Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Bands Unlimited loomed large

Escanaba booking agency Show Biz Talent, formerly
Bands Unlimited, distributed this promotional photo
of the Riot Squad about 1973. From left, the group
was comprised of Mike Backlund, Greg Tolman, Greg
Curran and Bob Derouin.


Although my wife and I have owned a retail record shop for more than 25 years, Sue traces her background in the music business to 1972 when she started working for a local booking agency.

Fresh out of high school, she got a job at Bands Unlimited (later known as Show Biz Talent), a prosperous Escanaba firm about to hit its peak.

Founded by promoter Gene Smiltneck in 1966, Bands Unlimited eventually handled over 100 acts, according to Billboard, the music trade magazine.

Before he moved to Escanaba, Smiltneck's experience even extended to being a member of the Vikings rock band based in Menominee.

Bands Unlimited was initially headquartered at Smiltneck's small house at 1616 11th Ave. So. where the Riot Squad held practice sessions in the basement.

Within a few years the agency was also representing local bands the Prophets of Doom, Spoken For, Rebels and Three Days and a Night.

With the addition of the Corrupters, a multi-racial soul collective from Flint, Bands Unlimited distributed a mail-out poster urging potential clients to "buy your music the professional way."

The promotional piece promised "the finest drawing power, quality, dependability, experience, versatility, professional management, 'Top 40' groups, (and) union affiliated groups."

Designed in a psychedelic-style, the poster pictured all six bands and was mailed from the company's office then located at 2214 26th Ave. So.

By insightful planning or good fortune, the firm was started just as thousands of garage bands launched hopeful careers in the wake of the so-called "British Invasion" led by the Beatles.

With no similar agency in the Upper Peninsula, Bands Unlimited quickly became a dominant entertainment promoter, booking acts throughout northern Michigan, the upper Midwest and Canada.

When Sue began work in the summer of 1972, the booking and management firm's talent roster was crowded.

"We booked bands at high schools, colleges, teen dances and night clubs," Sue recalled.

The large number of acts on their roster even earned the company a mention in the June 3, 1972 issue of Billboard.

Under the headline "Bands Unlimited has 70 bands," booking agent Tom Bauvis reported the company was adding one or two acts a week.

"We handle just about everything," Bauvis told the magazine in the story which carried a New York dateline.

Bauvis said the agency was expanding beyond a basic stable of rock bands to include soul acts, big bands and country groups.

The article cited the addition of Down Home, "a five-man aggregation of country rockers," which was attracting numerous bookings in Wisconsin and the Draytons, a group with a similar pedigree, playing to U. P. audiences.

Based in Stevens Point, Wis., Down Home included Escanaba's Greg Curran, a singer and multi-instrumentalist, for a period.

Just a month later, Bands Unlimited issued a press release announcing the signing of Jaramago, a oddly-named rock band from Green Bay.

Billboard mentioned the news in its Talent Signings column on July 8, 1972, adding that the band's first single, "It Ain't Been Easy" backed with "Ohio," had been issued on the Markus label. Mick Townley arranged the recordings which were produced by "Geek Productions," the report said.

While Jaramago signed "for exclusive representation on an international basis," their debut single did not became a hit.

During that busy summer, Sue remembers the office "signing and booking bands and doing public relations work for them."

Making sure new groups looked the part, Smiltneck's wife Lynn "would even give them a new 'shag' haircut if they desired," Sue noted.

Besides Sue, the crew at Bands Unlimited included Jennifer Lehmann, Bill Stein and Bob Strait.

After signing ? (Question Mark) & the Mysterians, Sue remembered the staff scrambling to get a copy of the group's "96 Tears" single, finally nailing down a copy from a radio swap program.

Although the early 1970s were exciting, booking agencies and music entertainment were undergoing changes.

To meet a wider demand, the Escanaba company expanded its roster to include college lecturers and exotic dancers as well as a name change to Show Biz Talent Corp.

The logo for Show Biz Talent included the words "Los Angeles - Chicago - New York." Although the Escanaba company didn't have offices in those cities, Smiltneck may have had such aspirations, or it may have simply been promotional bluster.

As boss at Show Biz Talent, Smiltneck demonstrated his public relations ability by getting Billboard's attention for a third time.

Writer Earl Paige penned a story in the Sept. 8, 1973 edition headlined "Agent needs to wear all hats in Michigan."

Smiltneck told Paige that the rural, geographically isolated U. P. required him to be "a record promoter, producer, teacher, business manager and much more."

The reporter visited Smiltneck at his office on Escanaba's south side.

Smiltneck told Billboard that after the founding of his business he built a light show, sold guitar strings and shot publicity photographs.

He even built a studio in his basement using a Sony 4-track tape machine. The $2,000 unit was used to make demo recordings for potential clients.

His agency represented 100 acts at one point, Smiltneck told Billboard, although most of the bookings went to the top 15.

True to his advertising, Smiltneck operated under an agreement with the American Federation of Musicians, the labor union representing professional musicians, known as AFM. Local band members paid dues to the Musicians' Protective Union Local 663, represented by secretary-treasurer John E. DeChantel.

By the summer of 1973, many of the acts on Smiltneck's roster grew tired of the travel and overnight stays required of a band. Instead, some got jobs, went to college, got married or entered the service. Some bands decided to do their own booking.

About this time, Sue moved on to other employment, replaced by Greg Curran, known for his stints in the Riot Squad and Rocking Chair.

In the next few years, Michigan's new 18-year-old drinking law dramatically reduced attendance at wildly-popular popular teen dances while the impending disco scene would also cut the number of profitable bookings. Smiltneck moved on to owning the Arcadia and Nite Hawk bars, then migrating into real estate sales in Green Bay.

Looking back at the first job she held after graduating from high school, Sue still fondly recalls the era.


RunDoc said...

In the early 70s, I played for a Heavy Traffic, a group from Sault Ste. Marie. Does anyone know if someone still has a file or archive of the promo pictures or flyers that Gene produced for his bands?
Kevin Rabineau

Scott Tillman said...

Yeah Gene was our booker in the early 70's. Our band was called ACCRA,from stevens Point,Wi. We used to come up and play at the youth center in Escanaba,great times.Also great times at Genes house.We were in awh,cause we were only 15,16 yrs old.Great times.

Gene Michaels said...

Good articla Steve. I'll use it in my new resume for my expanding event promotion biz in paradise (Santa Barbara CA).