Electric Factory turns 50: How the concert business was created in Philadelphia

Electric Factory turns 50: How the concert business was created in Philadelphia

Electric Factory turns 50: How the concert business was created in Philadelphia

A half century ago in a converted Philadelphia tire factory, Larry Magid was busy inventing the concert industry.

The original Electric Factory opened on the outskirts of Center City at 22nd and Arch Streets on Feb. 2, 1968. The Chambers Brothers headlined the first weekend. “The rules have changed,” the soul band declared on “Time Has Come Today.” “My soul’s been psychedelicized!”

The Factory was just around the corner from the smaller rock venue the Trauma. In the same environs  west of Broad Street was storied folk club the Second Fret, not far from where the hippies hung out in Rittenhouse Square.

Before February was out, the new 2,500-capacity club run by Magid with then-partners Shelly Kaplan and brothers Herb, Allen, and Jerry Spivak had hosted the Jimi Hendrix Experience and established itself as the burgeoning 1960s rock scene’s center in Philadelphia.

The bands listed on the trippy handbills with the Ben Franklin logo — still the brand identifier of the current Factory at Seventh and Willow Streets — read like a classic rock “Who’s Who.” The Grateful Dead, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, and Frank Zappa all played there, as well as non-rock luminaries such as bluesman Muddy Waters and maverick trumpeter Miles Davis.

“We created a shrine for a new religion,” says music mahoff Magid, 75. “It was like a cult. It became a rallying point for disenfranchised young people.”

“It was a charged and magical time,” says Eric Bazilian of Philadelphia band the Hooters, who started going to shows from his home in West Mount Airy  when he was 14, taking photos from a spot at the lip of the stage.

Camera iconEric Bazilian

Pete Townshend of The Who at the Electric Factory in May 1969.

“It was the big bang,” Bazilian says, talking on the phone from Prague in the Czech Republic, where he was on a promotional tour. “We went from men who wore hats and ties and suits and women stayed home and baked to … you could really be anything you want. Everything changed during that time. And the music spearheaded that revolution.”

Camera iconLarry Magid

An Electric Factory flier from 1968.

The Factory served as a key building block in the development of the concert industry as Magid established Electric Factory Concerts as a dominant force in Philadelphia for decades that was rivaled nationally only by similarly hard-nosed and visionary cohorts, like Don Law in Boston and Bill Graham in San Francisco.

In the 1960s and ’70s, the live-music business came of age as companies such as the Electric Factory, which ruled their markets like regional fiefdoms, meshed into a national network. In Philadelphia and around the country, the concert industry as we now know it would not be the same were it not for Larry Magid.

“We were the pioneers, the architects of what is now a billion-dollar business,” the mellowing, silver-haired macher says, sitting with his dog, Midnight, on a sofa in the Center City apartment he shares with Mickey, his wife of 46 years. “We created the concert business.”

In late 1968, EFC presented two Quaker City Rock Festivals at the Spectrum, showcasing acts like Big Brother and the Holding Company featuring Joplin, Sly and the Family Stone, blue duos Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, and “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” rocker Iron Butterfly, which Magid calls “the worst act that ever made it big.”

The next year, the company staged the Atlantic City Pop Festival in Mays Landing, N.J., with Joni Mitchell, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and other acts on their way to Woodstock. And by the time the Factory ended its brief run in late 1970, EFC was doing 40 shows a year at the Spectrum, with dates that Magid fondly recalls included weekend Elvis Presley matinees and midnight shows with the Rolling Stones.

“The goal was always to build the act, build the act,” Magid says, repeating a mantra he established at the Factory and furthered at venues like the Bijou Cafe in the 1970s, where a wide range of regulars included Tom Waits, Barry Manilow, Richard Pryor, and Hugh Masekela.

Magid grew up in West Philadelphia loving doo-wop and Little Richard, and he caught the live-music bug seeing jazz acts at long-gone venues such as Spider Kelly’s on Mole Street and the Showboat at Broad and Lombard. “I started going when I was 15, and I got in somehow, even though I looked like I was 12,” he remembers in amazement.

He booked bands while a student at Temple, putting on early 1960s shows at Penn and Temple fraternities with R&B singer Brooks O’Dell and doo-wop star Lee Andrews (whose son is Roots drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson).

He left for a New York booking agency before graduating. Temple has since rewarded him with two honorary degrees, and he celebrated Electric Factory’s 50th by making a million-dollar-plus gift to fund scholarships at the university, with three named after Bruce Springsteen, Bette Midler, and Billy Crystal, a trio of artists he continues to work closely with. In January, he was inspired to make a gift to Temple in Chris Long’s name after the Philadelphia Eagle donated his 2017 regular season game checks. Magid matched Long’s donation to create scholarships.

