Walking with Mike Belkin (ADL ’58) through the corridors of his Chagrin Falls offices is like taking a tour of his own private Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. As he points out framed box office statements from Public Hall for a Jimi Hendrix performance, a signed letter from the Doors and posters from Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Bruce Springsteen, Simon & Garfunkel and Led Zeppelin concerts, he narrates colorful conversations or experiences with these renowned musicians.
One humorous tale pertains to his favorite rock band of all time, the Who. One night he joined them and the James Gang for an après-concert dinner at the famed Cleveland eatery Captain Frank’s, at the end of the East Ninth Street Pier. As they waited for a couple of band members to arrive, Belkin sat surrounded by the young rockers still sporting their all-white costumes. Finally, Who drummer Keith Moon arrived with James Gang bass player Dale Peters. The notoriously self-destructive Moon was dripping wet, and his suit was now black. Turns out he had taken a few steps too many past the end of the pier. Fortunately, Peters saw him thrashing about in the then heavily polluted water, threw him a life preserver and yanked him out of Lake Erie.
“I was just in awe of them,” Belkin admits, recalling the countless hours he hung out with rock stars and other acts he booked or managed. “I got along with all of them, and I enjoyed being around creative people and entertainment professionals.”
One of the practices that brought success to Belkin Productions, the company he formed with his brother Jules in 1965, was their willingness to try new approaches, like the time they set up a tour for the James Gang that featured striptease artist Tempest Storm and a couple of circus acts, including a knife thrower and his assistant. Belkin even booked the show into Carnegie Hall. “In the concert business, you never know what’s going to happen or who’s going to buy tickets and how many will be sold,” he says. “So I like to do things that are fresh and new and maybe take a chance.”
His risk-taking paid off. “A sellout concert was always very enjoyable,” Belkin says, and he brought about his fair share of them. Bills headlined by such acts as the Beach Boys, Fleetwood Mac, Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones filled Cleveland Municipal Stadium with 80,000-plus screaming fans at the legendary World Series of Rock—daylong, multi-act summer events held from 1974 to 1980. Four consecutive sold-out performances by the Michael Stanley Band in 1982 set an attendance record at Blossom Music Center.
The latter was especially sweet, since Belkin has known Michael Stanley for 50 years and has managed him for almost as long. Although the Belkin brothers sold their company to Live Nation in 2001, Belkin, now 82, remains involved in the rock and roll world, primarily as manager of the Michael Stanley Band and Donnie Iris and the Cruisers. He shares his offices with his son Michael, who heads Live Nation’s Northeast Ohio operations.
“Working as a manager is extremely pleasing and fulfilling because I know they are depending on me,” Belkin says. “For Michael and Donnie, it’s my job to keep them busy and ensure they get paid the amount of money that I feel they can and should get. They are both first-class, solid individuals, so when they sell out or do well or make good money, that makes me happy.”
In the early 1950s, when rock and roll was still in its infancy, Belkin was a student at Cleveland Heights High School. He remembers going with his friends to catch jazz greats Buddy Rich and George Shearing at Lindsay’s Sky Bar, near the corner of East 105th Street and Euclid Avenue; the club was open to minors on Sundays, when it couldn’t serve liquor.
By the time he enrolled at the University of Wisconsin, Belkin’s attention had turned to becoming a professional pitching prospect in the minor leagues. He signed with the Milwaukee Braves and transferred to Whitewater State Teachers College, about an hour away from Milwaukee, where the Braves held their spring training. But after a year or so in the Double-A Leagues, riding trains or buses overnight to play games in remote small towns, the lifestyle began to wear thin. A son of the North, Belkin also found Southern segregation and the mistreatment of African American players and team personnel hard to take. So he decided to return to his native Cleveland: “I loved it then and I still love it now,” he says.
Although Major League Baseball rules prevented him from continuing his playing career while attending an NCAA-certified school, Belkin enrolled at Western Reserve University in 1956 to complete his undergraduate degree.
“Dean Cramer was very instrumental in getting me into the business college,” Belkin recalls of Clarence “Red” Cramer, dean of Adelbert College at that time. “I used to meet with him regularly, because when I transferred to WRU, I didn’t have the credits necessary to pick right up at Reserve.”
After he graduated, Belkin went to work full-time at his father’s business, Belkin’s Men’s Store. Along with its main location on West 25th and Clark Avenue in Cleveland, the firm leased space in department stores in Painesville and Ashtabula, selling apparel and household goods. Belkin took charge of these satellite operations, driving to one or both each day from his family’s apartment near Shaker Square before there were major freeways.
“It was a nice drive,” he recalls. “It’s still a nice drive. I worked six days a week, from 9 in the morning until 6 at night, and did that for several years, until we started the concert business.”
That business grew out of his friendship with the storeowner at the Ashtabula location, Leroy Anderson. Although Belkin didn’t care much for big band music, he saw the success his friend had promoting acts such as the Duke Ellington Band and the Louis Armstrong Band under the banner “Anderson’s Department Store presents …” One day, after looking through the entertainment section of a Cleveland paper, he decided to explore an idea for a new enterprise.
“Other than an occasional Beach Boys or Peter, Paul and Mary show, there really is nothing happening in this market with contemporary music,” he remembers saying to Anderson. “Why don’t we try to do something and see what happens?”
