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Rock n’ roll stories from Fort Wayne’s past

Big names. Big events. Brushes with fame…

By Michael Summers


Fort Wayne Reader


Big names. Big events. Brushes with fame. “We knew them when…” When it comes to rock n’ roll stories, Fort Wayne has had its share of them over the years. In the 70s, for instance, you hear of some of the monster Chicago bands — Chicago, Styx, REO Speedwagon — coming through Fort Wayne to play small venues or free concerts before they graduated to bigger things (and then returned decades later to play for free again).

We set out to find some of the more distinctive or unusual stories from over the years. We’re sure there are many more out there, but here are a few we’ve gathered…

Hungry for Genesis

Back in the 70s, Fort Wayne loved Genesis.

This was in the British band’s prog-rock years, when meticulously arranged song suites dominated the entire side of an album — usually a concept album — and drummer Phil Collins couldn’t be seen behind Peter Gabriel’s headdress. “Back in the old days, the highest sales of Genesis albums per capita in America was at Slatewood Records, which is now Wooden Nickel,” says long-time Rock 104 DJ and program director Doc West. “Also, members of Ethos, a Fort Wayne band signed to Capitol Records, were close to the guys in Genesis and helped them get booked here. Genesis played various locations in Fort Wayne, including IPFW.” (apparently, there’s a photo of Peter Gabriel wearing an Ethos t-shirt in the biography The Book of Genesis).

Peter Gabriel left in 1975, Phil Collins took over as singer, and Genesis slowly started acquiring a more pop-oriented sound — albeit a pop sound with some serious musical chops behind it — and even scored a few top 40 hits. In 1983, they released an album called Genesis (referred to sometimes as “the yellow album”) that became the band’s biggest commercial success yet. Songs like “Mama,” “Home By the Sea,” “That’s All,” “Taking It All Too Hard,” “Just A Job to Do,” and… err, “Illegal Alien” (the only clunker in a pretty respectable record) were all over AOR radio and Top 40. Also, Phil Collins had begun his solo career by this time.

But as Genesis became a radio format striding behemoth with a famous lead singer, they were suddenly too big to play the town that had given them so much love in the early days, as Doc West discovered when he tried to get concert promoters to bring in the band. “They said Genesis was too big to play Fort Wayne,” West says. “So, I contacted the record company and let them know I was going to try to do something to get their attention.”

That something? A hunger strike. West refused to eat until he heard from Genesis about playing Fort Wayne. The radio station also did a petition drive, but it was the hunger strike that quickly grabbed the attention of the national media, including MTV. “Martha Quinn and the jocks there at the time did news updates on our attempts to get Genesis into Fort Wayne,” says West.

That got the band’s attention. “But what happened was, it actually ended up being concert promoter politics,” West recalls. “Belkin Productions out of Cleveland had the rights to the Genesis tour. Sunshine Promotions, out of Indianapolis, were not involved, and they were not happy with that. Back then, things were much more territorial.”

Belkin had booked Genesis into Indianapolis, and were looking at potential dates for Fort Wayne. In the meantime, Sunshine Promotions had booked Quiet Riot — who were riding pretty high at the time with their cover of Slade’s “Cum On Feel the Noize” — into the Memorial Coliseum, right around the time Genesis was available. “Back then, there was an agreement with the Coliseum that you had to have a concert a few weeks out from another competing concert, and you had to have permission of the other concert promoter,” West explains. “Sunshine Promotions, who was not happy, said no.”

“So, we didn’t get Genesis because of Quiet Riot,” West adds. “Hard to believe, but…”

There was a silver lining, however. Genesis was sympathetic, and a number of people on Genesis’ touring crew were former Fort Wayners, so tickets sold here for the Indianapolis show were offered at a $2 discount. “Belkin Promotions were a little arrogant,” West says. “They said, ‘we don’t know what’s going on here, but Genesis wants us to make these tickets available to you at a discount. Good luck selling them’.”

But sell them they did. West made several trips to Indianapolis, brought back tickets, and Karma records ended up selling out in a matter of days — 2,000 tickets in all. It broke Belkin’s record for out-of-town ticket sales, and Rock 104 filled 11 buses with concert goers to see the show.

“The interesting thing was, on the way back that night, it was a sea of cars,” West says. “It was so amazing to see that many vehicles coming from the concert, headed back to Fort Wayne on a week night.”

