Former Tower Theater owner Herb Spivak to mark his 50th anniversary as a concert promoter

Herb Spivak in 1965 at his club, the Showboat. Photo by Kenneth Stitch.

Herb Spivak has rubbed shoulders with the heavyweights of the rock world: Janis Joplin, Grace Slick, Jimi Hendrix, the Grateful Dead, Cream, and Frank Zappa — and doesn’t have a “selfie” with any of them.

“I have no pictures of these people. My partner Larry Magid does. I have a few concert posters but that’s all. I was into the business end of it,” says Spivak, now 82, who this Labor Day marks his 50th anniversary as a concert promoter.

Spivak is the man behind the curtain, a numbers crunching voyeur of rock history, an astute businessman, and a walking, talking, breathing ledger sheet for some of the most memorable rock ‘n’ roll shows to grace the stages and musical venues of Philadelphia. Along with the ubiquitous Larry Magid, they were the yin and yang of Electric Factory, the seminal concert promoting company that put Philadelphia and its suburbs on the rock ‘n’ roll map.

A one time part-owner of the Tower Theater in Upper Darby, Spivak cut his concert promoter’s teeth on his true love - jazz. After the death of his father, Harry “Speedie” Spivak, a 22-year-old Herb along with brothers Jerry and Allen took over running several bars called “Speedies” throughout the city.

“My brother and I got our education from the university of Speedie’s. That’s how we learned the food and liquor business,” says Spivak, who grew up in Wynnefield and now lives in Lower Merion.

In 1964, Spivak bought the Showboat at 1409 Lombard Street in the basement of the old Douglas Hotel, increased seating to 200 capacity and re-christened the place the Showboat Jazz Theatr (purposely leaving the “e” out). Jazz greats Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Lou Rawls and Dinah Washington regularly played there.

According to Spivak, “I didn’t know anything about booking and had no money. I went to New York booking agents and humbly and honestly asked them what I should do and who should I book? They were a great help.”

Spivak’s most memorable booking was one of his first. The year was 1965. While walking on Broad Street on their way for a late night snack, Spivak and jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis walked past the Academy of Music. Lewis remarked he’d like to play there some day.

The next day, Spivak met with Academy management and signed contracts for a Mother’s Day performance (which was considered one of the slowest days of the year). Two shows sold out in days.

And that’s how it all began,” says Spivak. “That’s how easy it was in those days.”

By the end of the 1967, jazz was on its way out. Visiting musicians would tell Spivak about a sound coming from the West Coast and the colorful characters associated with it.

“Something new was happening with groups like the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. It was a wave coming out of California. I instinctively knew people would like it,” remembers Spivak.

With the advent of arena rock, Spivak, along with then partner Shelly Kaplan, decided to do something new and exciting with the club experience. Modeled after the psychedelic Electric Circus in New York City’s East Village, the pair opened the Electric Factory in 1968 at a converted tire warehouse at 22nd and Arch. Spivak asked the 25-year-old Larry Magid to come back from New York to book the shows and manage the club. Its logo, in an ode to Philadelphia, was the image of Ben Franklin.

“We found a large building which was a Pontiac dealership in the 1940s and then a tire distributor. We named it “Electric” after the Electric Circus in New York and “Factory” after a famous restaurant in California called the Factory,” Spivak recalls.

Jimi Hendrix, Cream, The Who and LA psychedelic rockers the Peanut Butter Conspiracy were just some of the acts that played the Electric Factory. Spivak always included local acts like the American Dream, Woody’s Truck Stop (featuring Todd Rundgren), and the First Burn to open for the national acts.

“We opened with the Chamber Brothers and then picked a young up-and-coming guitar player named Jimi to be one of our first acts. We always tried to book a local band too,” he says.

Electric Factory booked the first acts for the Spectrum in 1968. Spivak went to Ed Snider and company (the Flyers were still in their infancy and the Sixers played at the Convention Center) and said he’s like to book a two-day jazz concert. Initially rebuffed because the Snider group didn’t believe a jazz bill would sell, Spivak replied, “That’s my problem.”

Spivak booked 10 groups a day and once again sold out the concert in two days. Dizzie Gillespie opened up the Spectrum with “God Bless America” followed by performances by Sam Getz, Dave Brubeck, Sarah Vaughan and Flip Wilson among others.

