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The Beatles, Rolling Stones and Elvis: For Alabama radio pioneer Dan Brennan, life was a Shower of Stars

“Ladies and gentlemen … the Beatles.”

How many people have been able to say this at a concert, facing a roaring crowd? In Birmingham, we know of only one man who’s had the honor: Dan Brennan, a former radio host, station manager, concert promoter and prime mover at WVOK-AM[1]. Brennan, now 86, introduced the Beatles at the Gator Bowl[2] in Jacksonville, Fla., when the Fab Four played there on Sept. 11, 1964. The 8:30 p.m. show — which happened in the windy aftermath of Hurricane Dora[3] — came courtesy of WAPE-AM, a radio station owned by the Brennan family.

To be honest, Brennan doesn’t precisely recall what he said to the audience that evening, just before the mop-topped John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr took the stage. But he’s sure the introduction was brief, wasting no time as Beatlemania raged.

“I didn’t stay up there too long,” Brennan says, laughing. “It was quite a thing.”

But the moment was indelible for one of his daughters, Debbie Brennan Bartoletti. She remembers her father’s words with startling clarity, along with the thrill she experienced while sitting in the front row.

“The level of excitement was unbelievable,” Bartoletti says. “There was a police line for the Beatles to run through, and the stage was built up so people couldn’t get to them.”

Despite her young age — she was 7 that year — Bartoletti felt another emotion at the Gator Bowl: extreme pride. Her very own father was on stage, standing close to four of the most famous musicians in the world. Thousands of Beatles fans were ready to twist and shout in the Southeast, and the Brennan clan had made it happen.

“People were going crazy, and you couldn’t hear anything because the girls were screaming so loud,” Bartoletti says. “It didn’t matter. It was just the coolest thing.”

The Beatles were paid a fee of $50,000 — a hefty sum in those days, Brennan says — and in the thick of the civil rights movement, the band’s contract specified that they wouldn’t perform for a segregated audience. Brennan also remembers that Starr requested reinforcements to the stage area near his drum kit, because strong gusts lingered after the hurricane.

“Ringo had a riser above the stage, and of course this is all outdoors, and the winds were blowing up to 70 miles an hour,” Brennan says. “Ringo said, ‘I’m not getting up there unless you build me a bannister around this thing.’ So we had to delay the start of the show about 15 minutes or so while the carpenters came out and put these rails together. I think we had at least 15,000-16,000 people there.”

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Looking back on it, Brennan realizes that bringing the Beatles to the Gator Bowl was a milestone event — one firmly enshrined in Beatles lore and noted by Ron Howard in his 2016 documentary, “Eight Days a Week — The Touring Years.”[4] (The Beatles’ popularity in the U.S. exploded in 1964, and that year’s tour was a watershed moment for the band.)

At the time, though, Brennan was simply doing his job, helping the family’s radio stations[5] to connect with listeners in a vivid, concrete way. Yes, the Beatles’ performance was “a really big show,” as Ed Sullivan would have said. But it was one of many concerts organized by the Brennans, as they sought to cement listeners’ loyalty to WVOK in Birmingham, WBAM-AM in Montgomery and WAPE in Jacksonville.

“We started in 1947, and if you think about it, you didn’t have very much television in those days,” Brennan says in a recent interview. “And that made a big difference, because people didn’t have the opportunity to turn on the TV set and see these artists, after they’d been buying their records. So it was a deliberate attempt to identify with people, and to recognize that they were requesting these songs. That’s how we put together our shows. We would always find the artists who were very popular with our audience, and we would try to get them, and we usually were successful.”

The resulting concerts — which evolved into a series called the WVOK Shower of Stars in Birmingham, the Big BAM shows in Montgomery and the Big APE Convention in Jacksonville — became enormously popular with radio listeners. In fact, it’s safe to say that music shows produced by the Brennans, focusing on rock ‘n’ roll, Top 40 pop and country, defined the concert experience for an entire generation of fans in those cities. The Rolling Stones. The Who. Elvis Presley. Roy Orbison. The Beach Boys. Johnny Cash. The Byrds. The Animals. The Hollies. Carl Perkins. The Four Seasons. The Righteous Brothers. Jerry Lee Lewis. The Lovin’ Spoonful. Tommy James & the Shondells. Rare Earth. The Grass Roots. Canned Heat. Iron Butterfly. Neil Diamond. The Troggs. Patsy Cline. The Carpenters. The Buckinghams. Herman’s Hermits. Paul Revere & the Raiders. Kenny Rogers and the First Edition. Gary Puckett & the Union Gap. Bobby Darin. The Young Rascals. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. The Louvin Brothers.

