By Roland Lazenby
There was the time that comedian Rodney Dangerfield walked out of the green room buck naked, threw his arm around Gary Jackson and took a stroll down the hallway at Washington, D.C.’s Constitution Hall.
“He wasn’t buck naked,” Jackson corrected. “He had his shoes and socks on.”
A minor detail perhaps to those who encountered the pair on the stroll that day many years ago before the first of two shows in one day.
While it wasn’t the most pivotal moment in Jackson’s career, it certainly numbers among the most memorable. That’s saying a lot, considering that Jackson has been a promoter, sound man, and general maestro of music shows and other entertainment for nearly a half century now.
These days Jackson works his magic at Rocky Mount’s Harvester Performance Center, where he and a dedicated staff produce somewhere near an astounding 180 shows a year for crowds of music enthusiasts who seem to come from all over the region (and the world for that matter) for an intimate evening of entertainment with one of their favorite music acts.
It’s almost like Jackson and his staff are giving away ham biscuits and apple pies or something. In a sparsely populated region, they turn out more shows in a month than other facilities do in an entire year, and yet the folks just keep coming, almost like that line from the fabled movie about a fancy new baseball stadium set in an Iowa cornfield.
“If you build it, they will come…”
Come they have to the Harvester, although there were many doubters when the Town of Rocky Mount plunked down a couple of million (much of that was actually tax credits, etc.) to refurbish an old hardware store and tractor dealership to create a state-of-the-art concert venue.
“In Rocky Mount?” went the conversation. “Have they lost their minds?”
The downtown of the Franklin County community was clearly headed in the wrong direction at the time, yet the presence of the music center has sparked millions in economic growth and increased tax revenue, for the town, for Franklin County as well as for other communities in the region, according to Rocky Mount’s assistant town manager, Matt Hankins, who also serves as CEO of the Harvester.
Helping to shepherd the political process necessitated by a local government operating a concert hall is town mayor Steve Angle, who many nights serves as emcee of the shows.
With the help of music marketing veteran Sheila Silverstein, Jackson lures the crowds with a strong line-up of shows, a venue that is the ultimate listening room, and down-home hospitality for artists and concert-goers alike. The staff of employees and volunteers, led by box office manager Rex Norris, puts a genuine down-home spin on the hospitality that extends even to the town’s police department which does a great job of extending the community’s friendliness while managing the light traffic for each event.
It didn’t take long for the Virginia Municipal League to recognize the uncommon community effort with an award.
It was well-deserved. Jackson, the staff, the town government, the community, have become quite a team.
In a little more than a decade in Roanoke and Western Virginia, Jackson has settled in as something of an institution in the Virginia Blue Ridge region’s maturing music scene. When he operated venues in Roanoke—first the old 202 Market, then the Kirk Avenue Music Center—he was known to many as The Reverend Gary Jackson, the spiritual leader of good vibrations and greats sounds. Just recently, Parkway Brewing Company outfitted its newest ale, Rev. Gary’s Krispy Kolsch, in tribute to Jackson.
Now, the Harvester has soon enough become the place where he holds revivals four or five times a week with an astounding array of big-time music talent making the sleepy town a regular stop on their tours, never mind that the Harvester is a small venue.
So much of the mojo is driven by Jackson’s special sauce that begins with the venue itself. When the town refurbished the building, designers spent extra to house the large heating and air conditioning unit in an adjacent building to eliminate any extra noise that might affect the sound quality of performances.
The mantra for the place is simple, Jackson said recently. “We’re setting the table so people can enjoy a unique event.”
Looking back, Jackson says that over the years he began to notice “an invisible veil between the artist on stage and the audience.
“I’ve spent most of my life trying to part that veil.”
Perhaps no place is designed to part that veil quite like The Harvester, and when one of his audiences bonds with a show, the moment can linger in the minds of those who felt it long after it’s over, Jackson says.
Part of the quiet humor of the place is that an old rock n roller like Jackson has become a captain of local government.
In many ways, Jackson’s story has a typical Baby Boomer beginning, although it quickly morphed into something unique.
“It was the summertime,” Jackson said recently of his first music memories. “I was a little kid at the beach and I fell in love with Elvis. Elvis had just made Blue Hawaii. I just remember playing in the water and singing those songs from Blue Hawaii by Elvis.”
