Frank Barsalona, a New York talent agent who was a virtual quartermaster for the British Invasion, booking the first American concert tours of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and who later created a concert circuit that served as a farm system for a generation of rockers including the Ramones, the Clash, the Pretenders and U2, died Nov. 22 at his home in Manhattan. He was 74.
The cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease, his daughter, Nicole, said.
Though little known to the general public, Barsalona was revered in the rock business. He was considered the shrewdest rock ’n’ roll booking agent in the world in the 1960s and the most dominant one in the decades after. Among his clients were many artists who helped redefine rock ’n’ roll, including the Who, the Yardbirds, Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix.
The small company he founded in 1964, Premier Talent, was the first established exclusively for rock acts, which previously had been represented mainly by long-established firms catering to traditional entertainers like nightclub singers and comedians.
In the uncharted territory that was then the rock business, Barsalona was also the first to draw a map for success.
While record companies in the 1950s and ’60s rarely booked tours for performers without a hit record to promote, Barsalona established a different business model, a sort of independent concert system uncoupled from the record companies. He did it by creating a network of young, rock-savvy concert promoters around the country — Bill Graham in San Francisco, Ron Delsener in New York and Don Law in Boston were part of his crew — who could raise the large sums of money necessary to back rock acts’ tours, hit or no hit.
The tours he scheduled in that network, which proved hugely successful, provided his clients with freelance income (10 percent of which was his); functioned as a farm system for artists in need of seasoning; and established the basic landscape of the rock concert circuit as it now exists in the United States.
“You cannot exaggerate the role Frank played in creating the infrastructure of the rock ’n’ roll world as we know it today," Steven Van Zandt, the longtime guitarist with Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, also a Barsalona client, said in an interview on Tuesday. “It was his unique vision that rock ’n’ roll was here to stay, and that it wasn’t just going to be about records, but about how good a band plays live." (In the age of digitized music sharing, many rock artists earn more from concert tours than from record royalties.)
In 2005, when Barsalona was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Van Zandt gave introductory remarks in which he credited Barsalona with seeing beyond the conventional wisdom in the early-’60s music business, which was that rock ’n’ roll had no future (and that Elvis Presley was a fluke). His innovations — financially risky but highly profitable — signaled the music’s long-term viability and “created stability, and consistency and longevity" in the industry for the first time, Van Zandt said.
Barsalona is the only talent agent to be inducted into the Hall of Fame since the first honorees were named in 1986.
Dave Marsh, the rock critic and biographer, called Barsalona a founding father of the rock business. “The most significant entrepreneur of ’60s rock was not a record company president like Atlantic’s Ahmet Ertegun or CBS’ Clive Davis, or even a sharp promoter like Bill Graham," he once wrote. “That title belongs to a balding, rotund booking agent named Frank Barsalona."
Barsalona retired in 2002 and sold his company to the William Morris Agency.
Frank Samuel Barsalona was born on March 31, 1938, on Staten Island, one of three children of Peter and Mary Barsalona. From early childhood he shared a passion with his father, a bus driver, for Broadway show tunes and country music. While working his way through Wagner College on Staten Island and St. John’s University in Queens, he later told his daughter, he yodeled in a country-western band.