Editor’s note: This is the ninth story as we count down in the Register’s Top 50 New Haven project.
NEW HAVEN — Promoter Jimmy Koplik pegs this as his most unforgettable moment during his all-time favorite rock concert — shouting into the microphone at Toad’s Place: “Please welcome the Rolling Stones!”
And there they were! Surprise! Yes, there had been excitable rumors going around that night (Aug. 12, 1989) that Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and the rest of the legendary band would be there. But when they actually hit the stage, the 700 fans there to witness it (This reporter was lucky enough to be one of them) couldn’t believe what they were seeing and hearing.
Yes, this was probably the most memorable rock ‘n’ roll show in New Haven history.
But there have been so many others.
Elvis Presley played at the New Haven Coliseum twice in July 1975 and once more in July 1976; Jim Morrison of the Doors was arrested after the band played only a few songs at the New Haven Arena on Dec. 9, 1967; Bob Dylan playing late, late into the night at Toad’s Place in January 1990; the Who turning in a dramatic show at the Coliseum on Dec. 15, 1979, just 12 days after 11 of their fans were trampled to death in Cincinnati; Bruce Springsteen delivering a 31/2-hour rave-up at the Coliseum on Aug. 25, 1978, then going over to Toad’s to do a surprise encore.
The place to be
Koplik, now regional president overseeing Connecticut and upstate New York for Live Nation, said during a call from his office in Wallingford that New Haven has hosted so many amazing rock concerts because of its college age audience and great venues.
He cited Toad’s Place and the then-New Haven Coliseum, which opened in 1972 and once held almost 11,000 people at full capacity and was blown up by a demolition crew in 2007. This city also has the Yale Bowl, boasting the ability to hold approximately 70,000 people, as it nearly did on June 14, 1980 for the Eagles, Heart and the Little River Band. The New Haven Register reported 67,000 fans jammed the Bowl.
“That show has got to always be the record for Connecticut” in terms of the largest crowd for a rock show, Koplik said. One reason it can’t be repeated is neighborhood opposition to that kind of rock fan invasion. Even Paul McCartney wasn’t allowed to play there in 1990. Nor was Michael Jackson in 1984 at the height of his success with the “Thriller” album.
Koplik said New Haven also has a receptive young audience for rock ‘n’ roll. “Yale helps, and the University of New Haven. It’s a good college town. New Haven was always one of the hubs of music in Connecticut.”
Before the Coliseum there was the New Haven Arena, an intimate setting but offering a capacity of only a few thousand.Read Full Article
Ironically, the Rolling Stones were forced to cancel a show at the Arena in June 1964 because of poor ticket sales; they hadn’t hit it big at that point. But they were popular enough to come and play at the Arena in November, 1965, noted Tony Renzoni, author of “Connecticut Rock ‘N’ Roll: A History.”
The most famous show at the Arena was that chaotic abortive performance by the Doors in December 1967. Morrison, the temperamental lead singer, was caught backstage making out with a woman from Southern Connecticut State College (not yet a university) and police sprayed him with Mace during the argument that followed.
Morrison was still mad about it when he finally came on stage shortly before midnight.
Kevin Flaherty of Seymour, who was in the crowd, said people had become impatient and when they at last beheld Morrison, “Jim was in a foul mood. But no one at the show could have possibly known what happened to him backstage with the New Haven police.”
“There were a couple of hecklers to Morrison’s left who he bantered with,” Flaherty recalled. “He bummed a cigarette from somebody in the crowd. He spat toward the audience a couple of times as he went into his rant about what happened to him backstage.”
After a few minutes of being called names, including “pigs,” the police near the stage moved in to stop the show. New Haven Police Lieutenant James Kelly got on stage and told Morrison he was done. Morrison screamed at the technician to turn the lights back off but other officers climbed up next to Kelly and threw him off the stage. He was arrested on charges of breach of peace, resisting arrest and “performing an indecent and immoral exhibition.”
“When the show was stopped,” Flaherty said, “many people exiting the Arena turned their wooden folding chairs over. Some of the glass doors were smashed as the angry crowd left. One of my friends told me he took a side exit and saw Jim being hit with nightsticks as he was being pushed into the back of a police car.”
The final show at the Arena was that of Elton John, on Sept. 29, 1972. Koplik was the promoter.
“At the end of the show he threw out candy to everybody to mark the last performance,” Koplik recalled. “I had to go out and buy a ton of candy bars. But they cost only five cents back then.”
The following month, on Oct. 21, Koplik brought in the Beach Boys to christen the Coliseum. “It was a great show,” Koplik said. “The Beach Boys in the early ‘70s were one of the best shows going.”
Looking back at the more than 350 shows he promoted at the Coliseum, Koplik said he went through anxious times preparing for the Who to come there after the Cincinnati tragedy and while telling 10,000 “Deadheads” that the show wasn’t going to happen because singer Jerry Garcia had a sore throat.
New Haven Police Chief Biagio DiLieto wanted Koplik to cancel the Who concert. But Koplik agreed to open the doors several hours early to and the show went off successfully, with scores of security guards and policemen inside and outside, as well as police barricades. The band ended their long performance with lead singer Roger Daltrey triumphantly carrying guitarist Pete Townshend off the stage as the crowd called out for more.
But a year earlier, in November 1978, Koplik was told shortly before showtime that Garcia could neither talk nor sing.
“I was smart enough to have (the band members) Bob Weir and Mickey Hart come out on stage with me to make the announcement,” Koplik said. “I knew the fans wouldn’t throw a bottle at me for fear they’d hit somebody in the band. And the crowd was perfect! They left peacefully.” (The Dead returned Jan. 17, 1979.)
When asked about the unforgettable Rolling Stones show at Toad’s, Koplik said, “That, to me, is my favorite show anywhere.”