As for West, he lost 40 pounds, and claims he did not have any medical supervision during his hunger strike. At the time, he says, he had the 40 pounds to lose, but… “I was actually starting to lose my hair because I wasn’t doing the right supplements or whatever,” he says. “If you don’t get protein and you’re starving, you get hair-loss.”

Also… “You can get pretty wired when you’re starving, so that was not a good thing. I tended to rant. If you ever talk to anybody on the Atkins diet, it was kind of like that. You kind of get consumed.”

The British are (sort of) Coming

Any Beatles fanatic can tell you that the Fab Four barely made it to Indiana in their touring days, let alone Fort Wayne. Their sole appearance in the Hoosier state was at the Indiana State Fair on September 3, 1964 — myth and legend say that Ringo was allowed a few spins around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway at one in the morning. But a couple other British Invasion luminaries did make it to Fort Wayne in the mid-60s — The Rolling Stones and The Who.

The Rolling Stones played to an audience of 2029 people at the Memorial Coliseum on November 12, 1964. The Stones had chalked up a handful of hits in the US by then — “Satisfaction” was still about six months away — and though the crowd at the Coliseum may have been relatively small, they apparently made up for it in enthusiasm, according to a Journal Gazette article from the time. “Never did so few people… make such a racket for little cause as did those in the Allen County Memorial Coliseum… at the sight of four scrawny, pasty-faced, mussed up, dirty looking creatures (the Rolling Stones).”

The article goes on to quote Coliseum manager Don Myers: “I haven’t seen anything like it since Elvis Presley was here. I hate to think what’ll happen when the Dave Clark Five comes here in December…” The review adds that nurses were present, but no one needed to be carried out.

The stop in Fort Wayne included a number of local media appearances, including one on the Anne Cologne Show — there’s a great photograph floating around town of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards with Cologne (and we’d love to get our hands on it). In most of these appearances, the band doesn’t look like they’re quite “all there,” or like they’re laughing at some private joke — and, knowing the Stones, we can probably guess what the joke is.

Fort Wayne didn’t get the full Stones experience — the band left Brian Jones in Chicago and played here as a four-piece. The JG article says he had pneumonia, and maybe he did, but in his recent autobiography, Keith Richards says that while on tour Jones would sometimes tell the band he was sick, and later they would discover he had been up to his usual extra-curricular activities.

The Who appeared at The Swinging Gate Teen Club on November 24, 1967. We’re not sure where The Swinging Gate was exactly — at one point, the club was called the Maiden Lane Pub, so… err, maybe Maiden Lane? Where ever it was, we’re sure it’s a parking lot now.

Quite a few acts played the Swinging Gate, including The Yardbirds, but according to legend, The Who’s gig was memorable since a snowstorm stranded the band in town, and the promoter fed them Thanksgiving dinner at her (or his) house. “I heard the house was on Hobson Road,” says one source. “But don’t quote me on that.” Okay.

So, the gig itself really happened, but we can’t confirm the Thanksgiving dinner story — though the thought of being trapped in your house with Keith Moon while a blizzard rages outside is pretty terrifying.

Aerosmith and the “Fort Wayne 44”

On October 3, 1978, 30 people were arrested for drinking beer, smoking cigarettes, and possessing marijuana during an Aerosmith show at the Memorial Coliseum.

And we hear you: “wow, arrests were made at an Aerosmith show in the 70s. I’ve also heard that dogs occasionally bite people who deliver the mail. When is your story on that?”

Of course, you’re right. We’re betting this wasn’t the first such bust at an Aerosmith show, in Fort Wayne or anywhere else, and it probably wasn’t the last. We’re also guessing that many of those arrested were minors, since in 1978 adults could indulge in two out of the three activities on that list. It’s possible the Coliseum had a “no smoking” policy then, but anyone who attended a rock concert there a few decades ago can attest that if there were such a ban, it didn’t seem to be vigorously enforced. And by “vigorously” we mean “ever.”

But audience members weren’t the only ones getting arrested at that Aerosmith show. According to Walk This Way, Stephen Davis’ history of the band, singer Steven Tyler’s seamstress was arrested for lighting a cigarette on stage, and “manhandled” by the police.