The rising costs of hiring acts, legal expenses brought on by the city and changing times forced the Electric Factory to close in 1970 after just three years. The name endured as a booking superstar until 2000 when Spivak was bought out by SFX Entertainment (presently known as Live Nation).

The one-time festival that Spivak is most proud of was the Atlantic City Pop Festival in early August of 1969. On a handshake, Spivak secured the Atlantic City Racetrack and borrowed money to promote the festival. Attended by over 100,000 people, a ticket for the three-day event was $13 and artists performed on a revolving stage created by Buckminster Fuller.

Preceding Woodstock by two weeks, Spivak booked 30 acts including Jefferson Airplane, Canned Heat, Joni Mitchell, Procol Harem, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Mothers of Invention, and Santana — many of whom went on to play the New York festival.

One of Spivak’s favorite performers was Joe Cocker. “I remember when Joe Cocker played the Academy of Music [in the early 70s] with his band Mad Dogs and Englishmen. He picked up about 50 kids from the street and brought them back for the 7:30 show and sat them on the stage. That was very humanistic of him,” Spivak says.

Referring to Cocker’s performance histrionics Spivak said, “I love how it looked like he was having a ‘fit’ on stage. It was something that always struck me.”

Spivak doesn’t reveal any stories of rock star excessive demands. Mostly he says the demands for different types of foods would vary from one band member to another “driving us crazy.” Dressing rooms were always accented with plants and flowers.

As for the “other excesses” Spivak half-jokingly says “booze and drugs were on them. I was not of that culture. I was over 30 and not to be trusted by that generation. I was there as a business person. I’m proud to say I never smoked a joint.”

The rock raconteur also recalls seeing Bruce Springsteen at the Main Point on Lancaster Avenue “with about 80 people seeing Springsteen before he was Springsteen. He already had the buzz around him” and then again in the early 80s when he played the Tower Theater acoustically.

The one that got away was Bob Dylan. “We tried to book Dylan at JFK stadium which held 100 thousand people. For some reason his management didn’t feel he was ready for that big a crowd.”

Peter Frampton, Yes, Gary Wright and other classic rock performers book by Electric Factory filled JFK stadium until it was torn down in 1992.

Ever the entrepreneur, Spivak opened the HA Winston & Co chain of restaurants featuring the Winston “Gourmet” Burger and famous French Onion Soup from New York to Florida originating at Front and Chestnut streets. It was a staple for Philadelphia diners for 15 years.

These days Spivak regales his grandchildren with tales of infamous “fights” with the incendiary Miles Davis and Art Blakey.

“Miles played five sets a night with his back to the audience and he was always late coming back from his breaks,” says Spivak as if it were yesterday.

Spivak docked him for the long breaks and Miles threw one of his infamous obscenity-filled tantrums. Spivak stuck to his guns. Miles got over it and subsequently they became good friends.

“I introduced Cecily Tyson to him after a show although she doesn’t remember it that way. I called him when he was in the hospital dying. We were friends.”

A similar incident happened with jazz drummer Art Blakey and his group The Jazz Messengers. In those days performers had weekly gigs.

As Spivak recalls it, “He didn’t like the fact that I deducted his band’s bar bill from his weekly check. He called me every name in the book. I finally gave him the full amount and then ice-picked his car tires. We also became good friends.”

In his latest promotions venture, Spivak has turned his attention to the old Lansdowne movie theater. Along with Bill Rogers of BRE he is trying to revive the icon on Lansdowne Avenue.

“We’re in the process of rebuilding the theater as a concert hall. An alliance has been formed with the non-profit group Citizens of Lansdowne to raise funds. It would be a rebirth for Lansdowne. I think it’s gonna happen,” Spivak says.

Entrepreneurship seems to run in the Spivak family. Daughter Hope is the successful proprietor of Hope’s Cookies (www.hopescookies.com) located on Lancaster Avenue in Rosemont. The gourmet cookie business has been around since the late 80s and claims both national and international customers. On the technical side, son Stephen is developing content for computer and TV screens at www.screendreamsdvd.com

What music is playing on Spivak’s radio these days? “I enjoy jazz on WRTI. That’s what’s on my car radio. That and “Sundays with Sinatra.”

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