When booking bands in New York, Magid witnessed a particularly wild show by Zappa and the Mothers of Invention in Greenwich Village. A, “Hey, wouldn’t it be great if something like that happened in Philly?” lightbulb went off.

Herb Spivak, a decade older, owned the jazz- and R&B-oriented Showboat, on the site that later became the Bijou. He asked Magid for advice about getting into the rock business. The young booker told him he needed his own club.

Camera iconTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

Larry Magid at his office

Soon, Spivak had acquired the tire factory that became the Electric Factory. “The important thing wasn’t the name,” Magid says. “It’s Ben Franklin in the logo. It was so recognizable.”

What made the venue special, says Carolina Schulze, 68, now a New York jewelry designer, was the closeness between artist and audience.

Her description sounds like a 1960s version of current Philadelphia all-ages venues, like the First Unitarian Church. “There were a lot of young kids, 17 and 18. I suppose there were some 30-year-olds, but not that many,” she says, joking. “Though they say if you can remember the ’60s, you weren’t really there.”

The fans at the Factory might have been high on something other than the music, but it wasn’t from smoking marijuana in the club (which had no liquor license), Schulze says. “You could get busted for carrying a nickel bag. [Then-Police Commissioner Frank] Rizzo wasn’t kidding. You could go to jail. It was a lot easier to have acid around. You would just go there and groove to the evening, the light, the music.”

Bazilian, 64, has similar memories. “It was not a den of iniquity. You could hardly ever smell weed. People were not having sex in the coffins along the walls,” he says, referring to the inclined leaning spaces, which are replicated at the current Factory, which opened in 1995.

What made it special, Schulze says, “was the familiarity between the bands and the kids. The stage was about five feet off the ground. The bands didn’t have much money and would crash at people’s apartments. Youth and intimacy is what it was really about.”

Camera iconEric Bazilian

Roger Daltrey of The Who at the Electric Factory in May 1969.

Magid, who was 25 when the Factory opened, says, “I had to be the adult” among a crowd made up mostly of freak flag fliers younger than he was, kids who usually paid $3 per ticket, with a max of $4  when The Who premiered Tommy in 1969.

Because of Philadelphia’s curfew — which still exists but is rarely enforced — Magid set a rule that no one under 16 was allowed in.

“Larry was my funny uncle,” Bazilian says. “We had this cat-and-mouse game where he would see me, chase me out, and then I would go to the back door and sneak back in.”

Frequent visits from  police led to the club’s being shut down for months in 1969. “They said 21 known drug users found in the club,” Magid recalls. A lengthy court battle was costly, and,  after a final Van Morrison show in November 1970, the Factory closed.

In the years that followed, Electric Factory Concerts grew, as did the legend of the original venue. Magid and company put on shows at the Academy of Music and Tower Theater in Upper Darby and, in his crowning achievement, presented the American half of the Live Aid concert for African famine relief at JFK Stadium in 1985 in collaboration with Graham. He also produced the Bob Geldof-helmed Live 8 in Philadelphia in 2005.

In 1995, the Electric Factory as a venue found new life when Magid revived the name at the current Seventh and Willow location.

With partner Allen Spivak, he sold Electric Factory Concerts to SFX Entertainment in 2000, which in turn sold it to Clear Channel, which later named its concert division Live Nation, the company that now leads the industry in Philadelphia and throughout the U.S.

Magid left that company in 2010, and for a while battled Live Nation with his Larry Magid Entertainment. But he lost the taste for that fight after a few years. “I realized this is the dumbest thing ever. I’m competing with the company I built.”

In 2011, he published a photo book memoir, My Soul’s Been Psychedelicized: Electric Factory, Four Decades in Posters and Photography. Written with Robert Huber, its title is taken from the Chamber Brothers song. He still co-owns the Electric Factory club with his old partner Allen Spivak’s son Adam, and keeps busy, coproducing the Carole King Broadway musical Beautiful, among other things.

He’s happy to say that he’s lost the drive to fiercely fight for dominance in the marketplace. “I’m not the workaholic that I was,” he says. “I don’t want to be king anymore.”

“It’s hard to believe its 50 years,” Magid says. He has no plans to retire, but “now I’m in it as much as I want to be.When you get older, you don’t want to carry any baggage anymore or tilt at windmills. It’s a young man’s business.

“But how could you be prouder than to be in the business with people like Bruce Springsteen, Bette Midler, Richard Pryor, Billy Crystal, Stevie Wonder? You create personal relationships with interesting people. A lot of people who worked for us went on to other successful careers. And a lot of acts that came to Philadelphia were bigger when they left.”

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Published at Fri, 16 Feb 2018 00:35:59 +0000

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