Don Branker's fingerprints all over rock history

The Fresno BeeOctober 12, 2013 

Don Branker in his home in Clovis.

MARK CROSSE — Fresno Bee Staff Photo Buy Photo

Like so many people who have reached the later years of their lives, Don E. Branker has been thinking a lot about the legacy he will leave behind.

It's not like there is a shortage of headlines in his 66 years of life. The long- time concert and entertainment promoter has worked with many of the biggest names in music — The Doors, the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Aerosmith, Rush — and been associated with global events such as the heavily publicized attempted jump of the Snake River Canyon by daredevil Evel Knievel in a contraption known as Skycycle X-2 way back in 1972.

Branker's association with the fabled failed stunt — he was the producer of the program that was shown around the world — is being talked about again because he was interviewed for two days as part of the Discovery Channel special "Pure Evel: American Legend," which airs at 10 p.m. Monday.

Any of the 2,000 events from his 40-plus years as a promoter would be a memorable legacy, but Branker wants two massive music events he promoted in the 1970s to be things for which he is remembered. He is talking about California Jam, held in Ontario in 1974, featuring Deep Purple and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, that attracted 250,000 people, and California Jam II, held in the same city four years later, that drew a crowd of 350,000.

"They are the biggest one-day event in music history," Banker says during an interview in his Clovis home. He apologizes for the slight slur in his speech, the result of a recent medical battle associated with Myasthenia Gravis, an autoimmune neuromuscular disease that causes fluctuating muscle weakness and fatigue.

The fatigue that came after he promoted a Fourth of July concert at Wild Water Adventures put him in a coma for several months.

The battle with the illness is a primary reason Branker has thought so much about his adventurous past. He is writing a book — with the help of former local on-air radio personality Rick Bubenik — that's only a few chapters from being finished.

That book will tell how a Los Angeles native went from a nightclub owner in Hawaii to being a promoter — and career saviour — of one of the most celebrated rock bands, The Doors. It's how a guy who often looked more like a rock 'n' roll surfer dude than a detailed-oriented business man could make million-dollar deals.

It's also the story of a how he hosted the TV series "In Concert," an ABC Friday late-night show that debuted in 1972.

Branker never had any interest in keeping items from his glory days. One of the few mementoes he has is a photograph of himself with Ringo Starr and former Who drummer Keith Moon.

Although Branker originally thought the band's name was stupid, The Doors established him as one of the top music promoters.

It came at a price.

He had to deal with all the lunacy that came with lead singer Jim Morrison, including the rock singer's preference to record the vocals for "L.A. Women" in the bathroom in Branker's Hollywood office rather than across the street at Elektra Records.

"Jim was just wild. Crazy. But, quite brilliant," Branker says. "There was all kinds of trouble with him stealing sheriff's cars and crashing them. He was just living this wild life of women and booze and all the stuff that came with the '60s. During a five-year period with Jim, there were a million whys."

After Morrison was arrested for exposing himself on stage during a 1970 concert in Miami, Branker couldn't book the band at any arena or theater. Branker went back to his Central Valley roots and contacted the manager of the Bakersfield Civic Auditorium, who agreed he would only book the band if Branker put up a $10,000 bond. If Morrison said the infamous F word just once, the bond would be forfeited.

"Jim and I fought a lot because we were both strong individuals. The last thing I said to him as he walked up the stairs was that each letter of the word would cost him $2,500 because I wasn't going to pay it. The money would come out of the night's box office," Branker says.

That wasn't a small threat, the bond represented almost half of what the band was being paid for the performance.

The show went off without a hitch and Branker was able to direct any questions from other arena owners about booking The Doors to the Bakersfield manager.

During the late '60s and early '70s, Branker was the promoter on almost every huge rock concert west of the Mississippi River.

Morrison wasn't the only difficult rock legend Branker promoted. He booked the next to the last concert for guitar legend Jimi Hendrix in 1970.

When it was time for Hendrix to take the stage after the opening act, he was nowhere to be found. Branker finally tracked him down in a bathroom stall where the musician's arm was still tied off from the drugs he had just injected.

"I got the road manager and he was able to unlock the door. We carried Jimi to the stage, put a guitar in his hands and pushed him out. It was the greatest performance I had ever heard," Branker says.

His promotional work with Evel Knievel didn't turn out as well. The daredevil's attempt to leap over the Idaho river was sold to closed-circuit television and broadcast to movie theaters. Branker jokes that if pay-per-view had been around at the time, he would have been able to retire.

When the rocket fizzled, investors took a substantial loss, including Branker. It wasn't the money that concerned Branker during the event.

"I was afraid I was producing the death of Evel Knievel. All he had was a little pogo-like spring he would be standing on if the rocket hit at 90 mph," Branker says.

The two California Jam concerts were the ultimate test of Branker's promoting abilities and his crowning achievements. As the show promoter, he did everything from getting the permits to hiring the army of security needed to handle what at that time was an event so big it was the fourth largest city in California.

Branker even emceed the events, something he did at many of the concerts he promoted.

His work also took skateboarding from abandoned pools and parking garages into the spotlight.

"To fill the time between bands, I set up a spot in the middle of the audience for the skateboarders to perform," Branker says.

Although he has continued to promote everything from music to professional wrestling, Branker — whose family had lived in Fresno for two years when he was in the eighth and ninth grades attending Wawona and Bullard — moved back to the central San Joaquin Valley to take care of ailing family members.

And now, he's the one with the health issues. He is angry about how the disease has slowed him down. He still feels like he's got a lot to do. Part of that is telling his story through books and TV programs where he can share a "life well lived" and a career that gives him enough legacy moments for 100 lifetimes.

 

TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, rbentley@fresnobee.com or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.

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