These are just a few of the acts presented by the Brennans during the 1950s, ’60s and early ’70s. In most cases, the concerts were multi-act affairs, featuring the hottest names the radio stations could secure. Tickets were priced at $1.50-$5.50 per show, Brennan says, and artists’ fees usually ran about $300-$7,500 per act. If possible, the Brennans liked to present the same lineup of artists in all three cities over a single weekend, offering three shows in Birmingham for the Shower of Stars, one in Montgomery for the Big BAM and one in Jacksonville for the Big APE. Some of the concerts took place in a single location — most often, Jacksonville. But in the stations’ 1960s heyday, shows usually kicked off on Fridays in Montgomery at Garrett Coliseum and moved to Birmingham on Saturdays at Municipal Auditorium (now called Boutwell Auditorium). Music lovers would line up at each venue, some arriving hours in advance, then rush inside to secure their favorite general-admission seats.

“Me and my girlfriends would get up at — holy moly, 6 a.m. — and get there long before the show ever started,” said Connie Peek, a former Shower of Stars regular, during a 2003 interview with The Birmingham News. “We’d camp out at the door, on the steps and wait. We’d get hamburgers and bring them back, with someone always holding our place. We’d be there from the crack of dawn until midnight.”

A devoted fan looks back at the Shower of Stars concerts in Birmingham[6]

Brennan, headquartered in Birmingham, rode herd over the Shower of Stars and was the primary talent buyer for the concerts, along with his other duties at WVOK. (The station’s nickname, “the Mighty 690,” referred to its spot on the AM dial.)

Dan’s brother, Cyril Brennan, who lived in Montgomery, held several titles during his tenure at WBAM: chief engineer, station manager and program director among them. He also helped to choose and line up some of the concert talent. Another brother, Bill Brennan, was the undisputed chief of the Jacksonville station, and had houses in Montgomery and Jacksonville. According to Dan, the only surviving brother, it was Bill’s decision to offer $50,000 to the Beatles for their appearance at the Gator Bowl. The band’s management initially asked for 85 percent of the ticket proceeds or $25,000, whichever was greater, Brennan says.

“My brother, he was always a little bit of a gambler,” Brennan says. “Bill said, ‘Well, if anybody makes any money out of it, it’s going to be me.’ And so he gave them — the only show in the whole country that did this — we gave them a flat $50,000, which was pretty good in those days. That was a lot of money. And they accepted it, but we did get the total amount of the gate that came in. And if we hadn’t had (Hurricane Dora), we would have made a lot of money.”

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All three Brennan brothers were ambitious businessmen who worked as a team. But speaking in general terms, each also had a specialty: Bill the visionary entrepreneur, Cyril the tech-minded pioneer, Dan the key concert producer and a smooth, recognizable voice at WVOK. (His moniker on the air: Dan the Music Man.)

“I remember we used to have people come out to our station on the Bessemer Superhighway,” Brennan says, “and they would tell us that our transmitter — we had a 50-kilowatt transmitter, and it was pretty close to their homes — and they said, ‘Well, I’m picking you up on my coffeepot.'”

Via a longstanding partnership with the Benns family, the Brennans also extended their reach to Chattanooga, the home of WFLI-AM. That radio station had its concerts, too, dubbed Jet-Fli Spectaculars, at the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Auditorium. But in the minds of Alabama listeners, WVOK and WBAM ruled supreme, and the stations were closely linked by their concert series. Four dates per year were standard — in winter, spring, summer and fall — and total attendance topped out at 15,000 people for each three-show stint in Birmingham. Garrett Coliseum, in contrast, could hold 10,000+ for a single performance in Montgomery.

“We never had a flop,” Brennan says, “but we had some shows that were a little bit bigger than others. We occasionally wouldn’t fill all three seatings in Birmingham, but I don’t think we ever had one that was less than about 70 percent full, with all three together. … I don’t know, I guess people got to trust us. They would buy so many tickets in advance, we didn’t have to worry about whether they were going to come or not.”

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Brennan and his wife, Clara, who handled ticketing, estimate that one-third of the tickets for any Shower of Stars date were purchased on faith, before the lineup was ever announced. Fans would mail their orders to the station, requesting a specific showtime, and the envelopes often included suggestions for artists they’d like to see.

“We had a room set up at our house that had little cubbyholes, like a post office has, and Clara would be back there, stuffing these envelopes, and getting the tickets,” Brennan says. “(Listeners) would tell us what they liked and didn’t like. I remember some of them telling us they came to every show that whole year.”

