Phoenix rock 'n' roll impresario Danny Zelisko delivers the goods
By Tom Reardon
Phoenix rock and roll impresario Danny Zelisko has a new book out, and it’s a must-read for both fans of local music lore and rock and roll lovers in general.
Danny Zelisko’s new book, All Exce$$, is really an epic discussion of his wild career as the host of the biggest rock and roll parties in Phoenix history.
As a storyteller, Zelisko has a way of coaxing the reader to believe the wildest tales, even though they are all true and all remarkable. To say the guy has had an epic career is an incredible understatement. What’s fantastic about this book is that Zelisko (and ghostwriter Michael Levin) genuinely captures his voice in a sincere way.
Owner of DZP (Danny Zelisko Presents), Zelisko has been a fixture in Arizona’s (and the nation’s) concert scene since 1974. A Chicago native, Zelisko made his way to the Valley of the Sun while focusing on his rock and roll dreams as a young man in his early 20s. He eventually formed Evening Star Productions and became the biggest music promoter in town. For longtime music-loving Phoenix residents, it’s almost impossible to say that you’ve never been to one of Zelisko’s gigs.
As you read through the stories of Zelisko’s early brushes in his youth with professional athletes while attending Chicago Cubs and Chicago Bears, you’ll soon realize that Zelisko was destined for greatness. He got to know and become friends with Brian Piccolo, the Bears fullback who died of Leukemia, as a boy and got his first taste of promotion while setting up a speaking engagement for his pal at the tender age of 11. You’ll find this, and plenty of other intriguing stories, in All Exce$$.
We caught up with Zelisko by telephone as he handled some business at his Phoenix office.
Echo: So great to speak with you, Danny! When we last spoke, you were talking about writing a book. Now it’s here. As an old autograph seeker, myself, how did you end up getting to hang out with so many ballplayers as a kid in Chicago?
Zelisko: Wow, you know, things were much different back then. And now I mean, you know, baseball was very popular, of course, in Chicago. But it wasn't like it is now in the sense that tickets went for hundreds of dollars. I think a box seat at Wrigley Field back then was like $3.50. So, I didn't have to buy tickets back then because we got snuck in by the ballplayers. They would walk us in by the ushers, and we would find a seat somewhere.
We very rarely ever paid for a ticket because we wouldn't have been able to afford it. Otherwise, we had 17 cents to go each way on the bus, so each of us would have just 34 cents, no matter what, so we could go to the park and go home. Most of the time, we would go the whole day without drinking anything or water. And you know, and it wasn't like I was living in a garbage can or anything, but most of the time, our parents didn’t even know we were going to game.
Wow. You were like ten or eleven and just heading to see these games on your own?
Well, when I wrote my first letter to somebody to get an autograph back, I had just turned seven. I got a letter back from a (Chicago) White Sox player, and then it was slowly but surely (from there). I would have to go to my mom and get stamps and paper, and envelopes and my dad would go, “What are you guys doing with all this stuff?” and the next thing you know, our mailbox is getting filled up with replies to the people. It was really fun, and it taught us how to correspond. It taught us how to be nice to people and respect and butter them up and get what you wanted. I have a few of these letters, either that didn’t get mailed or got sent back to me, and they’re funny to read.
It seems like you still enjoy getting to be around athletes. Kirk Gibson (former Diamondbacks manager) wrote the forward to your book. Do you think it’s different now for athletes than when you were a kid? Could a young person replicate what you did in your early days?
The people that I know are, (pauses) they're just good. I don't know a ton of athletes, but I'm friendly with a lot of players still, and they're just regular people like everybody else. If anything, what's different is that I am their peer now and not a kid. They do what they do, and I do what I do, and a lot of them love what I do and wish they could do it, too. It's funny like that.
I enjoyed the early part of the book, where you talk about these experiences. How did those experiences help you in your music career?
I was definitely used to these special kinds of forces around. It was a warmup being with those big players and moving into the music business. I’ve always been around people who were older than me, and now I’ve caught up with them, but back in the day when you're a kid, and you look up to these people, you shut up, you listen, and you learn.
Speaking of learning, how was the process of writing the book for you?
It was interesting because when I first thought about doing it and started doing it, I tried to write it in my head before I put it down on paper. I wanted to do it in the order of how I wanted to tell the story, which was basically by the calendar, but the thing is, you can't remember all that stuff. So, what I did was to get started, and what made it much easier was like you write down or repeat your stories, with no idea where it's going to fit in with the rest of the stories. And then, when you have them all written, and you're happy with the way you wrote them, you can move those chapters around any way you want. So, once I figured out how to do that, it kind of unfolded from there and was much easier.
It was fun to hear your voice in my head as I read it. It is clear in the book that you have a strong reverence for your profession. Do you ever feel like it is your job to shield the people coming to your shows from the business side of music?
To a degree, yes. When you're paying somebody to do something, you don't necessarily want to know how they did it. You just want to know that it's there for you to enjoy. When somebody buys a ticket to a concert, I don't want them to have to worry if the doors are gonna be open on time or anything like that. I want them to be able to just come to the show and enjoy themselves. They paid for a good time, and we provide a good time, and on we go.
There is a chapter in the book where you discuss wanting to put on concerts at Dracula’s Castle in Romania. Tell me about that one.
Derek Shulman, the singer from Gentle Giant, called me up one day, and he asked me to talk to him about this meeting he just had, which was with the Archduke of Romania. I listened to his story and the next thing I knew; we were flying to Romania to see Dracula's castle. I was with Live Nation at the time, and, unfortunately, they didn't share my enthusiasm for this. I thought it was a fantastic idea to launch some tours there. I thought it would be great for, like, Alice Cooper or Kiss or Dio and any of those great, iconic metal bands, with that as the backdrop. I thought it was fantastic, but the Live Nation people disagreed with me.
It’s beautiful there, but there were no modern amenities (at the time). The only reason to go there was you had the castle, and we thought it would be great to have a nice place to stay when you were there and restaurants, and we were going to bring that there, but negotiations broke down and went away. It would have been something completely different.
So, I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you what it was like to bring bands like Queen to town, especially with the recent release of their biopic. What was working with them like?
They were fantastic. First Class. First Class organization, great people. Freddie (Mercury) was great - I enjoyed him thoroughly. They were one of the best bands ever.
So, what is next for you with so much uncertainty in the music industry due to the pandemic? What’s on your horizon?
I’m hoping that the scientists out there will show us how to do an instant test so that when you go to an event, you can have a result that says whether or not you're with this shit or without it. And as long as you're without it, you go on and have a good time, and maybe for a while, you recommend that people wear masks. That’s the only way business and life is going to return to normal. That’s the only way it works is if we have that test.
Give me this part of the solution, which says whether these people are okay to go into a building with other people. That's what we need to do. And then we have our music back, we have our baseball back, and we have our nightclubs back. And you know, people could still get affected by it, but I think most people are willing to take that risk as long as they feel like the stranger next to them has passed the same tests they were forced to take.