By 1978, Aerosmith’s infamous drug use was taking its toll, and their live work then was notoriously sloppy and shambolic. Nevertheless, the sight of the woman who handles his scarves being taken away by police seemed to rouse Tyler from his haze. He stopped the show and went on a rant — the words “scumbag” and “gestapo” were used in reference to the police. In turn, he was threatened with arrest for incitement to riot. Then, Tyler offered bail to anyone who was arrested. 28 “arrestees” accepted Tyler’s offer, and the next day, the band’s tour accountant showed up in court to pay $4200 in bail and fines.

Once again, this is according to the book Walk This Way. For the record, the wikipedia entry says it was 58 people, and Doc West calls it “the Fort Wayne 44.” “We did a reunion a while ago with people who could prove they were arrested that night,” West says.

Steven Tyler apparently remembers the incident, and talks about it whenever the band comes through Fort Wayne. “Yeah, the band is very aware of it,” says West. “In the late 70s, Aerosmith played the Coliseum something like three times within 26 months, so they know us.” And of course, the band has returned many times since their big comeback.

West adds that Steven Tyler has fond memories of Fort Wayne for a different reason. Back in the day, West was at a radio industry convention in Los Angeles, and there was a meet-and-greet with Tyler and bass player Tom Hamilton. West approached Tyler with a digital recorder (new at the time) and asked Tyler to say hello to Fort Wayne. “He did his Steven Tyler thing, which you can see on American Idol these days,” West recalls. “’Helllooo, Fort Wayne…’ But then he said ‘You know, the very first rock n’ roll record I heard was on WOWO out of Fort Wayne’.” Indeed, Tyler has talked fondly about the old days of WOWO, which he used to pick up as a kid in New England. (We don’t know what he thinks of WOWO now, though Joe Perry probably likes it).

Percussion Paradise

These days, Sweetwater Inc. puts Fort Wayne on the national musical map. But a couple decades ago, another Fort Wayne-based music retailer/manufacturer was the “go to” place for those in the know — the Percussion Center.

As you might guess from the name, it was a percussionist’s paradise. Located on Harrison street, north of the river, the store hosted workshops and clinics, and adorning the walls were drum heads signed by bands who would drop by while on tour.

Neal Graham started the Percussion Center in 1973 as a teaching center. “We got into the sales part of it primarily for the students,” Graham says. “It grew into a drum shop from there.”

In addition to retail, the Percussion Center also did drum set customizing. And one of the things you always, always heard about the Percussion Center back in the day — Neil Peart, drummer for Canuck math-rock godfathers Rush, had his drums customized at the Percussion Center’s manufacturing wing.

True confession time — I shopped at the Percussion Center, and heard the Neil Peart story repeated by rote so often that I thought it was a sort of urban myth. Rush was huge in Fort Wayne — their tunes were all over the radio — and in the 70s and 80s Peart himself enjoyed almost god-like status among drummers. In fact, he still does. Precise, musical, able to find the groove in the trickiest of time signatures, Peart and his mad skills get respect even from those musicians who prefer their rock in 4/4 time.

But the story is true. “We were involved in doing custom finishes and brass and gold plating,” Graham says. “The stands and the riser system Peart used, we were involved in all that.”

“In the mid or late 70s, Rush would frequently make Fort Wayne their first stop when they entered the US for a tour,” adds Graham. “They would get their supplies from us — sticks and cymbals and that kind of stuff — so they wouldn’t have to clear it through customs. So we would have it here. Ultimately, we started building drum sets from Peart, and we finished the first 10 — I think it was 10 — sets of his career.”

The Percussion Center did customization for tons of clients, from brass bands to other professional drummers — Kenny Aronoff, who played with John Mellencamp for much of the 80s and has worked with some of the biggest musical acts around, was also a client and occasion clinic host.

So far, Peart has only done three drum clinics, and one of them was for the Percussion Center. “We did it at the Grand Wayne Center,” Graham recalls. “We were walking in there, and Peart said ‘I have no idea what I’m going to say,’ and three hours later, he was still talking. He’s a very intelligent and insightful guy.”

In the early 80s, Graham started another manufacturing company, XL Specialty, concentrating on manufacturing and sales to retail and drum manufacturers. The Percussion Center moved to State Street, and then closed in the early 90s. XL Specialty became a division of Gator Cases just a couple years ago.

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