One of the most powerful Shower of Stars events happened on May 7, 1965, when WVOK brought the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys to Legion Field. The 7 p.m. show — billed as a music battle between the England and the United States — also included the Righteous Brothers, Marty Robbins, Sonny James, Skeeter Davis, Del Reeves, Archie “Rindercella” Campbell and Cannibal and the Headhunters. The Beach Boys were fresh-faced headliners that night, riding high on the success of hits such as “I Get Around,” “Surfer Girl,” “Surfin’ U.S.A,” “Help Me, Rhonda” and “California Girls.” The Rolling Stones were closing the gap quickly, though, with a tougher, bluesier songbook that included “The Last Time,” “Play With Fire” and “Time Is On My Side.” At this point, Mick Jagger and his pals were poised to release “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” their first international smash. Competition was evident between the two bands, Brennan says, as the Beach Boys returned for their splashiest date at the Shower of Stars, and the Stones made their Birmingham debut on their first U.S. tour.

“One of the the things we had to do, in order to provide bathroom facilities for all of the artists, we had a bunch of RVs, recreation vehicles, and they were all over the field out there,” Brennan says. “I remember the Rolling Stones came up to me, and they said, ‘You don’t really expect us to get into the same RV that the Beach Boys are in, do you?’ I said, ‘Well, you’ve got a choice here. You can either do that, or you will not have a place to change. If you have one, it’s going to be way down the other part of the field.’ They agreed to do it, but they were on one end of it, and the Beach Boys were on the other end of it. There was a little jealousy there.”

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Shower of Stars audiences were accustomed to seeing a mix of rock, pop and country acts on stage, and the lineup for every show had a pecking order. But with two hotshot rock bands on the bill at Legion Field, the twangier acts faced a tougher crowd and some of the musicians felt like underdogs.

“Marty Robbins came up to me, and he looked so sad,” Brennan recalls. “He said, ‘Dan, I like to play for you here in town, but I don’t want you to ever book me on a show like this again. They didn’t come to hear me; they came to hear the Rolling Stones.'”

WVOK used Legion Field as a test case that spring, Brennan says, to see if the Shower of Stars could work at Birmingham’s largest venue. (In 1965, Legion Field could seat more than 68,000 people.) As Brennan recalls it, the Beach Boys were paid $7,500 for their performance, and the Rolling Stones received $5,000. Fees for the other acts were in the $300-$400 range, he says. Tickets cost $3 apiece. The football stadium posed a few extra challenges, Brennan says, from seating assignments to sound quality to weather preparation. By today’s standards, his solution to the latter problem seems charmingly old-school.

“We had to import parkas, raincoats from Taiwan, so that was our rain insurance,” Brennan says, laughing. “We gave everybody who came a free rain parka. We had enough left over that, for a lot of our promotions after that, people would get free raincoats.”

Brennan estimates that 16,000-17,000 people came to Legion Field for the show, fulfilling the radio station’s mission but falling short of blockbuster status. The concert later gained a secure foothold in Alabama music history — fans here still ooh and aah about it — but it wasn’t a money-making proposition.

“It cost enough that we were lucky to come out with just enough and break even with it,” Brennan says. “It was a promotional thing for us. We didn’t make any money.”

WVOK would produce another show at Legion Field before the station left the concert business — the Osmonds and Springfield Revival appeared there on Aug. 15, 1973 — but for the most part, Municipal Auditorium remained home base for the Shower of Stars.

Dan Brennan, center, backstage at the Shower of Stars with with Paul Revere & the Raiders. Hal Hodgens of WVOK is second from left. (Photo courtesy of the Brennan family)

The Brennan kids were popular during the concert years, as you might expect, and Bartoletti says she, her four siblings and her cousins were fixtures at the WVOK shows, seated in the front row. They had easy backstage access, as well, and would confidently sashay throughout the venue.

“There was a little office backstage, and I remember seeing my father and uncles back there with a security guard,” Bartoletti says. “They would be paying the acts, literally, in cash. Cyril’s wife Louise would make us outfits for the Shower of Stars, and we’d have on these big bell bottoms. We were very obnoxious to the security guard, who was the nicest guy, and of course, we would go in and outside all the time.

“We all felt very privileged,” Bartoletti says. “To go to the concerts was huge. It was everything. And not just the concerts, but the whole experience building up to it. It was the most important thing in our lives. Rock ‘n’ roll had just started, and you were right in the middle of it.”

