Flashback to August 28, 1971. Two years elapsed from when Alvin Lee and Ten Years After became a sensation at Woodstock. On that August night, the band was headlining a show at Kiel Auditorium with The J. Geils Band as the opening act. In the middle of Ten Years After’s set, a rowdy crowd combined with heavy-handed security set off a riot. The melee was documented in the book In Concert: KSHE and 40+ Years of Rock In St. Louis. Recently I tracked down Tom Karr, the promoter of the Ten Years After concert at Kiel Auditorium. In the interview, Karr reminisced about his experience that night. At the time Tom was only 27 years old and had produced many concerts throughout the Midwest including several other shows in St. Louis. Here are excerpts from the interview.
"I had done shows all over the place, from Houston and Dallas, Nashville, Knoxville, Indianapolis and Evansville, up to Memphis where I lived," said Tom. "I guess towards the end of my career I started going to St. Louis. It was a good market but I hadn't any occasion to go in previously. I don't know why I chose Ten Years After. I don't think I had a concert anywhere else. I think there was an opportunity that presented itself. I think [Ten Years After's booking agency] called me and told me they had an open date and asked if I had any ideas. I had also brought Ike and Tina Turner to St. Louis on another occasion and I also had a black show with a dozen groups. There used to be a company in St. Louis called Regal Sports. I had done those black shows in conjunction with Regal Sports. Later got out of the black shows and stayed with something I was more familiar with - the rock show business.
"Anyway the concert there, I remember vividly,” Tom continued. “The audience began to get unruly. They were pushing the barricade in front of the stage. A kid grabbed the hat off of a cop and that started a ruckus. The kids started cheering when the kid grabbed the hat. So then all hell broke loose. As I recall they caught this kid who had the officer's hat. And they got him in the backstage where they were handcuffing him. They were walking him out of the back of Kiel Auditorium to take him to jail. I followed because I thought they were going to abuse him. They were hitting him with a flashlight while he was walking and he had his hands cuffed behind his back. I followed him and told the officer to stop hitting him. And they said "Mind your own business, go away." And I said, "This is my show, I am the promoter. You can't tell me to go away, I have rented the building for tonight." So they arrested me because I was interfering with them hitting this kid. They put us in the same van and took us down to the station. I had to come back for court to appear a month later. They fined me 150 bucks. Now as I think back about it I would have called the newspaper and have them attend that appearance in court so they could tell how and why I was arrested trying to keep the cops from beating this kid. I was very naive in those days because I thought the judge would throw it out since it was an unjust arrest. I remember before the case the judge called a recess and asked the cop who arrested me, and the prosecutor to go in his office. He didn't invite me in there. So they had some kind of private meeting. Then he came back out of the meeting and called my case. I told him what happened and he didn't have any sympathy and apparently realized it would be embarrassing to admit that it was a bad arrest and that I was trying to keep the cops from beating this kid. It wouldn't look good in the papers. They decided to find me guilty of interfering with the police and I paid $150 fine.
"I worked with Sonny and Cher, Led Zeppelin, Three Dog Night, Neil Diamond, Tom Jones, The Jackson 5, The Temptations and many others,” said Karr. “The groups started to realize that the concert business was a big business and they started cutting the producers or promoters out of it. On a good night I would make 10 or 12 thousand dollars for a sold out show. They started doing their own shows or selected a favorite promoter and had him do the whole country. So I didn't get the groups that were known and that left me with the lesser-known groups on their way up. That was more risky. I would do that before [book lesser known groups] but if I lost money I would make it up on the groups that were better known such as Led Zeppelin. So I got out of the business.
"I booked Led Zeppelin in Memphis and Evansville, Indiana. I worked with Dick Clark and bought certain cities on one of his tours. With the Temptations, [at Kiel Auditorium] up until show time I was down about $5000. I thought I was going to lose about $5000. By 9 o'clock I was up $3000. So I made money. I learned that blacks waited for the very last minute. They waited for the show to start before buying tickets. They were not like the white audience who bought tickets two or three weeks in advance. I wasn't used to that.
"I had only experienced people buying all of their tickets up front so I was getting nervous and the people at Regal Sports were getting nervous [when they booked Ike and Tina at Kiel Auditorium.] I waited till the day of the show to come up from Memphis. I chose a route that wasn't the greatest route in the world. I ended up being late. So what Regal Sports decided was that I wasn't going to show up to take my half of the loss. They cancelled the show. Ike and Tina wouldn't go on till they got their money. If Regal Sports had put up the money and continued with the show, we probably would have ended up making money because the blacks would have bought tickets at the last minute. When I got to Kiel Auditorium, I was told that the show was cancelled and everybody had gone. I checked into a hotel and called Regal Sports the next day to find out what happened. They decided I owed them money because the show had been cancelled and I owed them for the loss. I remember going through the Federation of Musicians. Ike and Tina Turner filed a claim through the American Federation of Musicians that they should have been paid whether they played or not. I filed a counter-claim saying that I was on the way. I was just late. If I had gotten there I would have paid, but since they didn't go on I didn't have to pay. The Federation agreed with me. I was the actual name on the contract. [Prior to the show] I went to Regal Sports and asked if they wanted to be a partner on this, but my name was the only one on the contract. So that was why the dispute came up with me and Ike and Tina. Not me and Regal Sports."
Shortly after the riot, Tom got out of the concert business. He later produced a couple of movies, started a TV projection business and founded a company that created experimental aircraft. His website is www.tomkarr.com.
Within a year of the riot, the St. Louis Post Dispatch published an article documenting what it was like for Shelley Grafman to put together a free show at one of the local drive ins. On that summer day Grafman, KSHE's General Manager, was described as being visibly nervous because one of the bands scheduled for the concert was running late. It wasn't surprising that Shelley was nervous. After all, KSHE sponsored the Ten Years After concert and John Williams - a DJ at the station - was the emcee. That year, Grafman and the management at KSHE brought an annual Kite Fly to Forest Park, Three years later attendance at the Kite Fly grew from 40,000 in 1974 to 80,000 in 1975. Back then the risk that involved getting thousands of kids together wasn't a distant memory for Grafman. For the radio station, the reward was plainly visible. KSHE had made its mark on the manicured grass in the middle of the city and that night the story was featured on the CBS Evening News.