Making Philly Electric
Music promoter Larry Magid's new book illustrates how this prim city loosened up and got the beat - with Magid leading the way.
Before he became the legendary music promoter who helped shape the concert industry over a four-decade career, Larry Magid was a 12-year-old doo-wop fan in West Philly, infected with the music bug by a song called "Sh-Boom."
The 1954 hit by the African American rhythm-and-blues group the Chords "had this refrain, 'Sh-boom, Sh-boom,' " Magid, 68, recalls fondly as he sits in his gold-record-lined office at the Piazza at Schmidts in Northern Liberties. "It made no sense, but it was something so different, so new. And you felt a connection to the music."
Magid draws on that long connection for a new coffee-table book, My Soul's Been Psychedelicized: Electric Factory, Four Decades in Posters and Photography (Temple University Press, $39.50), written with Philadelphia Magazine features editor Robert Huber.
The connection to the song with the nonsense lyrics was strong enough to teach the boy who would become the man who would bring Live Aid and Live 8 to Philadelphia a valuable lesson about the way music affects how people view the world.
The Chords had a hit with "Sh-Boom," but a cleaned-up cover by a white group, the Crew Cuts, was a much bigger success. And that seemed like an actionable offense to Magid and his friends.
"It was kind of a moral outrage," he recalls, over a half century later. "It just didn't seem fair. Because the Chords' version was a better song. And that was not just for me, but for many kids."
"We weren't trying to change the world, but music was changing the world," says Magid, recalling a time before he would cofound the original Electric Factory at 22d and Arch Streets. Performers at the club in its heady late-'60s heyday would include Jefferson Airplane, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, and the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
Magid is still bringing performers to the stage. Since leaving concert industry behemoth Live Nation last year, Magid has booked shows with his company Larry Magid Entertainment at venues such as the new Electric Factory at Seventh and Willow Streets (which opened in 1995) and the Academy of Music.
My Soul's Been Psychedelicized tells how music changed Philadelphia. "We were a Quaker town," Magid says. "Very conservative, very backward. You couldn't buy a drink on a Sunday until maybe the mid-'70s. On Sunday night, it was Ed Sullivan. That was it."
The Electric Factory opened in February 1968, with Magid working with then-partners Shelly Kaplan and brothers Allen, Herb, and Jerry Spivak. "Five Jewish guys from lower-middle-class backgrounds," Magid recalls.
Quickly, the club became "a rallying point for disenfranchised young people," he says. As commuters drove by on the way home to the suburbs, they saw hippies lined up to see the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, and the Chambers Brothers, the first act to play the Factory, whose song "Time Has Come Today" includes the lyric that gives the book its title.
"It wasn't violent, it wasn't the Chicago Eight," Magid says. "It was just: 'Here's our voice.' . . . And we started bringing the city kicking and screaming into the 20th century."
After the original Factory closed down in the fall of 1970, Electric Factory Concerts became the dominant force in the Philadelphia music scene, putting on shows at the Tower Theater in Upper Darby and another long-gone venue, the Bijou Cafe on Broad and Lombard, where a fresh-faced band from Ireland called U2 is seen in a backstage shot taken in 1981, the year the 275-capacity club closed.
The biggest thing Magid was ever involved in - and the show he's most proud of - was Live Aid, the 1985 all-star fund-raiser for African famine relief. "Live Aid, to me, was the most important show that has ever taken place in America," Magid says. "It was the high-water mark for our business."
He put together the American half of the intercontinental bill at the old JFK Stadium. The lineup included Madonna, Bob Dylan, and the Hooters (whose guitarist Eric Bazilian has many photo credits in the book). Coproducer Bill Graham, the late San Francisco promoter, was as publicity-happy as Magid is publicity-averse.
"It's not important what I personally have to say," he says. "People don't need to know what drives me or compels me. It's important for you to know all about the act. Because that's what sells tickets."
But what does drive the silver-haired dealmaker who, along with Don Law in Boston, is the only remaining promoter still active from the group of pioneers who shaped the concert industry in the 1960s?
Part of it is the compulsion "to compete," says Magid, who with partner Allen Spivak sold Electric Factory Concerts in 2000 to SFX Entertainment. SFX in turn sold to Clear Channel, which later named its concert division Live Nation.
Magid worked for Live Nation until he left last year. He could have settled into cozy retirement. Instead, he opened up shop in Northern Liberties, where the mahoff brings his dog Midnight to work most days.
There, his team will book close to 200 shows this year, from Alison Krauss at the Academy of Music on July 22 to Nas and Damian Marley at the Electric Factory on Aug. 9 to the indie Popped! Festival in FDR Park on Sept. 23 and 24.
He also promotes entire tours for acts like Bette Midler and Stevie Wonder, and is doing a dozen Champions Series tennis dates with Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, and John McEnroe, including a stop at the Wells Fargo Center on Sept. 24. "Those guys are rock stars," he says.
What really keeps him going, Magid says, is that "I feel the urge not to die. Literally. I think if I stopped, I'd die. Or your brain dies. There are only so many golf dates you can have, so many books you can read."
"The book afforded me the opportunity to look back," Magid says.
But it also helped him realize that "you don't want to be the guy in the corner telling Jimi Hendrix stories. You start to resent yourself. I certainly wouldn't thrive in retirement. This isn't a job. It's a life."