Of all the cast of interesting characters scattered throughout When Stars Were in Reach (WSWIR) there was no more colorful character than Blanche Zeller. Blanche, you probably recall, was the owner of The Blanche Zeller Agency out of Verona, New Jersey, the company that booked The Who to play at Union Catholic High School in the fall of 1967. She was well into her ‘90s when I spoke with Blanche in October of 2009.
Last month, after an exchange of emails, I spoke at length with Richard Goldberg who worked for Blanche Zeller for a good three plus years beginning at age 14 or 15. That would be from 1967 through 1970. Richard was working for Blanche when she booked The Who to play at U.C.
Until the fall of 1967, Blanche Zeller had never booked a rock act. Her staple was Catskills-type entertainers – picture Nipsey Russell or Alan King. At some point she realized that she was missing out on a potentially lucrative revenue stream – rock concerts. She figured why not hire a young person who could help her out in this area. Enter Richard Goldberg. What credentials could Richard Goldberg, all of 15 years old, have burnished that would not only have landed him a job with Blanche Zeller but would have caused Blanche to seek out Richard and not vice versa? Here begins the unusual story of Richard Goldberg.
As a young teen, Richard was an avid rock music fan. He still is today. He used to enjoy reading a rock music column in the Newark Evening News called “On The Record,” which reviewed rock bands and their new album releases. Richard took umbrage at one particular column in which he thought a favorite band of his was unfairly criticized. Richard put pen to paper and let his feelings be known in a letter to the editor. The Arts Editor responded to Richard and invited him to the paper’s offices in Newark for a face-to-face chat. Richard remembers being driven by his father to the bus stop to take the bus to Newark to meet with the Arts Editor. When they met, Richard spoke his mind. Richard must have made a favorable impression because although not yet 15, the Arts Editor offered him the chance to write that same column on rock music for the newspaper. The Arts Editor said to Richard: Why don’t you write the column? At first Richard was dumbfounded but then he accepted the offer. He eventually would be paid the princely sum of $75 for each column, which for a 15-year old was a lot of money.
Soon the column was his and he ran with it. In addition to reviewing new rock album releases, the paper wanted to send him to rock concerts to review for his column. When he explained to his boss that he was too young to drive, his boss told him not to worry; he would be driven to and from each concert. Heady stuff indeed for a 15-year-old. Richard remembers being driven on five or six occasions to the Asbury Park Convention Center for memorable concerts, specifically The Doors (August 31, 1968), the Jefferson Airplane, Joe Cocker (Mad Dogs and Englishmen) and also The Birds (shortly before the band and David Crosby went their separate ways and David went to greener pastures with Crosby Stills and Nash).
Blanche used to read and enjoy Richard’s column in the Newark Evening News. She contacted the newspaper and asked if the newspaper would provide her with Richard’s contact information. She wanted to hire him to help her book rock acts. She contacted Richard and asked if he’d like to work for her. Still a student in Scotch Plains High School, Richard accepted Blanche’s offer.
Despite Richard’s youth at the time, almost 55 years later, one can understand why Blanche took a chance on hiring the young man. After all they were kindred spirits of a sort – two over-achieving individuals, both possessing a healthy dose of “hutzpah” in their makeup.
It is not without good reason that the opening words to When Stars Were in Reach are: “Success has a thousand fathers. Failure is an orphan,” a quotation anonymously authored. You see, there wasn’t one specific individual more than other who was responsible for the successful foray of Union Catholic into the rock concert business by staging The Who. To name a few, there were the Principal Brother Vincent Damian, the booking agent Blanche Zeller, Senior Class President Rob Mathers and his fellow students on the concert committee, Decoys bass guitarist Bob Gilligan and I can go on. Now we can add one more – Richard Goldberg.
A good portion of the Epilogue of When Stars Were in Reach deals with the challenge I faced of writing a cohesive and logical narrative of how The Who concert at Union Catholic High School came to be. I say “challenge” because accounts sometimes conflicted with other accounts, depending on who was telling the story. Two major point of contention centered around whose idea it was to book The Who over other bands and how the connection was made with Blanche Zeller.
Until I spoke with Richard Goldberg there were two main narratives. There were those who attributed the idea of booking The Who to Bob Gilligan who had seen The Who play at the aforementioned Asbury Park Convention Center in August of 1967. Then there were others who gave no credit to Bob Gilligan at all. But along comes Richard Goldberg with his own unique perspective.