He added, “I worked on it for six weeks and successfully kept it a secret.”
The Stones were staying in the rural Connecticut town of Washington, rehearsing for their “Steel Wheels” tour, their first in eight years. They wanted to play in a small place where they could try out new material. When a person associated with the band asked Koplik where they should do this, he told them: “There’s only one place and that’s Toad’s.”
Koplik made sure there were at least several hundred people in the club that Saturday night by spreading the word they ought to come down to celebrate his 40th birthday, which was actually a few days away. The admission charge was $3. The band listed to play was: Sons of Bob. That was a real group. When they arrived backstage they found out, to their shock, that they would be opening for the Rolling Stones.
After a short set by the warm-up act, with tension and anticipation building in the crowd, Toad’s owner Mike Spoerndle and Koplik walked out onto the stage. Spoerndle said, “Ladies and gentlemen” and Koplik said, “Please welcome the Rolling Stones!”
Out they came, those rock ‘n’ roll immortals, standing so close to us: Jagger, Richards, Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman and Ron Wood. Jagger jumped into the air and the band launched into “Start Me Up.”
They played for 55 minutes, giving us 11 songs, including “Honky Tonk Women,” “Brown Sugar” and “It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll (But I Like It).” Introducing “Mixed Emotions,” Jagger told us, “This is the first time we’re playing this one in public, so please be kind.” He was clearly happy when the band finished and it got big cheers.
After their final song, “Jumping Jack Flash,” Jagger slapped hands with the fans at the edge of the stage, telling them, “You’re too kind, my goodness.”
Brian Phelps, who was then Spoerndle’s business partner and now owns Toad’s (Spoerndle died in 2011), was watching the show in the shared awe of the crowd. “There was a big crowd outside too. They just wanted to touch anybody who’d been inside. They were looking for some kind of crumb. Anybody inside was special; they’d all hit the lottery.”
Koplik really did hit the lottery that night: as a birthday present, the Stones gave him a check for $10,000. Koplik split it with Spoerndle.
The second-most famous Toad’s show is the night (Jan. 12, 1990) Dylan came and just kept playing: 51/2 hours, deep into the night and into the next morning.
“We had to stop selling drinks at 2 a.m.,” Phelps recalled. “In his dressing room during an intermission, I just said, ‘How ya doing? Where are we going from here?’ And he said, ‘Can we play another set?’ I said, ‘Yep, not a problem. We’ll take care of it in our end.’ I think he just wanted to get ready for his upcoming tour. to him, it was like a rehearsal.”
Phelps said Dylan didn’t stop playing until about 2:45 a.m., after four sets of 49 songs; he finished with “Like a Rolling Stone.” He performed virtually anything the crowd called out for, even Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark.” As a witness to that amazing show as well, this reporter (who covered the rock beat for the Register, so had good sources) can say the often-moody Dylan just seemed to be in a great mood that night, smiling a lot and talking with everybody.
There have been other legendary nights at Toad’s, including Billy Joel’s two-night stand July 10 and 11, 1980. Phelps said the lid was kept on those shows too until the morning of that first show, when tickets went on sale. “When they booked the shows, they called themselves ‘The Dakota Five.’”
Joel was just 31 then, but at his commercial peak. As at the Stones and Dylan shows, the two crowds for Joel’s appearances enjoyed being close up to a performer who through the years has almost always played in big arenas.
But New Haven has had more places in which musicians could play besides Toad’s and the Coliseum. Yale’s Woolsey Hall has hosted Ray Charles (June 1981), U2 twice in the spring of 1983 (after two earlier shows at Toad’sbefore they hit it big) and Jimi Hendrix on Nov. 17, 1968.
Renzoni said Hendrix, dressed in white boots and with a feathered scarf, smashed his guitar against the floor of Woolsey’s historic stage at the end of “Wild Thing/Star Spangled Banner.”
Thom Duffy, special features editor at Billboard, the music magazine and website, who covered hundreds of rock concerts for the New Haven Register and Journal-Courier from 1980-86, said in an email: “A music fan in New Haven got to watch some of the greatest superstars of our age launch their careers.” He said U2’s progression from Toad’s to Woolsey to the Coliseum is a perfect example.
Duffy said it was his scoop that Yale officials had turned down Jackson’s bid to play at Yale Bowl.
Rich Hanley, associate professor of journalism at Quinnipiac University, said he researched the archives at Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library, focusing on the Kingman Brewster papers, and learned that Yale also turned down a request by the Beatles to play at the Bowl in August 1964, the year they hit it big in America. Hanley said a wealthy Yale donor who disliked the Beatles’ influence on our youth, threatened to withdraw his donation to the medical school if the show happened.
“I have to confess I was appalled at the reception which American youngsters gave them (the Beatles) when they arrived in the country,” the donor wrote. He said our young people “should spend their money on better cultural events, even on saving for their own education. Should Yale not sponsor and encourage people to look for the best, rather than merely lay on a national reaction?”
Hanley said a draft letter in the archive showed Yale officials believed the donor would withdraw his donation for construction at the School of Medicine if the Beatles played at the Bowl.
Although some of the big ones got away, Hanley noted New Haven has seen “a remarkable stretch of performances,” especially in 1975. That year Frank Sinatra played at the Coliseum, as did Presley. And in November 1975, Dylan did two captivating shows at the Coliseum, an afternoon and evening show, for his Rolling Thunder Revue. On the bill with him were Roger McGuinn of the Byrds and Joan Baez.
In an email, Henley wrote: “Dylan with his face painted and eclectic band and artisanal staging took it to another level of cosmic.”
Contact Randall Beach at 203-680-9345 or email@example.com. check out more Top 50 project content at https://www.nhregister.com/new-haven-top-50/.