Anderson agreed and asked what he wanted to do first. Belkin enjoyed the Four Freshmen, so he called their record company, which referred him to their booking agent. He learned that he would have to pay the group $1,500 and find an opening act as well. Unfazed, Belkin booked the New Christy Minstrels, and he and Jules scheduled two shows in the 3,000-seat Music Hall at Cleveland’s Public Auditorium for February 5, 1966. After the first show, it looked like they were about $60 down. But after the second, they wound up making $60.
It wasn’t an overwhelming success, but they weren’t discouraged. Their first real setback came when the Mamas and the Papas canceled on the day of their show—twice. Their excuse? Mama Cass was sick. But the Belkin brothers learned later that “sick” meant she had a substance abuse problem. They had to refund all of the tickets plus eat the deposit for the reserved venue. The fiasco endangered their reputation and left them wondering why they had gotten into the music promotion business.
Their fortunes turned, however, when Anderson connected them to George Wein, the impresario responsible for the Newport Jazz Festival and other major concert events. Just weeks after the Hough riots, the Belkin brothers sold out the Northeast Ohio Jazz Festival at the Cleveland Arena.
“We divided the profits, so George got $5,000, Leroy got $2,500 and the Belkins got $2,500,” Belkin recalls. “That was pretty much the start of Belkin Productions.”
In those early days, Mike focused on booking the acts, while Jules oversaw the actual productions and the accounting. Soon they were promoting acts such as Johnny Carson, Liza Minnelli, Sonny & Cher and the Smothers Brothers.
Belkin didn’t mind that these clients weren’t rock and roll entertainers. “Those were all artists who I always liked, and I enjoyed being on the road with them and booked quite a few dates for them around the country,” he says. “They all became good friends, and I loved watching these professionals work.”
A couple of years later, Jimmy Fox, drummer and organist for the James Gang, visited Belkin and asked if he would consider becoming their manager. Belkin said he couldn’t answer until he spent some time with the band members. “I got to know Joe Walsh, then Dale Peters,” he recalls. “I liked all of them, and they were easy to work with. I liked their music and felt they had a good future.”
“Mike knew the business angles, how to negotiate and promote so we would get better deals,” recalls Peters, who lives in Cleveland. “He’s a sharp guy and does his homework, but at that time, we were all learning together.”
Thanks to Mike, the Belkins gave Cleveland a reputation for breaking new, upcoming acts such as David Bowie. “I brought a lot of people to Cleveland that would not have otherwise come back then,” he says. “I stayed in contact with the international agents to keep up with what was happening in music. And it’s pretty hard to keep secrets about guys like Bowie, who are just unique.”
Because of the Belkin brothers’ business savvy, affable personalities and consummate professionalism, rock acts worldwide wanted to sign on with them, making Cleveland a necessary stop on their American tours. The Belkins’ success—along with that of their close partners WMMS-FM 100.7 and radio and business guru Milton Maltz—enabled Cleveland to acquire a reputation as “the Rock and Roll Capital of the World.” That eventually set the stage for the city to become the site of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, which opened in 1995.
Today, managing Michael Stanley’s and Donnie Iris’ bands keeps Belkin busy. Stanley calls him “one of my dearest friends in the entire world” and says, “People who are fans of the Michael Stanley Band should know that if it weren’t for Mike Belkin, there wouldn’t have been any band to be a fan of.”
Belkin started managing Iris and his group in 1980, so they’ve also shared ample unforgettable experiences, including the parties Belkin occasionally throws at his house for his bands and their families. “I just enjoy the camaraderie,” he says. “Anybody and everybody I manage, I truly love and enjoy spending time with, seeing their concerts. In my heart, I have to like everyone that I manage. I can’t manage someone I don’t like, even if they’re a great musician.”
For his part, Iris treasures the time at a restaurant when he offhandedly remarked that he admired Belkin’s wristwatch. He received it in the mail a few days later. “It’s been a long time, but the short of it is he’s just a kind, great human being,” declares Iris, 74. “He’s been behind us since the beginning, and that’s why he’s still my manager. It’s been quite a ride, and we love him.”
Belkin has also deployed his skills as a manager outside the music business. He and his wife, Annie, are premier collectors of contemporary glass art. They learned everything they could about it from prominent artists they befriended, and before long Belkin was managing the careers of three of them: Paul J. Stankard, William Carlson and Steven Weinberg. He also became close friends with a fourth artist, Henry Halem, who founded the glass program at Kent State University.
“Mike is a very sweet guy, very open and very giving,” says Halem. “He took advice very well and built a collection that was second to none.”
Six years ago, the Belkins donated 64 glass paperweights created by Stankard to the Akron Art Museum, which exhibits them in a permanent, rotating display. Other works from their collection are on loan to the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Bergstrom-Mahler Museum of Glass and the Corning Museum of Glass.
Belkin recently completed a memoir with Cleveland author Carlo Wolff, who specializes in jazz and music history. The title—Mike Belkin: Socks, Sports, Rock and Art—alludes to his work in the family retail business, his stint in professional baseball, his accomplishments as a concert promoter and manager, and his glass collecting. Out of all these aspects of his life, he devotes the most space to his success launching the careers of major acts from Aerosmith and Bowie to Springsteen and Queen.
“Belkin Productions had a huge impact on Cleveland,” he concludes. “Music is meant to entertain, and this is very important. I made a lot of people walk away from a concert with a smile on their face.”
Christopher Johnston is a freelance journalist, playwright and director.