According to Richard, once Blanche hired him, Richard’s job was to help open this new potentially lucrative revenue stream for the Blanche Zeller Agency. Richard would fill the marketing role of reaching out to high schools with the idea of booking a rock band to play in their school. He would also make sure that any quirky demands a band had, such as having a special beverage on hand or a certain stage set-up would be written into the contract.
Richard had seen The Who play at the legendary Murray the K shows in March of 1967, the Who’s first visit to the States. It was Richard who told Blanche that this was the band to hire for the event. It was also Richard who sold the idea to the school. He remembers meeting with one of the Brothers and selling him on the idea of the school staging a rock concert. This was after his own school Scotch Plains High School turned him down when he broached the idea with them.
When I heard Richard tell his story it reminded me of the story of how a number of people were blindfolded and got to touch one part of an elephant and were then asked to describe what they thought the whole animal looked like. One touched its ear. Another its trunk. Another one of its thick legs. When each described what they thought the entire animal looked like, they each described the animal from their own unique, slanted perspective of what part of the animal’s anatomy they had touched.
The story about the elephant is similar to The Who concert at Union Catholic High School. Each important player recalls a different narrative depending on his role in the process. The class President remembers that he and his mates were the individuals behind the idea. Others remember that Bob Gilligan played a major role in obtaining Blanche Zeller’s contact information and in recommending The Who. Richard Goldberg tells the story from his own perspective, that of a person, uniquely positioned to market rock concerts to local high schools for The Blanche Zeller Agency and to recommend The Who after seeing them perform in March of 1967.
After The Who concert, needless to say Blanche was pleased. According to Richard, Blanche was impressed that so many people would come to a high school to see a rock band perform. But make no mistake about it, the dam had finally burst and the rock concert era had officially begun for The Blanche Zeller Agency, every bit as much as for Union Catholic High School. Four months after The Who show, in March of 1968, Cream played at Union Catholic, also booked by Blanche. After Cream’s second album Disraeli Gears being in the top 10 in the Billboard album charts from January of 1968 through the month of the concert, naturally the concert was sold out and was a big deal. Richard remembers the concert vividly. He even remembers his father trying with little success to interact with Ginger Baker before the show.
Another concert that Blanche booked that Richard has fond memories of was The Small Faces featuring Rod Stewart at Scotch Plains High School in May of 1970. This was shortly after Rod joined the band together with Ronnie Wood. Shortly after, they changed the band’s name to The Faces. Richard met the band that night and has some photos of the occasion (see below). The Small Faces with Rod were actually the opening band that night for Country Joe and The Fish.
Richard was gracious enough to allow us to share with us the photos below from his collection. I always wanted to see what Blanche Zeller looked like in her heyday. Luckily Richard had a photo of himself greeting Rod Stewart and The Small Faces with Blanche Zeller in the photo as well. Rod Stewart has his back to camera but you can make him out by his haircut.
Another photo shows the concert poster for The Small Faces concert at Scotch Plains HS. Next to it is a poster of The Who concert at Union Catholic, but one which never saw the light of day. Richard, who was kind of a jack-of-all-trades had some experience in sign-painting so he took a crack at designing the poster for The Who concert. He tried to design a poster in the same spirit as the posters advertising shows for the Fillmore East and West. Trouble is when he showed it to Blanche, she didn’t give her stamp of approval. She said it was too difficult to understand.
By now, you may have wondered why Richard arrived at the party so late. After all, When Stars Were in Reach was published eight years ago, in February of 2013. Richard, an attorney by trade, is still extremely busy. The only reason he stumbled on the book and contacted me was that he was recently watching a documentary on David Crosby and was immediately reminded of the time he was sent by the Newark Evening News to see The Byrds perform at Asbury Park. While in Asbury Park, he went on one of the rides. It was one of those rides that goes up and down and was not for the faint-hearted. He spotted David Crosby opposite but far away from him. Lucky for Richard, he wasn’t close to David, who was in the midst of puking his guts out on the ride with vomit flying in all directions. That was the catalyst for taking a breath and realizing he had some unique memories to recall. He then googled Blanche Zeller, found references to When Stars Were in Reach and sent me an email. We then started corresponding until we finally found time to talk last month.
I can’t wait for the next person to contact me, who played a role in The Who concert at Union Catholic. That’s why I’ve started to call this story – the gift that keeps giving.