Brennan’s memories of the shows are less starry-eyed and more businesslike, as befits the man who booked the acts, paid the bills and tallied the proceeds. He never asked for autographs. He didn’t insist on photos. He never collected concert posters, handbills or other pieces of memorabilia. But Brennan does have many stories to share — about preventing a fistfight between two stars who wanted the closing spot in Birmingham, or example, or puzzling over two entertainers who showed up in Montgomery, both claiming to be country singer Bobby Edwards.

“There was a little one, and a big one, and we didn’t know which was which,” Brennan says. “Cyril’s idea was, ‘Tell them to sing, just a little bit, and make sure that we get the right one.’ So they both sang a few bars of the song, ‘You’re the Reason I’m Living,” and we still couldn’t decide which one was the real one. I said, ‘Cyril, what do you think we ought to do?’ He said, ‘We’re going to put both of them on.’ So I went out and introduced Bobby Edwards, and he sang songs, and I came back about half an hour later, and I said, ‘Now, here’s Bobby Edwards!’ And didn’t ever explain to the people what had happened. I’m sure they were totally confused.”

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One of Brennan’s favorite anecdotes concerns a young Elvis Presley, making waves and jostling for position before a concert on Dec. 3, 1955, at Garrett Coliseum. Roy Acuff and his Smoky Mountain Boys were the headliners that evening, and the bill included Kitty Wells, Johnnie and Jack, Fred Wamble, Jack Turner and Buddy Hawk.

“Elvis was an opening act,” Brennan says. “That was before he became very big. He showed up about five minutes before his show was to go on. His clothes were all rumpled, and he said, ‘Dan, I need to go on later in the show. I’ve got to change clothes and everything.’ I said, ‘Well, this is Roy’s show. If it’s all right with him, it’s all right with me. We’ll have to ask him.’

“We went over there and asked Roy, and he said, ‘No, we’re not going to do that. He pulls this at every one of our shows. He wants to go on late in the show.’ I said, ‘Elvis, I’m sorry, but we can’t accommodate you, because it is his show.’ Things changed a little bit after that. I think he could call his own shots.”

Brennan had many encounters with celebrities over his three decades as a concert promoter, but says he never felt famous — not even when he was widely regarded as a household name in Birmingham radio. By nature, talent and inclination, Brennan was entirely suited to the family business; thousands of fans knew his voice and remembered his name. This might have swelled a lesser man’s head, but for Brennan, it was all about connecting with the listeners.

“I felt that I was lucky to be able to have the kind of job I had,” Brennan says. “It was rewarding, because people seemed to respond to some of the things I was doing. I was very happy with doing the work I did. It was important to us.”

Brennan bid farewell to concert promotion in 1973 — a necessary business decision, he says — and for Birmingham music lovers, it was the end of an era. The Brennan family sold its stake in AM radio a few years later, and he moved on to WRKK-FM, an album-rock station known as K-99. Brennan left the radio business for good in 1982.

Dan Brennan, center, with the Grass Roots. The rock band played several times at the Shower of Stars and appeared at one of the last few shows in the concert series, in July 1972. (Photo courtesy of the Brennan family)

Although he admits to an occasional pang of longing, looking back on his previous career, Brennan is far from retired. He founded his own company, Brennan Video Productions, in 1982 and he continues to work there, transferring VHS tapes, old films and other retro footage to DVDs.

“We’re big on memories,” Brennan says. “I always had an idea about saving memories for people, and using the media that was becoming available, and that’s what led me into this.”

Still, for radio listeners who tuned into WVOK back in the day, Brennan will always be Dan the Music Man. And the Shower of Stars concerts still linger in local memory.

“Times have changed so,” said a wistful Peek, the Shower of Stars devotee. “In those days, you could go to a concert and there was only one back door. The bands would come in cars — just plain old cars — and they’d get their guitars out and walk past you. It’s not like now, where they have secret tunnels and drive right into the auditorium.”

Brennan, who understands the pull of nostalgia, says he’s heard similar sentiments from many Birmingham folks who came of age at the Shower of Stars. His concert series rocked their worlds and shaped their music tastes, in tandem with WVOK. In Brennan’s view, that’s a satisfying legacy.

“I don’t have any regrets,” he says. “What’s that Frank Sinatra song? ‘I did it my way.'”

References

  1. ^ WVOK-AM (wvok-memories.tripod.com)
  2. ^ Beatles at the Gator Bowl (jacksonville.com)
  3. ^ Hurricane Dora (www.jaxhistory.org)
  4. ^ “Eight Days a Week — The Touring Years.” (thebeatleseightdaysaweek.com)
  5. ^ the family’s radio stations (brennanbenns.wordpress.com)
  6. ^ A devoted fan looks back at the Shower of Stars concerts in Birmingham (www.al.com)

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