Jules and Mike Belkin
2015 MARTHA JOSEPH PRIZE
Not long after experiencing the sweet satisfaction of promoting their first concert in February 1966 – The New Christy Minstrels and the Four Freshmen – Jules and Mike Belkin came close to walking away from rock and roll. They were still running their family’s clothing stores in Cleveland and Ashtabula, but were trying to launch their own business. As a follow-up concert, they booked the Mamas and the Papas, but after two cancelled concerts, lost money and lots of aggravation, the initial glow of success was gone.
Fortunately for Cleveland, the affable brothers had already formed strong bonds with the local radio stations. When jazz impresario George Wein of Newport Jazz Festival fame asked if there was anyone in town he could partner with for a jazz festival at the Cleveland Arena planned for August 1966, the Promotions Director at WJW suggested the Belkin Brothers as “the producers in town.” They co-produced the event, which was a sell-out and brought together an integrated audience, despite the sweltering summer heat in the non-air-conditioned venue and recently extinguished flames of the Hough riots.
“Ultimately, the concert was very successful,” Jules says. “It was the solid piece that we needed to go into the business and stay in the business.”
“The meaning of success,” Mike adds, “was a profit of $2,500 for each partner. There were four of us, and that was an awful lot of money back then.”
Belkin Productions began to take off when the duo decided to identify partner promoters in other cities, so that they could produce concerts all over the country. “We were one of the first, but pretty quickly, there were promoters everywhere,” Mike explains. “So the promoter in that city would know that market and have better print and radio deals, for example, than we could, so it was a comfort knowing we had someone in the different cities watching over our business 24/7.”
The other important partners in Cleveland that helped Belkin Productions expand its business were the radio stations that were playing the emerging bands that are all household names today, from The Doors and David Bowie to Bruce Springsteen and Elton John.
“When we started, there were some real monster stations, WJW, WKYC, WIXY, WMMS, and they had disc jockeys who had the foresight to know which bands were good,” says Jules in his kitchen with a wall that features shots of him with Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Carson and Steven Tyler of Aerosmith mixed in with his family photos. “So we were kind of feeding off of their success
“We weren’t afraid to take a chance with new artists,” Jules adds. “We felt that it was the right thing to do and helped expand the number of bands we booked.” If you ask, they are happy to share engaging stories of their time spent with the likes of Sonny & Cher, Tiny Tim, Barbara Streisand or The Who. They also helped launch the immensely popular Trans-Siberian Orchestra by scheduling their first concert. And they promoted other shows outside of rock and roll, some winners, some losers, including a big martial arts touring show and many theater productions.
Early on, Mike realized that he wanted to spend the bulk of his time managing bands and overseeing their record label, Sweet City Records, they had launched for Epic Records on the success of one of their bands’ singles, Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music.” So, he turned the booking responsibilities over to Jules, who also handled the marketing and promotions. The brothers would always consult on concerts, however.
Through the years, Mike has managed a variety of bands, including the Staples Singers, Mason Ruffner, the late Doug Sahm and the Texas Tornados, and the James Gang. Today, he continues to manage Cleveland’s own Michael Stanley Band and Pittsburgh’s equivalent hometown rock stars Donnie Iris & The Cruisers.
“Mike is one of my dearest friends in the entire world,” says Michael Stanley, who has known him for more than 50 years and been professionally represented by him for 45 years. “Fans of the Michael Stanley Band should know that if it weren’t for Mike Belkin, there wouldn’t have been a band to be a fan of.”
In 2004, after close to 40 years in the business and approximately 12,000 concerts produced throughout the US, Jules decided to retire. Several years prior, the two brothers sold their business to a conglomerate that became Live Nation concert promoters, for which Mike still works as Vice President of Festivals for Live Nation Cleveland, though his son Michael, senior vice president for Live Nation, does much of the concert work.
For Jules, the culmination of their work and a highlight of his retirement occurred when Cleveland was awarded the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, of which he is a board member.
“Mike and I had a great partnership that worked,” Jules says. “So our support of the Rock Hall project was a way of giving back to the business and the city that were so good to us.”
“Jules had his ear to the ground” avers renowned rock DJ Billy Bass. “He heard what we were playing. He checked out what record stores were selling. He knew what the audience wanted to see, and he would book the acts. Without Jules Belkin and his contributions to the rock scene, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame would not be in Cleveland.”
One of the greatest perks of retirement for Jules is that he and his wife, Fran, are finally able to enjoy experiencing their favorite rock bands like Billy Joel live from the front of the house. In the past, he always had to be backstage to make sure everything ran smoothly. Of course, he remains active in several other arts organizations. He is a past board member of IngenuityFest and serves on the advisory committee of the Tri-C Jazz Festival. He is extremely active as a past president (2009-2012), board member since 2001 and long-time generous supporter of the Cleveland International Film Festival. Each year, he and his wife Fran also sponsor the Best International Short Award.
“Jules has been a leader, a mentor, a life coach, a friend, and (without exaggeration) my savior,” says Marcie Goodman, executive director of CIFF (Cleveland Arts Prize, 2011). “There are no words to adequately express how profoundly grateful I am for such grace or my sentiments to him. But, as Jules already knows, I will be naming my next Weimaraner after him. It’s the
least I can do.”
No matter how busy they were with other activities, the Belkin brothers devoted a significant amount of time and resources to getting the Cuyahoga County Arts and Culture levy passed in 2006.
Younger than Jules by four years, Mike has no plans to retire. Ever. “I’m a busy guy, and I love being busy,” he says on the eve of his 80th birthday, adding that he exercises every day and is a practicing vegan, with occasional lapses to have meat – but only if he’s at a great rib joint out of town. In addition to Stanley and Iris, he also has managed the careers of three world famous glass artists, Paul Stankard, Steven Weinberg, and William Carlson. Their works are displayed in many museums, including The Cleveland Museum of Art, Bergstrom- Mahler Museum of Glass, The Corning Museum of Glass, The Chrysler Museum, Hokkaido Museum of Modern Art, Victoria and Albert Museum and The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. They are some of his closest friends and are responsible for teaching him everything he knows about the art.
Today, he and his wife Annie own one of the most prestigious glass collections in the country.
Mike is one of the six founders and a past president of the Art Alliance for Contemporary Glass, the largest glass organization for collectors and artists, and is a board member at the Contemporary Glass Center of America, a studio for visiting glass artists in Millville, NJ. He is a fellow of the Corning Museum of Glass. Three years ago, the Belkins donated 64 pieces to the Akron Museum of Art, which displays them in a permanent, rotating display of paperweights.
Moreover, he and Annie are actively involved at the Cleveland MetroParks Zoo. If all that didn’t keep him busy enough, Mike is also owner and President of Pinnacle Marketing in Bedford Heights, which distributes licensed professional and college sports apparel, hats and novelties.
“Jules and I are both very philanthropic, and we enjoy supporting the community and the arts,” Mike states. “There is not a place in the world I would rather be than Cleveland.”