I recently received an email from a former Union Catholic High School student, Frank Diego which caused me great excitement. While spending a good four years researching how Union Catholic entered the business of staging rock concerts in the late 1960s, I desperately tried to lay my hand on a copy of a contract between the school and the booking agent for one of its concerts. On December 23, 2014, my wish came true.
One day while working as a student-janitor at Union Catholic during the summer of 1976 or 1977, helping a teacher clean out some files, Frank came across a copy of a contract signed by the school and Blanche Zeller booking Sly and the Family Stone to appear at Union Catholic on March 5, 1969. (Never mind for a moment that the concert never took place. That’s pretty much irrelevant.) Sensing he was viewing a potentially meaningful document, Frank kept the contract from being lost forever in the trash bin of history, kind of like a teenager stopping his mother from tossing out a 1957 Topps Mickey Mantle baseball card in front of his eyes. The contract is at the end of this post for all to see.
Having read When Stars Were in Reach, the reviews and feedback from former U.C. students, Frank must have felt that now was the right time to at last tell his story and reveal the contract.
Excuse me but at the risk of using excessive hyperbole, what we have here is nothing short of a historic document. Ok. I get it! It’s not an original copy of The Gettysburg Address. But from so many perspectives – a rock music and a 1960s cultural perspective in general and a UCHS-as-a-rock-concert-venue perspective in particular, the document is truly historic. And it is pretty old, forty-six years old to be exact. Moreover, selfishly speaking, it is an affirmation of several key facts of When Stars Were in Reach, upon which I previously had no choice but to rely on memories only (no documentation) when writing the book. More on that later.
First let’s analyze the contract. The contract itself is beauty personified in bare-boned simplicity. I admit I’m not in the rock concert business. That said, I doubt that a contract drafted today, between a booking agency and a venue to stage a famous rock act, would be worded in such generalities and be only one page long.
The contract has some key elements in it. It confirms the booking agent, the date and location of the show and who signed the contract on behalf of the school. Lastly, it documents the price of booking a top-tier rock act at the height of its popularity.
A 1960s Rock and Cultural Perspective – Sly and the Family Stone
Years before Sly Stone and his brother Freddie formed Sly and the Family Stone in 1967, Sly was active on the burgeoning rock music scene in the San Francisco bay area as a musician, disc jockey and producer. Sly and the Family Stone’s first hit was Dance to the Music, released in February of 1968, peaking at #8 nationally and #3 on the WMCA charts in NYC for the week of April 3, 1968.
They released a follow-up single in late 1968 called Everyday People. The single began to climb the charts nationally and locally in December of 1968, eventually reaching #1 in both places. Locally on the WMCA charts, it reached # 1 for the week of January 22, 1969 and stayed in the top ten all the way through the week the band was scheduled to play at Union Catholic.
The scheduled date of March 5, 1969 places the band about five months before their landmark performance at The Woodstock Music and Arts Fair in August of 1969, in which they stole the Saturday night proceedings from such venerable bands as The Who and Crosby Stills and Nash.
In the early ’70s, they went on to have another #1 hit with Family Affair and scored several top-ten albums during their career as well. Eventually in the mid-70s, the band fell apart due to drug problems and personality differences. But make no mistake. When the school booked the band, they were in the prime of their career or close to reaching it.
The band changed the face of soul music by adding a funkier more psychedelic sound. Socially, Sly and the Family Stone were a groundbreaking band too. They were one of the first bands to have an integrated lineup.
An Affirmation of Key Points of When Stars Were in Reach
As mentioned above, while researching the Who concert at UCHS, I was dying to get my hands on a document such as this which could confirm the price the school paid to book The Who, as well as other details. Despite managing to actually locate Blanche Zeller herself, I drew blanks. But this contract does confirm two facts mentioned in the book:
First, the contract is on Blanche Zeller letterhead and signed by Blanche. With The Who as well, Blanche was purportedly the booking agent as detailed in WSWIR. But until now there was never any documentary evidence to prove that the school worked with Blanche. Now we know this is a fact and not hearsay, that indeed the school was booking rock acts through Blanche Zeller.
Second, when booking The Who, former Brother Joseph McMorrow took credit for signing the contract on behalf of the school with The Blanche Zeller Agency. With nothing else to contradict the story, I went with it. Sure enough the same individual, Brother Joseph McMorrow signed the Sly and the Family Stone contract on behalf of the school.
If and when Union Catholic decides to devote a display case or more to exhibit the memorabilia documenting the rock n’ roll chapter of its history, this contract should be prominently displayed along with concert posters, tickets, and open yearbook pages showing photos of the famous concerts held at U.C. The blanks filled in by a typewriter serve to highlight even more the sense that the document hails from a more innocent, bygone era, a sentiment which I tried hard to convey in WSWIR. Sometimes a simple one-page piece of paper succeeds in conveying such a sentiment far better than words ever can.
Unanswered Questions and a Final Point
Two points related to the contract are still unclear: the fee paid to the band and the reason for the cancellation of the show. The price to be paid to Blanche Zeller was $5,500. But notice that the price includes insurance to be paid by the Blanche Zeller Agency. Blanche said that her fee was 10% of what was paid to the band. Without knowing how much of the $5,500 made up the insurance it’s impossible to calculate how much the band received. Although we can figure out an upper limit if there was no insurance – $4,950.
As far as the reason for the show’s cancellation, there are three names on the contract: Blanche Zeller, Joe McMorrow and Jack Tarantin. Blanche of course was the booking agent. But she is too old to remember such details, being in her mid-90s. I contacted Jack Tarantin, who according to the contract was the “Chairman of the Committee,” i.e. the concert committee. Jack was the Student Class President at the time. As of this writing, Jack has not returned my call. I was successful in reaching out to Joe McMorrow, a former faculty member at Union Catholic High School, now living in Canada. Joe is a true gentleman, never turning down a request for information and reliably answering my emails. Unfortunately, Joe could not shed any light on the question of why the show was canceled. Joe writes: “I’m afraid I will not be of much value to you on this question.. I have no memory of Sly and the Family Stone. All the bands that were discussed for booking were unknown names to me and to most people at that time…”
Meanwhile, Frank Diego, who revealed the contract last week, said that rumor had it that Sly backed out of the contract after hearing that there were only a handful of black students at U.C. at the time. I welcome anyone’s comments who was in the know.
Finally, notice that towards the bottom of the contract it states that “if any of the above acts or bands shall be unable to appear, the Blanche Zeller Agency agrees to replace them with acts or bands of equal merit.” On March 25, 1969 Blood Sweat and Tears appeared in place of Sly and the Family Stone as the replacement band of equal merit. I leave it to you the reader to decide if the two bands were of equal merit at the time, if one can even measure such a thing. You may be able to guess how I feel, at least in retrospect.