter. I set up meetings with prospective clubs in London, Kitchener, Kingston, Peterborough, Ottawa, and Toronto. I established what my friend, (and former Johnnie Bassett band leader), R.J. Spangler would later call “the Blues For A Big Town circuit”. If all went according to plan, I would line up 5 gigs and I would personally promote 3 of the shows. The tour would usually be routed as follows:

Tuesday – L’Autre Cascerne, Quebec City

Wednesday – Café Campus, Montreal

Thursday – The Rainbow Bistro, Ottawa (A BFABT production)

Friday – The Legendary Red Dog, Peterborough (A BFABT production)

Saturday – The Silver Dollar Room, Toronto (A BFABT production)

At various times other venues would come into play in as well, including clubs in Kitchener, Wingham, and Coburg.

I produced over 200 shows while maintaining the objective of presenting only artists that were to my liking. That is, although, of course, I wanted to turn a profit, I never promoted a show on the basis of whether it would sell. From day one, it was always about the music. Various artists that I introduced to the Canadian market include Tab Benoit (Houma LA), Tad Robinson (Greencastle IN), Chico Banks (Chicago), Deanna Bogart (Woodbine MD), Reba Russell (Memphis), Jimmy Burns (Chicago), and Michelle Willson (Boston), among others.

Due to several factors, (the details of which would be enough for an entire article on its own), times became increasingly tough for an independent promoter like myself. That being the case, after primarily promoting shows for a number of years, I turned my attention to being, what I like to term, a music business generalist. That is, utilizing the skills that I learned and the contacts that I’d made as a promoter, I started to diversify by adding talent buying and stage management (including the Beaches Jazz and Waterfront Blues festivals), media, booking, and business planning to my portfolio. Of these endeavours, Waterfront Blues merits special mention. The Festival ran for 10 years, and I enjoyed the responsibility and privilege of selecting and hiring of artists, of media initiatives, and of stage management.

In all, my time in the music business was a true labour of love that lasted more than 20 years. And, it goes without saying, that I had the good fortune of working with some great industry people and numerous outstanding artists – some of whom I can still call friends today.

  • Rico Ferrara, November 2020

6 thoughts on “The Music Biz – Establishing Blues For A Big Town

  1. Another great one Rico! Although I saw some of this history, I missed a lot, especially what was running through your mind as you developed the business. That Boz show was sensational – I remember thinking how can there possibly be empty seats at this show? Felt so badly for you. But you carried on and the rest is history!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great story! Kudos to you for having the vision, energy and support to be able to bring so much good music through Quebec and Ontario. Thanks for supporting live music, so important to the musicians and listeners alike. Even if the artist was not known in these parts, a Blues For a Big Town show was sure to please!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Once again, so informative. I envy all the places you’ve been and artists you’ve met. I always liked when you could make it down to Joe’s Place back in the day and more recently, the “Shuffle” in Thorold. And thanks for introducing me to some of the artists ss well. PS, I was at the Boz show at Massey Hall and 20 years prior at Varsity stadium with Loggins & Messina and Fleetwood Mac.

    Liked by 1 person

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