The next innocent step involved a record player and 45 rpm singles. Then came the appropriate teen rebellion.
“I can kind of remember in the early 60s as a teenager, I probably drove my dad crazy,” he recalled recently of the first listening room he set up in the family basement. “I got two big speakers and put them on either side of the chair and the turntable was right in front of the chair and I would be putting albums on and sitting there listening with music right there on either side of me. I remember I grew up in the same house as my Dad and Granddad and I set this room up in the basement, a music room. The old cast iron radiators, they had designs in them and I would get out paint and paint them all colorful and stuff, which drove my poor dad crazy. I came home one day and he’d gone down and whitewashed everything. Got rid of my record player. Got rid of my speakers. My dad was the kindest most wonderful human being I’ve known in my life. He was just trying to look out for me.”
The stuff, however, was in Jackson’s blood.
As a teenager, he went to work for Cellar Door, an entertainment company.
“I was fortunate enough to be the sound man at the Cellar Door Showcase club at 34th and M street in Georgetown,” he explained. “And back then there were really two great promoters in this country which were Bill Graham in the West and Cellar Door in the East, and Jack Boyle who owned Cellar Door had a policy where all these tours from the Rolling Stones to Neil Young to Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, it didn’t matter who, when they came through D.C. they played the Showcase Club. I was the sound man. I got to see so many incredible great shows.”
He not only ran sound, he got to know everybody in the music biz, from the entertainers to the agents to the club managers. It proved a primo education.
“I was 18 maybe when I first started,” he recalled. “And I stayed with Cellar Door until I was probably in my early 30s. I was not only the sound man at the Cellar Door, I started doing all the productions for the arena shows, which meant I would sometimes go on the road with a band that was touring and represent Cellar Door at all the arenas. So I would spend a month or more with bands touring with them.”
His career included a stint with the legendary Birchmere music hall. In his time, he became a go-to sound man for an impressive array of clients and employers, including the White House.
That’s how he came to put on two shows at Constitution Hall with Rodney Dangerfield, who was battling a well-known cocaine addiction at the time.
“He was so high on cocaine,” Jackson recalled. “Anyway before he goes on he introduces himself, he had to have four or five lines of cocaine and a shot of something.”
Dangerfield’s first show at Constitution Hallthat day drew a tremendous audience response. After entertaining two different women in the Green Room, the comedian emerged most memorably. “Out walks Rodney completely nude except for his socks and his shoes. And somewhere there’s a picture. He puts his arm around me and goes, ‘Gary, Gary let’s see what this place is all about,’ and walks me down the hallway and somebody snaps a picture. And then comes time for the second show and he runs out of cocaine and he’s crashing hard. It was gruesome. Terrible show, people screaming for their money back, he’s just dying out there. Just sopping wet, shaking.”
Everywhere Dangerfield went he had a diminutive limo driver dragging along a heavy suitcase. Considering his state, observers might have concluded it was packed with contraband. But it was filled with canned beans and corn and other vegetables, which was perhaps emblematic of just how crazy life on the road could make a performer.
Over the years, Jackson has worked events by just about every entertainer imaginable, including Frank Sinatra. But by 2005, he was burned out. That’s when he and wife Keri, a Roanoke native, moved here. Jackson had made a nice living but was done with music. He planned to buy some property and settle in writing children’s books. After months out of the business, someone talked him into doing a music event as a political fundraiser. He brought the Mummies to a local venue, and it went so well, he was soon doing sound and bringing in top acts to 202 Market.
One of the fans of his events was Roanoke developer Ed Walker who used one of his buildings to create Kirk Avenue Music Hall, a site dedicated to great music (it continues today as Spot on Kirk).
Kirk Avenue allowed him to reconnect with so many of his music relationships over the years.
“Kirk Avenue was a little easier because the bigger acts I got in there were kind of doing it as a favor,” he explained. “We’d had a friendship over the years.”
Today, those friendships—and Jackson’s unique approach—lie at the heart of the Harvester’s success.
In Part II, published next week by Blue Ridge Rocks, we’ll look in detail at Gary Jackson’s special formula for great events.